China’s Com­mu­nists drive 66 golf cour­ses into the rough in elitism crack­down


China’s Com­mu­nist rulers have turned against the ex­clu­sive sport of golf with the gov­ern­ment say­ing nearly 70 “il­le­gal” cour­ses have been closed, seem­ingly en­forc­ing a decade-old ban for the first time.

The an­nounce­ment by the min­istry of land and re­sources comes amid a high-pro­file anti-graft cam­paign spear­headed by Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, which has seen crack­downs on ban­quets, lav­ish gift­giv­ing and other of­fi­cial ex­cesses.

The rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party has long had an am­biva­lent re­la­tion­ship with golf, which is a lu­cra­tive op­por­tu­nity for lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and a fa­vored pas­time of some of­fi­cials, but is also closely as­so­ci­ated with wealth and West­ern elites.

“Presently, lo­cal gov­ern­ments have shut down a num­ber of il­le­gally-built golf cour­ses, and pre­lim­i­nary re­sults have been achieved in clean-up and rec­ti­fi­ca­tion work,” read the an­nounce­ment on the min­istry’s web­site late Mon­day.

News of the clo­sures was soon fol­lowed on Tues­day by a com­merce min­istry an­nounce­ment that se­nior of­fi­cial Wang Shenyang was be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for play­ing golf in vi­o­la­tion of Xi’s “eight rules” on of­fi­cial be­hav­ior.

With an eye on con­tain­ing public anger over China’s widen­ing wealth gap, au­thor­i­ties have in re­cent years banned an as­sort­ment of “ex­trav­a­gances,” such as pri­vate clubs — of­ten fre­quented by of­fi­cials — in his­toric build­ings and parks. But such or­ders are of­ten flouted. Last year the rul­ing party’s anti­graft com­mis­sion in Guang­dong an­nounced that pro­vin­cial Com­mu­nist of­fi­cials would face pun­ish­ment if they en­gaged in any of nine gol­fre­lated ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing join­ing a golf club.

The no­tice urged the public to re­port any sus­pected golf vi­o­la­tions through a tele­phone hot­line.

A com­men­tary on the com­mis­sion’s web­site de­clared that “all over the world, golf is syn­ony­mous with ex­trav­a­gant spend­ing, and even in de­vel­oped West­ern coun­tries, it is con­sid­ered a ‘noble’ sport.”

Golf club mem­ber­ships in China typ­i­cally cost “far above the nor­mal an­nual in­come level of of­fi­cials and the gen­eral public,” it said, and of­fice-hold­ers who be­come “en­am­ored” of the sport “risk los­ing touch with the masses.”

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials keen on join­ing golf clubs of­ten do so un­der false names, wary of be­ing per­ceived as cor­rupt or out of touch, ac­cord­ing to Dan Wash­burn, au­thor of “The For­bid­den Game: Golf and the Chi­nese Dream.”

Wash­burn pointed out on Twit­ter that the clo­sure an­nounce­ment came days af­ter news that U.S. star Tiger Woods was to be paid US$16.5 mil­lion to re­design a course in the cap­i­tal. “What a coun­try!” he added.

‘Asia’s Ma­jor’

Three of the 66 “il­le­gal” golf cour­ses listed by the land and re­sources min­istry are in Bei­jing. Eight are in the eastern prov­ince of Shan­dong, while the south­ern and south­west­ern prov­inces of Guang­dong and Yun­nan are home to six each.

Even the trop­i­cal is­land prov­ince of Hainan — con­sid­ered the cap­i­tal of the sport in China — has not been spared, with three un­sanc­tioned cour­ses shut down, ac­cord­ing to the state­ment.

It did not give a time­frame for the clo­sures.

Cen­tral au­thor­i­ties or­dered a na­tion­wide mora­to­rium on new golf cour­ses in 2004, but devel­op­ment con­tin­ued as rev­enue-minded lo­cal of­fi­cials went their own way, even of­fer­ing tax breaks for op­er­a­tors of new cour­ses in places such as Hainan.

The num­ber of cour­ses in China has grown from fewer than 200 at the time of the ban to more than 600 at present, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial Xin­hua news agency.

China is even home to the world’s largest golf re­sort — the Mission Hills Golf Club in the south- ern industrial hub of Shen­zhen, which bor­ders Hong Kong. The 20-square-kilo­me­ter com­plex was founded in 1994 and boasts twelve 18-hole cour­ses.

As golf fa­cil­i­ties have mul­ti­plied, so too has the Asian gi­ant’s clout on the pro­fes­sional golf stage.

Last Novem­ber the World Golf Cham­pi­onships-HSBC Cham­pi­ons, a tour­na­ment known as “Asia’s Ma­jor,” teed off in Shang­hai with 40 of the world’s top 50 play­ers present for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year.

The US$8.5 mil­lion event is now the largest tour­na­ment in the world out­side the U.S. and the Bri­tish Open.

The land re­sources min­istry did not give rea­sons for the fa­cil­i­ties’ clo­sure, but wa­ter and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns were cited among the fac­tors that drove the 2004 ban.

A spokes­woman for the China Golf As­so­ci­a­tion, which is su­per­vised by the sports min­istry, said she could not com­ment on the lat­est move.

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