The mayor of China's top manufacturing city is hosting a "swimathon" this summer in the local Pearl River. Cleanup efforts to reverse years of industrial pollution have been so successful, claims mayor Guang Zhangming, that the Pearl is once again safe to swim. To prove it, he plans to don a suit and join the 10,000 other swimmers whom he hopes will take the plunge.
But after looking into the filmy water and smelling its foul wafts, other officials are said to be begging off. Three vice-mayors told a local newspaper that they couldn't swim.
After decades of rapid industrial growth, China has reached a moment akin to America in the 1970s: Pollution has become too obvious to ignore, sprouting a new environmental consciousness and official efforts to start cleaning up.
One of the early environmental campaigns is focusing on the Pearl, a 1,375-mile river which rises in the Tibetan foothills and empties into the South China Sea. Around one-third of Chinese exports are manufactured on the Pearl delta, exacting a steep environmental cost. Billions of dollars have been spent on new sewage treatment plants and moving heavy industry out of major cities. As a result, river quality has improved in cities like Guangzhou, where riverside walkways are thronged with families and couples on bicycles.
But the river, like the rest of the country, still has a long way to go to reach standards of air and water quality achieved in the West or other wealthy Asian countries.
After a long day's work driving a truck, Mr. Huang leans back on a concrete riverbank balustrade. Huang and his childhood friends recall spending much of their youth playing by, and in, the river.
"I'm not brave enough to swim in the river now, not even if you paid me," says Huang, chuckling with his buddies.
Many locals share that sentiment, prompting speculation that universities may eventually be asked to find recruits for the "swimathon." Local newspapers reported that government officials might also resort to dumping chlorine into the river or releasing fresh water from upstream reservoirs as a temporary fix. One local government environmental official ducked a reporter's question on whether the water was safe for swimmers, saying it was up to other experts to decide.
"They know the water isn't suitable for swimming if we look at the quality, but they want to push people to pay more attention to water protection," says Li Shiyu, dean of environmental science at Zhongsan University in Guangzhou.
Such political grandstanding is nothing new in China, though the focus on the environment is. In part, it reflects the greater visibility of such issues in Beijing in the wake of a series of industrial accidents and health scares, including a toxic chemical spill last November in the Songhua River.
China's sulfurous skies, filled with emissions from coal-fired plants and an expanding auto industry that sells 24,000 new units a day, also have a global impact. Some predictions say China will overtake the US as the largest producer of greenhouse gases within 20 years.
Ever alert to their own hold on power, Chinese policymakers have cited a risk of further social unrest if local officials fail to regulate industries properly. While land disputes are perhaps the common flashpoint in China, rural residents have also vented fury over the contamination of drinking water and farmland by factories and mines.
Beijing now says it will weigh economic growth in provinces against environmental protection. But enforcement of environmental laws is spotty. In theory, China's State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), a national agency with provincial offices, should be a check on local officials. But that is rarely the case, say critics.
"[SEPA's] function is to monitor provincial operations, but they are actually funded by the provincial government whose main concern is economic growth, so it's difficult for [SEPA] to really function," says Yang Ailun, a Greenpeace activist in Guangzhou.
Given its wealth and reputation as the world's workshop, the Pearl River Delta could offer clues on China's ability to balance growth with the sustainable use of natural resources.
While its rivers and skies have taken a pounding, observers say the degradation pales in comparison with other industrialized parts of China that have less money to spend on cleaning up.
Guangzhou has begun collaborating with Hong Kong on monitoring air pollution that often blankets Hong Kong's famed skyline. Guangzhou's middle class is growing more health-conscious, and "green" groups have sprouted on university campuses.
But despite the addition of new water-treatment plants in Guangzhou, experts say that there's a long way to go. A study completed last year on marine life in the Pearl River estuary found high levels of toxic metals. Shrimp contained 16 times the level of recommended cadmium, according to researchers, who identified industrial pollution as the likely cause.
"Factory discharge along the Pearl River is under better control compared with five years ago," says Li Xiangdong, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic who coauthored the study. "But even if you control one or two [polluters], the others are still there. It's a widespread problem for water quality."