China's Enduring War on the Bourgeois Sport of Golf

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 4/22/2015 01:30:00 AM
Seen an apparatchik thereabouts? Call 1-888-JAIL-CORRUPT-OFFICIALS.
It's good to know that some things never change: Despite China turning more capitalist than many Western nations in terms of the sheer rapaciousness tolerated and even encouraged by its leaders, there are unspeakable evils that, er, golf. Last year, an FT journalist Dan Washburn even wrote a well-regarded book on this very topic. By offering three vignettes on the grey area golfing entrepreneurs operate in, he provided fascinating insights into how the sport is still linked to vice despite the "anything goes" attitude that pervades Chinese society nowadays. Here is the book's blurb:
Statistically, zero percent of the Chinese population plays golf, a politically taboo topic still known as the “rich man’s game.” Yet China is in the midst of a golf boom – hundreds of new courses have opened in the past decade, despite it being illegal to build them.Award-winning journalist Dan Washburn charts a vivid path through this contradictory country by following the lives of three men intimately involved in China’s bizarre golf scene.

We meet Zhou, a peasant-turned-golf-pro who discovered the game after winning a job as a security guard at an exclusive golf club – and believes golf to be his ticket to joining China’s emerging middle class; Wang, a lychee farmer whose life is turned upside down when a massive top-secret golf complex moves in next door to his tiny ancient village; and Martin, a Western executive trying to navigate China’s byzantine and highly political business environment, ever watchful for Beijing’s “golf police.” 
Recently, Dan Washburn has noted that golf has come under increased scrutiny as of late. How so? Supposedly, the links are where corrupt officials conclude shady deals, thus connecting the ongoing crackdown on corrupt officials to activities connected with golf. Courses, therefore, are scenes of unspeakable crimes. Just for stepping on foot a golf course, one apparatchik has been put "under investigation" (i.e., branded a lawbreaker):
On March 30, Chinese authorities announced the closure of 66 "illegal" golf courses -- roughly 10% of all courses in the country -- in an apparent attempt to start enforcing a long-ignored ban on golf-related construction.  The following day, the Commerce Ministry announced that one of its senior officials was under investigation for "participating in a company's golf event," thus putting him on the wrong side of President Xi Jinping's "eight rules" against extravagance among government officials.

In Xi's China, being put "under investigation" is tantamount to being found guilty. Since embarking on his seemingly ceaseless anti-corruption campaign more than two years ago, hundreds of thousands of officials at all levels of government have been put in the crosshairs. The biggest names caught in the web are called "tigers." That's not a golf reference, but China's current crackdown on the sport does show how pervasive and unpredictable Xi's crusade has become.
Apparently, the jihad against golf traces back to Maoist times. That said, there are also ecological concerns about these courses' sucking up huge amounts of water in a country where it is scarce:
As I wrote in my book on the topic, China has long had a complicated relationship with golf. Mao Zedong banned it, denouncing golf as the "sport for millionaires." Even after China opened up and golf re-emerged in the mid-1980s, largely as a way to attract foreign investment, the sport was saddled with serious image problems.

It's not hard to see why. The construction and maintenance of golf courses is particularly resource intensive. China is home to 20% of the world's population, yet just 7% of its fresh water and 9% of its arable land, one-fifth of which is polluted. Golf also remains prohibitively expensive in China (this was one thing about which Mao was right) and it has earned a reputation as a self-indulgent, elitist pursuit. 
In a nation of 700 million peasant farmers, only a small sliver of the population can afford to play the game. That small sliver should not include anyone living off the salary of a public official, but it often has over the years. At best, the public would view these backswinging bureaucrats as out of touch. At worst, they are thought to be totally corrupt. In Guangdong province, the birthplace of golf in modern China, an investigative team has been formed to crack down on officials who took part in any of nine golf-related activities. There's even a public hotline for reporting suspected golf violations. 
The thing about golf is that it exists in this grey area where the caprices and whims of Communist Party leaders dictates whether the sport is permitted or not. As with many things in China, designation and enforcement of rules can be--how can I put it--selective. To illustrate, the author notes that China is busy training a golf squad since the 2016 Summer Olympics will feature the sport for the first time in over a century. Not that China is expected to medal having no world-class golfers precisely because of its naff image in the mainland, but if there's something to be won, the Chinese will try anyway:
This is a weird time in China. Xi's campaign against corruption has created a very tense and uncertain business and political climate. And yet, in some ways, things seem to be China as usual. Just days before the latest golf crackdown was announced, it was widely reported that Tiger Woods had signed a $16.5 million deal to redesign two courses in China. The week after The Masters, Bubba Watson, the No. 3 golfer in the world, is scheduled to compete in the $2.5 million Shenzhen Invitational, the latest international golf tournament to land on China's shores.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government quietly continues to funnel an unprecedented amount of money into its national golf team, all in pursuit of those all-important Olympic medals. So what does this all mean? And what does the future hold for golf in China? Every time I am asked that, I am reminded of a new take on an old joke: If you want to make China laugh, tell it about your predictions. 
The trouble is that Chinese officialdom does not adequately distinguish among three different sets of concerns: (1) the ideological permissibility of golf as a pastime in China; (2) the tendency for corrupt public officials to play golf; (3) whether these courses were acquired by land-grabbing or forced evictions; and (4) the environmental impact of the sport. Until these concerns are sorted out separately, you will have this head-scratching phenomenon of quickly-changing periods of permissiveness and prohibition. The only way I think these matters can be sorted in favor of golf is if a globally competitive Chinese golfing athlete emerges. Venezuela, communistic as it is in different ways, began providing state sponsorship for Pastor Maldonaldo given his (somewhat limited) successes in Formula One despite it having an elitist reputation.

Then again, you suspect that keeping golf in a grey area is actually intended. Asians are more used to living with such ambiguities. F-O-R-E!