'Green opium' wins over the comrades as China embraces golf

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It may once have been seen as a decadent distraction for capitalists, but these days golf is the sport of choice for even the most ideologically driven of cadres. Now, a prestigious Chinese university is planning to put golf on the curriculum.

Golfers can tee off as part of their physical education programme at Peking University, one of China's leading academic addresses where Chairman Mao Zedong once worked in the library, according to the Beijing News. The college is looking for permission to build a driving range on campus in the north-western part of the city.

Golf has long baffled the Communist Party and has been officially viewed as a profoundly bourgeois way of spending time. As a competition it is seen as too gentle and lacking in the vital group dynamic of traditional socialist sports such as gymnastics or volleyball. The dictatorship of the proletariat has no room for brightly coloured polo shirts or fake tans.

But there has always been a sneaking regard for the game and many Chinese leaders watched the frenzied rise of golf in neighbouring Japan after the Second World War with a certain envy.

The former Chinese Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, ousted amid the upheaval surrounding the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and who died last year, was known to knock a ball around the links. He spent the last years of his life under house arrest in Beijing, but when he did get out, he would play the occasional round.

The sport is now an acceptable way for Chinese Communists to spend their time and since the first golf course was opened in China 22 years ago - part of the Open Door Policy largely orchestrated by Zhao - golf has become extremely popular among the new rich.

China's new leisure-loving rich Communists have different ideas from the days when they wore Red Army caps - these days the hats have golf brands like Ping or Titleist written on them.

There are 200 golf courses in China, compared to just 20 in the 1980s, and the golf market is estimated to be worth around $7bn (£3.7bn) a year. Two million Chinese tee off on a regular basis, playing the sport some call "green opium".

For some students at Peking University, old habits die hard. "Golf isn't a proletarian sport. Most students wouldn't be able to afford it and the university should concentrate on providing better facilities for more popular sports," one young ideologue told the newspaper. But one of his student colleagues in the business studies department was more forgiving. "Golf is very popular among businessmen and white collar workers and the university has to keep up with the times," he said.

The sport got a big boost during the 2003 Sars epidemic, when many Chinese entrepreneurs decided that doing business on the golf course was better than doing it in a stuffy, possibly infected office.

China is already home to the world's largest golf course, Mission Hills in Shenzhen, which has 180 holes over 10 courses. The club started off in 1994 with a course designed by Jack Nicklaus.

There are a few notable Chinese golfers around, such as Zhang Lianwei, who became the first Chinese player to compete at the Masters, and a wave of junior golfers is expected.

The next 10 years could see the number of courses in China rise to 1,000 as hotels race to build luxurious golf resorts, although the wild pace of golf-course building of a couple of years back has eased amid real estate scandals and efforts by the government to cool economic expansion.