At Beidaihe, A Swim Test for China’s Leaders

Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish explores Chinese President Hu Jintao’s aversion to swimming, which leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping once utilized to demonstrate their health and strength as rulers. As Fish explains, Hu’s lack of athleticism and charisma may only tell part of the story:

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.”

See also recent CDT coverage of the seaside gathering underway at Beidaihe, where China’s leaders are expected to determine the makeup of the next Politburo Standing Committee ahead of this year’s 18th Party Congress.