Rub of the green: golf was banned in China as a bourgeois rich man’s game until 1984, but today is a favorite pastime for the country’s wealthy elite.
In most countries, a proliferation of world-class golf courses would be regarded as an obvious and inevitable by-product of rapid growth and soaring living standards.
In China, courses such as the 36-hole Qinghe Bay Country Sports Club, located within view of the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, do indeed reflect surging private fortunes.
But facilities such as this have also become a potent symbol of the hypocrisy and corruption inherent in Communist party rule.
According to a central government edict issued repeatedly in recent years, the beautifully manicured lawns and sumptuous water features of Qinghe Bay are an illegal development – along with most other golf courses in the country.
China introduced a ban on the construction of golf courses in 2004 in an attempt to preserve dwindling farmland, save water and reduce the huge number of villagers thrown off their land as luxury real estate is developed.
“Since the year 2004 we have put a halt to the construction of golf courses,” Gan Zangchun, deputy chief supervisor of state land at the Ministry of Land and Resources, said recently. “Pending the formulation of any new regulation, the building of any new golf course is prohibited and is illegal.”
But despite the ban, the number of golf courses in China has more than tripled from 170 in 2004 to nearly 600 now, according to figures from the golf education and research center at the Beijing Forestry University.
Qinghe Bay, which opened just in time for the Olympics in 2008, is a powerful testament to the weakness of central government authority and the ability of powerful, politically connected individuals to flout the law. The owner of the club, which boasts more than 600 members and charges Rmb880,000 ($135,000) for lifetime membership, is Rizhao Steel, one of the country’s largest steel producers.
When asked how the course had been built in violation of the government ban, a Qinghe Bay marketing executive told the Financial Times: “I don’t know how to answer your question and it is not convenient for my leaders to speak to you.”
Another employee assured the FT the facility had received the blessing of officials in Beijing and that its owner had already bought a large plot of land next door and was planning to expand the club to create a 54-hole course.
One architect involved in the design and construction of several sumptuous “illegal” golf courses across China told the FT that local governments were almost always involved in their development and were often the main client for his services.
As with Qinghe Bay, most golf developments in China do not include the word “golf” in their name or anywhere on their planning documents, and instead refer to themselves as “health and entertainment clubs” or “country clubs”.
Some local governments even use state funds earmarked for green belts, parks or environmental protection and rehabilitation projects to build golf courses, despite the damage they can cause to the environment.
Golf was completely banned in China as a bourgeois “rich man’s game” until 1984, but today is a favorite pastime for the country’s wealthy elite, many of whom are government officials.
At the entrance to Qinghe Bay’s palatial clubhouse a few days ago a sleek luxury sedan with paramilitary license plates was parked, waiting for its golf-club toting passenger. Only the most senior Chinese officials are supposed to ride in such cars, accompanied by their official bodyguards.
The presence of such a car goes a long way to explaining the inability of the central government to enforce its golf course ban and many of the country’s other policies and laws.
As long as developers are well connected they can ignore warnings from regulators, who will rarely risk their careers by enforcing laws that could offend powerful interest groups higher up the food chain.