Law and Regulations

China cracks down on golf, the 'sport for millionaires'

Austin Ramzy
Stuart Franklin | Getty Images

President Xi Jinping's crackdown on vice and corruption in China has gone after drugs, gambling, prostitution, ill-gotten wealth and overflowing banquet tables. Now it has turned to a less obvious target: golf.

In a flurry of recent reports, state-run news outlets have depicted the sport as yet another temptation that has led Communist Party officials astray. A top official at the Commerce Ministry is under investigation on suspicion of allowing an unidentified company to pay his golf expenses. The government has shut down dozens of courses across the country built in violation of a ban intended to protect China's limited supplies of water and arable land.

And in the southern province of Guangdong, home to the world's largest golf facility, the 12-course Mission Hills Golf Club, party officials have been forbidden to golf during work hours "to prevent unclean behavior and disciplinary or illegal conduct."

The provincial anticorruption agency has set up a hotline for reporting civil servants who violate nine specific regulations, including prohibitions on betting on golf, playing with people connected to one's job, traveling on golf-related junkets or holding positions on the boards of golf clubs.

Chinese rich under pressure
Chinese rich under pressure

"Like fine liquor and tobacco, fancy cars and mansions, golf is a public relations tool that businessmen use to hook officials," the newspaper of the party's antigraft agency declared on April 9. "The golf course is gradually changing into a muddy field where they trade money for power."

Dan Washburn, author of "The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream," said the crackdown was not surprising given the game's reputation in China as a capitalist pastime and the extent of Mr. Xi's prolonged campaign against corruption, which has toppled senior party and military leaders.

"This is Xi Jinping's China, and it's clear he's intent on making his mark," Mr. Washburn said. "Everyone's a potential target in this ongoing crackdown on corruption, and golf is a particularly easy and obvious one."

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Golf has faced harsh suppression in China before. When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, Mao Zedong condemned the game as a "sport for millionaires," and courses that had been built for foreigners were turned into public parks, zoos and communal farms.

The sport went dormant for three decades before China's first course since the revolution opened in Guangdong in 1984. Now, as many as one million people play the game in China. Though it is popular among members of the wealthy elite — including party bureaucrats, apparently — some of China's earliest professional golfers are former workers and farmers who stumbled onto the game.

Huang Wenyi, a onetime construction worker who is now the world's 1,189th-ranked player, thrilled Chinese fans Thursday after he led at the end of the first day of the Shenzhen International, a European Tour-sanctioned event in the southern Chinese city. (He had fallen to 13th place by the end of play Saturday.)

Chinese players in their teens and even younger, drilled by parents and coaches with a resolution that rivals that of state-run sports schools, are expected to be strongly represented among the world's top players in coming decades.

The national government banned the construction of new courses in 2004, citing concern over the environmental impact of unrestrained development. But even that did not stop the game's rise. In defiance of the ban, the number of courses in China has grown more than threefold since then, to more than 600 today, according to industry estimates.

Courses were often built as part of luxury housing developments to increase land values and attract rich property investors. Local governments, which depend on land sales for a large share of their revenues, looked the other way as developers described them as "leisure" facilities.

After years of warnings, the National Development and Reform Commission said on March 30 that 66 illegally constructed golf courses in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and 20 provinces had been closed — and indicated that its investigation was continuing.

The next day, anticorruption investigators at the Ministry of Commerce announced that they had opened an inquiry into Wang Shenyang, director general of the ministry's Department of Outward Investment and Economic Cooperation, on suspicion of participating in activities sponsored by an unidentified company. Golf was the only activity specified.

The Legal Weekly, run by the Ministry of Justice, chimed in by publishing a list of 15 party officials who have been punished in the last decade for golf-related transgressions. It included Sun Guoqing, head of the Ministry of Transportation's planning department, who was suspected of using public funds to pay for rounds, and Han Jiang, a district official in Shenzhen, who was convicted of receiving nearly $1 million in bribes, the largest single portion of which was in the form of a membership to the Mission Hills Golf Club.

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"Golf, because of its high cost and unique glamour, has been called the 'aristocrats' game,' " the newspaper said. "But an awkward truth is that because of 'rotten' golf, some officials have been punished or even jailed."

An art dealer in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss illicit activity, said that many insider deals were made over rounds of golf. "When we play golf, we invite officials, too," he said. "This is not something ordinary people can afford."

Some golfers have complained about the criticism of their sport, arguing that there is nothing inherently corrupt about it. "Around the world so many officials and even presidents play golf. Why is it that in one certain country that when an official plays golf, he's corrupt?" Lin Xiang, a golf coach in Shanghai, wrote on Sina Weibo, the popular social media platform.

If time on the links is almost required of politicians in the United States, Chinese leaders zealously avoid the game. The one top-level official known to have regularly played golf, Zhao Ziyang, was deposed as party chief by hard-liners during the 1989 Tiananmen protests and spent the rest of his life under house arrest for his support of the student-led demonstrations.

Uncertainty about the future of the sport has led to a drastic slowdown in course construction. "It's all drying up," said Les Watts, a Hong Kong-based course designer. After two decades of work on courses in mainland China, he says he is planning to soon return to his native Australia.

Still, Chinese golfers are not ready to abandon their new passion. "I'm still playing," said a 60-year-old golfer in Beijing who would only give his surname, Zhang. "It's already in the next Olympic Games, so the state will definitely support it."

Mr. Zhang sat with his shoes off, checking stocks on a small computer before a round at his club. "If ordinary people use our own money to play," he said, "the government never says you can't do it."

Mr. Washburn, the author, said golf would continue to be buffeted by the contradictions of a country that has embraced market forces even as it continues to describe itself as socialist.

"There are alternate realities in China," he said. "One day you'll read headlines about a war on golf, and the next you'll hear about China's future Olympic golf stars."