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What if Beijing's rivers ran clear?

Beijing's waterways suffer from severe pollution. But even if they did not, the residents of the capital might present an even greater threat, writes Lu


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At some of Beijing's beauty spots, you can still find fresh, clear water flowing from underground springs: water which is eagerly sought by city residents, who fill up plastic containers to drink or to use in their cooking.


This phenomenon can be seen at many of Beijing's best-known sites, including Badachu Park and the Xiangshan Botanical Gardens. Local authorities have put up signs prohibiting unauthorised water collection, but to no effect.

Avid anglers

The capital’s anglers are even more numerous. They fill up the train at six in the morning from Beijing South Station, carrying a jumble of fishing rods, stools and nets, all heading for a series of reservoirs on the Yongding River.

These fisherfolk, of all ages and backgrounds, often know each other from the time they spend sitting around Beijing's lakes, rivers and canals. Visit any body of water in Beijing, and you will see them holding out their fishing rods hopefully.

And they really do sit around any body of water: most are stagnant, poisoned or lifeless. But nevertheless, the eager anglers still try their luck.

I have always wondered why they go fishing: is it to eat? Hardly. Is it a hobby? Unlikely: China has little tradition of catching fish with a line. So what keeps them coming back? Is it just something to do?

There are those who prefer to use nets to catch their fish. As soon as the water level is low enough, they roll up their trousers, wade in and set their nets – or anything else they can use to catch fish. One group prefers to electrocute its prey, riding around on motorbikes and stopping here and there to dip their equipment in the water and scoop up the stunned fish.  

In February, the Beijing Water Authority announced that rate of water treatment had reached 90%, meaning the target for the Olympics had been attained a year in advance. But take a look and you will find that Beijing’s waterways are still plagued by low water levels, unclean water and, further downstream, a lack of surviving wetlands. And despite this, there are still hordes of anglers out on the water.

Determined bathers

Beijing is also home to a group of outdoor swimmers that can be found in and around the city’s lakes.

One of these lakes is Yuyuantan, in west central Beijing. This lake links up with Kunming Lake in the city’s northwest. In the 1960s, a canal was built to bring water from the Miyun Reservoir to Kunming Lake. Since some of Beijing's waterworks were located beside Yuyuantan, an extra canal was built to link the two bodies of water.

The water quality in Yuyuantan is above average, making it a popular destination for bathers. The park authorities have erected signs beside certain spots, warning them that since 1996, almost 100 people have died as a result of swimming in the lake. But swimmers still laugh and chat next to the sign – even bringing buckets of water from home to wash in after their swim.

Shichahai is a network of six lakes that stretches from the central government complex at Zhongnanhai through Beihai Park to Qianhai, Houhai and peaceful Xihai. The lakes took shape during the Yuan Dynasty and are closely linked with the history of the capital. The development of an entertainment industry around Qianhai and Houhai led to greater efforts to improve water quality; these include pollution control and bringing in clean water from the Chang River, which connects to Yuyuantan and Kunming Lake. The Shichahai bathers are there all year round; even the occasional deaths have not discouraged them.

Swimmers are also found at other locations in Beijing, even where the water quality is very poor. It is as if nothing can stop them – not the weather, the dirty water or the mystified stares of passers by.

However, the state of Beijing’s water does put off most of the capital’s residents from swimming. What would the result be if the water ran clear, if all of Beijing's 20 million residents decided to take up swimming in the waters of the city?

Fish food

Beijing's water pollution has given rise to a new industry: catching and farming water fleas. These are popular as food for pet fish; anyone living near a dirty river – the fleas are drawn to the poor sanitation – can easily bag enough to keep their goldfish happy. Professional fish breeders will don waders and spend a whole day collecting fleas.

Liangshui River is a natural river that runs from Beijing’s northwest to southeast, but in recent years it has become an important route for getting polluted water out of the city. Once it passes a water treatment plant at the city’s fourth ring road, untreated water enters the river, and it becomes steadily filthier. The water fleas are caught in this water, stored in riverside pools and sold on to wholesalers, who sell them to retailers in the city’s fish markets.

If Beijing's rivers were cleaned up, this industry would die.

And if Beijing's waterways really became clean, pure and full of life, what damage would the people do? Everyone is attracted to water, it revitalises the soul just as drinking it sustains our bodies. This is no crime, but if the capital’s water is ever cleaned up, perhaps the residents will have to restrain their love of water, or at least find another way to express it. Else it will not stay clean for long.

