Around 60,000 people drown in China every year
Despite China winning 18 medals at the Rio Olympics this summer in aquatic events, many Chinese people cannot actually swim and the result is tragically common drownings.
Drowning is the no.1 killer of children under the age of 14, which tops traffic accidents and infectious disease.
For many, swimming lessons were not a luxury in their childhood. “It wasn’t possible to learn to swim when I was young. It took me all summer to build up the courage to come to this class,” explained Feng Sihan, 24, a cosmetics saleswoman.
The result is that roughly 60,000 people drown in China every year, excluding flood-related deaths or boat accidents. This number is double that of India’s, which has a similar population, and 15 times that of the US.
70% of the victims are children, according to Wang Bin, professor of physical education at Central China Normal University. “Everyone should learn to swim,” Wang said. “We need to make Chinese people understand it is a basic life skill.”
Until recently, China has suffered from being a very poor country. As a result, swimming pool sand lessons were rare. Whislt some taught themselves to swim in rivers and lakes, most avoided the water.
Those who could swim were considered brave. Mao Zedong was a confident swimmer, with posters from the 1966 Cultural Revolution showing a 72-year-old Mao in his bathrobe, after having swam across the Yangzte River.
Whilst figures are hard to attain, a survey from Hainan found that 21% of teenagers could swim.
An additional problem stems from parents who cannot swim themselves, who are thus reluctant to allow their children near water. Parents may also consider swimming to be a distraction from a their studies. As a result, it is common practice for people learning to swim in China in their 20s.
“I didn’t learn when I was small because my parents were scared I would drown. I am learning now because I want to go diving in the Philippines,” said architect Wang Hui, 26.
To reduce the number of drownings, swimming lessons need to be held in rural areas, where the risk of drowning is the most. Whilst they receive theoretical safety classes at school, most do not live near a pool to learn practical safety.
China’s rivers and lakes are popular spots for rural residents during China’s hot summers. 13-year-old Xia Wenjun from a rice-growing village in Anhui province ventured onto the bank of a nearby lake, where the government had built a beach volelyball court with her friend. The pair fell into the lake and did not return home.
“The water wasn’t deep. If she had been able to swim, she would have survived,” said her grandfather, Xia Yuefan, 79, “It would be better if the government could do more.”