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China: Where golf is banned... and booming

Jamie Fullerton in Beijing reports on the Byzantine twists and technicalities of a typically Chinese contradiction

Jamie Fullerton
Friday 02 January 2015 19:35 GMT
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Golfers Justin Rose (2nd L) of England and Rickie Fowler of the US (C), wearing Chinese costumes, take part in a photo call for the WGC-HSBC Champions golf tournament on the historic Bund in Shanghai
Golfers Justin Rose (2nd L) of England and Rickie Fowler of the US (C), wearing Chinese costumes, take part in a photo call for the WGC-HSBC Champions golf tournament on the historic Bund in Shanghai (GETTY IMAGES)

They boast 18 holes in the ground, flags, and rich businessmen whack little knobbly balls around them. But whatever you do, don’t refer to China’s 600-odd grassy green outdoor areas as golf courses – not during their planning and building stages, anyway.

Building new golf courses has been illegal in China since 2004, but that has not halted a rise in the sport’s popularity in the country and a new breed of stars emerging here. Chinese Ye Wocheng, for example, became the youngest player to qualify for a European Tour event in 2013, aged 12.

Guangzhou’s Guan Tianlang, meanwhile, finished 58th at the European Tour’s BMW Masters in 2013 aged 14, leading experienced Chinese player Liang Wen-chong to say he had “full confidence in the new generation of Chinese golfers”.

Taking advantage of the authorities’ previously lax attitude towards the enforcement of the law, for years developers have got away with building the courses this new generation cut its teeth on by labelling them “sports parks” in official documents. A new crackdown, made in the face of golf’s rising profile in China, looks set to close this simple lexical loophole.

This crackdown was first announced in September. The Chinese government stamped a spiked shoe on the careers of “sports park” developers as well as the wider, fast-rising golf industry by declaring that the 10-year-old law against building new courses would now be strictly enforced in the Beijing area.

Previously, local government officials, keen to see land prices in their municipalities increase, often helped push through course developers’ plans. Zhu Maoyuan from Beijing’s Zhong Lun law firm said: “I have never seen developers and local governments use ‘golf course’ as a project name or for land use purposes when seeking approval.”

The September warning, issued by the Beijing city government, was made via a circular and ordered officials to stop turning a blind eye to new courses cropping up. The government said it would “unswervingly close down any newly built golf course”.

The message has proved more than a stern shot across the bow, with 12 golf courses closed down in the Beijing area in recent weeks. Golf’s sudden rise in popularity in China could be at risk of a slowdown if there are further closures.

Having been banned originally in 1949 by Mao Tse-tung for being exclusively for the leisure of the bourgeoisie, golf courses were made illegal again in 2004 to protect farmers’ land. The focus of the law change was on the area surrounding Beijing, in the north-east of the country.

Jin Shan, a researcher at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, said: “The government believes golf courses exacerbate the paucity of land resources in the capital.”

As well as seeing them as impinging on farmland, the government views golf courses, on which pesticides are often used, as environmentally unfriendly. Wily developers got away with launching their “sports parks” undisturbed for years, but a sudden recent spike in the number of golfers in China caused authorities to look at the matter again.

China-based company Huidian Research valued the golf industry in the country at 6.4bn yuan (£665m) in 2013 – up 10 per cent from 2012. The company estimated that 1.1 million people in the country played golf.

Forward Management Group, a company based in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, claimed there were 639 golf courses in China at the end of 2013 – four times the number there were before the 2004 ban was introduced.

The boom has been exacerbated by real estate developers building courses to drive up the value of their land, with the sport seen as a high-end leisure pursuit for the wealthy. Such courses typically feature oversized pavilions and large numbers of staff to help build a picture of blown-up success and expendable cash.

“There are, for example, many golf courses with luxury villas around them in the Shanghai area,” Lu Qili, research director at real estate agency Shanghai Deovolente Realty, told The Independent.

Lu said this “added golf course” development tactic has proved to be effective bait for rich land and property buyers in first, second and third-tier cities all over China. “Golf facilitates sales,” he said.

Many Chinese laws are deliberately vague, allowing the government flexibility with regard to enforcement, and technically all golf courses are currently illegal. The crackdown is focusing on new developments, but the lack of certainty has caused concern for the owners of more established courses.

Mr Zhao, manager at Beijing’s Yaoshang Golf Club, told The Independent: “Sure, we worry about that [the law being more strictly enforced], because the policy is unpredictable. But as we started building our course earlier than most other golf clubs in Beijing did we had all the required documents from the start. The local government has been to our course and checked our documents thoroughly. Everything is qualified.”

The result of the crackdown arriving in 2014 is golf in China becoming a sport that is both booming and banned. Even for a country so habituated to contradiction and vagueness from its leaders, it’s an odd one.

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