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In Chinese politics, swimming is an act laden with political symbolism. Chairman Mao swam in China's rivers to prove his mastery over nature. And now, the city of Guangzhou in southern China has held a huge swim-a-thon to showcase its clean up of the heavy-polluted Pearl River. Critics say this political show could jeopardize swimmers' health. NPR's Louisa Lim was watching from the riverbank.

LOUISA LIM reporting: I'm on a boat crossing the Pearl River and I'm at the spot where, 60 years ago, Chairman Mao took a little-known dip in its waters. Legend has it the fisherman stood up to cheer him on while a member of his entourage commented on how clear the water was. That's certainly no longer the case. (unintelligible), the water is still sort of a soupy green-brown color. But the real problem is in the muddy sediment that gets churned up by the passing traffic.

According to Gan Zhang, a professor at Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, that sediment is full of toxic substances.

Mr. GAN ZHANG (Professor, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry): Based on our study, the heavy metal concentrations in the sediment, in particular, lead and cadmium, especially in the open river sections, they're very high.

LIM: Knowing what you know, would you go swimming in the Pearl River?

Mr. ZHANG: I won't, because I don't like water quality there.

LIM: And I'm now sitting in a small boat on the edge of the river. And from there, I can see the last-minute clean-up measures that are underway. There's a whole fleet of launches plying up and down the river, and the men in orange life vests on them, that are literally fishing the trash out of the river, now.

And I'm joined here by Kevin May, the toxic campaigner for Greenpeace China. Kevin, first of all, why is the river so dirty?

Mr. KEVIN MAY (Toxic Campaigner, Greenpeace China): A lot of factories, including very polluting factories, are in this region. And they need water to operate. So that explains why it's so polluted.

LIM: And the measures that are being taken to improve the water quality, are they long-term measures, or just short-term ones for the swim today?

Mr. MAY: Right. We don't have the reason to believe that that is long term. We don't see a very comprehensive policy suggested by the government, to maintain and also further improve, the quality of the water here.

LIM: Here at the starting line, there's really a mood of barely suppressed hysteria. All the swimmers are lined up, waiting to go in their swimming trunks.

Mr. LIU (swimmer): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: It's been many, many years since I've swum here, 58-year-old Mr. Liu says, beaming as he waits his turn. It's not that clean, he admits, but at least it's not harmful.

So the provincial leaders are arriving. All this clapping and cheering. This really feels like it's a propaganda exercise from the 1960s.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIM: And they're off. More than three thousand people are swimming half a mile across the river. Because of the swimathon, the sewage outlets that normally flow straight into the river have been blocked off, for today, at least.

So now I've come around to the other side of the river, the finishing line. And as the teams come in, they're all quite triumphal. They're all making victory signs and cheering. And many of them have actually been singing as they swim across the river. You might be able to hear.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. QIAO PIN (swimmer): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: It was a tiny bit smelly, swimmer Qiao Pin tells reporters. It's so murky you can't see your own feet.

Mr. ZHANG XUEQIN (swimmer): (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: In my day you could drink river water while you swam, says 69-year-old Zhang Xueqin, watching from the sidelines.

Mr. XUEQIN: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: The government's spending millions on all this hoopla, he says. If the river still isn't fit for swimming in three or four years, that would be unacceptable.

Faced with widespread environmental devastation, China's local governments may be satisfied with grandiose propaganda gestures like swimathons. But it's clear, their citizens now want more.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Guangzhou.

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