Beijing — March 31, 2015: 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 gift-giving 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 favoured 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 yesterday.
News of the closures was soon followed today 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 behaviour.
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 anti-graft commission in Guangdong announced that provincial Communist officials would face punishment if they engaged in any of nine golf-related 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 enamoured 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 US star Tiger Woods was to be paid $16.5 million to redesign a course in the capital. “What a country!” he added.
Three of the 66 golf courses listed by the land and resources ministry are here. 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 southern industrial hub of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong. The 20-square-kilometre 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 $8.5 million event is now the largest tournament in the world outside the US 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. — AFP