Corruption is par for the course in China

China's local governments are cashing in on 'green opium' despite a decade-long ban on building new golf courses, highlighting a central tension between the nation's economic and environmental development.

In a country with just 10 per cent of the world’s arable land and 6 per cent of its water resources, golf is often viewed quite dimly. Because of its voracious appetite for land and water, the sport’s critics have dubbed it 'green opium'. Yet despite an official ban on new golf courses a decade ago, it seems China's local governments can’t kick the habit.

Just last week, a Beijing Youth Daily investigation revealed that almost 3,300 acres of forest had been destroyed at Zilinshan National Forest Park in Guizhou, with the land to be converted into a 108-hole golf course and more than 30 villas. 

The developments are just one way cash-strapped local governments have exploited their roles as de facto land owners in order to raise revenue.

“Government officials in the provinces view golf as an attractive way to bring in a well-heeled clientele, to bring in tax revenue and most importantly to bring in money from land sales,” says Dan Washburn, author of The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream.

The moratorium on new golf course developments made by the central government in 2004 has all but been ignored. From 2005 to 2010, the number of Chinese courses tripled to more than 600.

“Rule number one is you don’t call what you’re building a golf course,” says Washburn. Instead, developers call the projects tourist resorts, health centres or sports training centres -- anything but a golf course.

Once they’re in place, the courses are taxed as an entertainment venue at a hefty 23.5 per cent rate, making it even more enticing for local governments. They do it because it’s in their best interests, says Washburn -- "whether it’s in the best interests of the people that they govern, that’s the other question".

In his revealing and fascinating book, Washburn looks at China’s recent development through the lens of a game that was denounced by Chairman Mao as a “sport for millionaires" when the Communists took control in 1949, and was completely banned until 1984.

"Golf is a topic that touches on a lot of issues at the heart of what China’s going through at this stage of its development," Washburn told China Spectator.

"It’s a barometer for economic growth but it’s also a symbol for the environmental issues the country faces, of the gap between rich and poor that is growing wider everyday. It allows you to talk about the kind of Wild West real estate development that’s happening, and then of course it's got its fair share of political corruption and intrigue.”

Once deemed a sport for older, wealthy white males, golf started to make its first inroads into Asia in Japan. But as the world’s third-largest golf market with over 2400 courses, the small island of Japan is well and truly tapped out.

While traditional golf markets have been flagging over the past decade, China has almost single-handedly been propping up the industry.

Ken Chu, CEO of Mission Hills golf courses in China, thinks the SARS virus deserves credit for the game’s increased popularity inChina. When the virus was spreading, more and more business deals were being done out in the open rather than in enclosed boardrooms.

But despite the size of China, the development of golf there is coming up against some insurmountable obstacles.

Chinese officials have called the nation’s water shortage a “grave situation” and have called for strict water controls. About two-thirds of Chinese cities are "water-needy" and 40 per cent of the country’s rivers are seriously polluted, according to China's vice minister of water resources, Hu Siyi.

Golf is still prohibitively expensive to play in China and as such is very much viewed as a rich man’s game. President Xi Jinping is rumoured to have enjoyed the game during his tenure as Governor of Fujian province but as his anti-corruption campaign steps up, no official wants to be seen playing the game. To do so would be political suicide.

The development of golf in China is likely to continue to be a barometer of change in the country. How the sport is dealt with will tell us a lot about the country’s priorities.

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