Why Don’t Chinese Leaders Swim Anymore?

What the sporting habits of China's top officials say about the nature of power in the Middle Kingdom.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

In October 1997, Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president at the time, visited the United States for an eight-day visit that was fraught with significance. He presented a necklace of Hawaiian flowers at Pearl Harbor, admitted in an appearance at Harvard University that "mistakes" may have been made during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and helped build support for China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization.

But arguably the most significant act of the trip for Jiang was the hour he spent swimming breaststroke off Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. Jiang, then 71, was still consolidating power after the death of Deng Xiaoping that February. Deng’s health had deteriorated since his last public appearance in 1994, but as China’s paramount leader since 1978, he still cast a huge shadow over policymaking. Jiang had looked unhealthy at Britain’s Hong Kong handover ceremony less than four months earlier, leading to rumors that he had suffered a heart attack. So Jiang did what any top Chinese leader would have done: He swam. Donning a "pair of black swim goggles and a pink-and-white bathing cap," the New York Times reported, Jiang spent an hour bobbing his head through the water. "I swam more than a kilometer," he bragged on the beach afterward.

Early this August, China’s current president, Hu Jintao, might have visited Beidaihe, a beach resort on the Bohai Sea, for an annual seaside conference to discuss the future of Chinese leadership. (The Communist Party’s People’s Daily reported that Vice President Xi Jinping was there in early August along with other senior leaders; Hu officially canceled the meeting in 2003 but has likely attended conferences there after that.) The conference comes ahead of this autumn’s 18th party congress, the twice-in-a-decade Communist Party meeting at which Xi is almost certain to replace Hu as China’s president, but many top spots in China’s most powerful governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee, remain up for grabs. In Beidaihe, the leaders will also likely discuss the continuing repercussions of purged Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai: On Aug. 9, Bo’s wife pleaded guilty to murder in a trial that lasted just seven hours. (Bo’s fate remains uncertain, though in March he was rumored to be held under arrest in Beidaihe.)

The conclave continues a half-century tradition started by Mao Zedong, who loved to swim in Beidaihe, whose early beach houses were built by foreigners escaping the heat of Beijing and where the sea is the color of "old gray silk," as one New Yorker writer described it; Deng, his successor, and Jiang followed in his paddle strokes, so to speak. But there appears to be no mention of Hu ever swimming in Beidaihe or, indeed, swimming anywhere. Bizarre as it may sound, the lack of records of Hu swimming tells us a lot both about his governing style and about the nature of power in today’s China.

Chinese Communist leaders have long used swimming to prove that they’re healthy and competent enough to rule. Mao was a master, using his prowess in the water to demonstrate his power and keep his political rivals off balance. Against the pleadings of his physician and his security guards, Mao would drift "miles downstream with the current, head back, stomach in the air, hands and legs barely moving, unfazed by the globs of human waste gliding gently past," wrote historian Jonathan Spence. "’Maybe you’re afraid of sinking,’ he would chide his companions if they began to panic in the water." His infamous swim in the Yangtze River in 1966 showed his intention to reassert power after nearly half a decade of self-imposed isolation, and it seemed "a bid to put him in the tradition of a ruler showing his personal worth," wrote academic Ross Terrill in his 2000 biography of Mao.

Deng reportedly spent the summer after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beidaihe, where the then 85-year-old paramount leader said he swam outside "for an hour a day"; the pictures released to the public of him in the water "conveyed a carefree, reassuring image to the world," wrote Harvard professor Ezra Vogel in his 2011 biography of the reformist leader. Later, in the 1990s, photos of Deng swimming there were used to counter rumors that he was deathly ill.

At nearly 70, Hu is much younger than Mao and Deng were, as both men kept the seat of power warm well into their 80s. (Jiang stepped down as president at 76.) Although thought to be diabetic, Hu is seen as healthy. But Hu, a stiff, diffident apparatchik, also lacks his predecessors’ athleticism, ease, and charisma. Despite rumors that he was "a mean dancer at Tsinghua University in the 1960s," Hu "is not a physical man," says Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Center and author of Hu Jintao: China’s Silent Ruler.

Hu’s robotic personality at state and international functions might be a subtle criticism of Jiang, whose detractors criticized him for embarrassing China with his buffoonish behavior abroad, including singing a karaoke version of Elvis Presley’s "Love Me Tender" at an Asia-Pacific summit in 1996. Hu acts so constrained that one European head of state, after a visit with Hu, called him the most boring person the leader had ever met, according to a person briefed on the conversation.

But it’s not just personality holding Hu back. The president’s evident lack of interest in swimming might also have to do with the changing nature of Chinese leadership, an American academic who asked to remain anonymous told me. Unlike his flashier predecessors, Hu must govern by consensus — he doesn’t have the clout to stage an event rich in symbolism like public swimming. "Maybe no one covered it when he swam because if you let other people do that, you have to give them something else," said the academic.

A lack of willingness to share the spotlight might have led to Bo’s downfall. Bo’s Mao-style campaigns in Chongqing, where he sent text messages of the Great Helmsman’s quotes to millions of cell phones across the municipality and encouraged thousands of people to meet to sing Cultural Revolution-era songs, worried other leaders who thought he was becoming too transparently ambitious. Bo also reportedly liked to swim; in a 2009 speech in which he accepted the honorary chairmanship of the Chinese Swimming Association, Bo quoted a line from a Mao poem about swimming: "With confidence man can live 200 years, and can swim 3,000 li."

It’s anyone’s guess what kind of leader Hu’s heir, Xi, will be and whether he has the confidence that Mao and Bo shared, but he seems like a step up in the charisma department. In a written question-and-answer session with the Washington Post in February, Xi said, "I like sports, and swimming is my favorite."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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