America had its war on drugs, Australia had its war on emus and China has its war on golf.
While a moratorium on the construction of new golf courses was officially enacted in 2004, hundreds of golf courses popped up across China over the past decade. However, thanks to Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption, the government began to take a harder look at the greens, no longer willing to turn a blind eye to illegal courses or officials who love to hit the links.
The crackdown made international news last October when the CCP banned its 88 million members from having golf club memberships and from accepting rounds of golf as gifts.
However, for at least a moment earlier this week, it seemed that hostilities between the Party and golfers were beginning to thaw. On Tuesday, an article appeared in the Discipline Inspection and Supervision News, the official newspaper of China’s anti-corruption agency, saying that: “Since it is only a sport, there is no right or wrong about playing golf.”
The article was picked up by international publications like The Guardian, which declared that “Golf is no longer a crime.” Even China Daily got into the act, asking:
“Can officials play golf while the nation steps up efforts to clamp down on corruption and promote austerity? The answer is yes – if they pay out of their own pockets.”
However, Dan Washburn, author of “The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream,” would like to pump the brakes on the vision of million of cadres, putting on their polos, grabbing their 9 irons, and heading out to the clubhouse. He told The Washington Post:
As is common in China, the regulation’s language does seem vague, perhaps purposefully so. It doesn’t explicitly say that Party members are forbidden to play golf, just that they can’t own golf memberships.
Now they’ve reemphasized that officials need to pay their own way on golf courses. But the simple fact remains: No Chinese government official should be able to afford to play golf in the first place. Golf’s real and perceived links to corruption didn’t just go away over night. I’d be really surprised if this results in a slew of cadres dusting off their golf clubs.
Called the “sport of millionaires” by Mao Zedong himself, golf got off to a slow start in China, with the first course only opening in 1984. However, with the rise in millionaires, the sport quickly took off, becoming a fashionable pastime for the wealthy and well-connected in China, until it was crushed by Xi Jinping’s anti-austerity drive — just like Macau’s economy, shark fin soup cooks and hair dye outlets.
With the corruption crackdown still going strong, the question becomes why would China hint toward a golf renaissance? Washburn says his best guess is that it might have something to do with golf’s inclusion in this year’s Olympics. When CNN did a video report on China’s golf crackdown last year, club members also replied that they were not worried about the sport’s future in their country, reasoning that the government would still need skilled golfers to compete every four years.
Washburn also notes that while all this is happening, so-called illegal golf courses in Shanghai are being bulldozed “right and left.” It is hard times for golf course owners in China, even more so for workers. Last year, a video went viral showing a clash between caddies and police at a golf course that was suddenly shut down in Guangzhou.