Lu Dongting is a Beijing-based reporter.

Homepage photo by Doncorleon.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Genuine question

Some really amusing points here, and genuine questions: what does drive the urban anglers, for instance?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous








Response and questions

>If Beijing's rivers were cleaned up, this >industry would die.

Your idea is interesting, but can you tell me what is the amount of fishes produced by fish farming, and what is the amount of fishes that the anglers can fish in the rivers ?

Moreover, I think that anglers who fish in the rivers are generally poor or not so rich. Considering that those people who buy fish from fish farms are from all social categories but not not poor.

So I think that to reduce pollution in the Beijing rivers would indeed affect fish farms, but just a little, but at least it would not lead to the die of them.

For the bathers, it is another problem.
In foreign countries, we forbid bathers to have bath in some lakes or rivers, and those who bath are exposed to severe penalties by the police.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


为什么要为钓鱼而钓鱼?这是我多年来一直在琢磨的问题。随着我对城市水系的考察增多,我想最近我对这个问题有了个小答案,那就是人们需要自然界。城市是生态失衡的地方,每个人平均获得的“生态量”非常稀少。对于那些习惯于自然生态中浸泡的人来说,越来越人工化的环境,是无法让人忍受的。这从另一个侧面证明,人们是多么需要美好自然。如果没有了自然,人,活不下去。 吕洞庭

Fishing isn't out of poverty

In Chinese cities, not only Beijing, people don't fish and catch fishes in the rivers out of poverty. The fishes they catch can't be sold commercially. The fishes even won't be enough to feed themselves. It is totally a fishing-for-fishing's-sake behavior. It is because they want to "relax", although the environment is too bad to meet their needs for relaxing.

Why fishing for fishing's sake? This is something I've been pondering over for many years. With my increasing investigation in the water system of cities, I think I arrived at a small conclusion recently, that is, people need nature. Cities are places with imbalanced ecosystem, meaning that per capita "eco-mass" is extremely scarce. For people who are used to indulge themselved in nature, it would be unbearable to find the environment becoming man-made day by day. This has proved that people need the beauty of nature. People cannot live without nature.

Lu Dongting

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



About the way of thinking

Fishing, or bathing, they may not be driven by economic interests. They are habits formed throughout the years. Living on the mountains, live off the mountain. Living by the water, live off the water. (People make use of local resources.) In order to make a difference, fundamentally (we should start from) the way of thinking and awareness.

a Shui

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Cleaning up waterways for a better love of water

Indeed, as stated above, people need nature. I'm wondering, are we cleaning up the waterways solely for the sake of cleaning up? What do we clean it for? In a way, people's love of water is exactly the reason behind the importance of cleaning up; and cleaning up also reflects people's urge to go back to nature. Therefore, what I want to say is, we are cleaning up waterways for a better love of water. We shouldn't go against people's nature of loving water.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



People surely should love water, but for city residents, it is difficult.

The biggest environmental problem tomorrow would be a people problem. Many behaviors do not necessarily pollute the environment, but do harm to the ecosystem. I'm not agree with your utilitarian way of presentation. People should take ownership of preserving nature, which should be done for reasons more than taking advantage of its resources. Cleaning up waterways is for not feeling guilty in front of nature, and for the release of our loves of water as well. However, city dwellers are pathetic for being part of a too densely populated crowd. Nothing in nature can stand constant disturbances. Therefore, city residents have to oppress and subjugate their loves towards water. This is what must be paid for living in cities. Of course, they can release the love by traveling in holidays to other places, where the damages their love causes is tolerable.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



original statement

This article has innovative ideas!
It's well worth reading.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Polluted water must be cleaned up, of course. We cannot hesitate just because that cleaning water leads to more pollution. In order to maintain and improve the cleanness of the waterways, educating the public would be the fundamental way of stopping water pollution.

Da Yan

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Question to the content of English-Chinese Translation

I read the English article while referring the Chinese version, and I feel there are many discrepancies between these two versions. Something that does not exist in the English version actually appears in the Chinese one. Was the original article not completely translated? By Wendy

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Seems you have misunderstood

The article ought to have been written in Chinese, and was then translated into English. Could it be that the overall meaning of the article was not really carried across in the translation? Shanming