Last week, the Chinese government quietly went to war against golf – or, to be more specific, against golf courses.
Two-thirds of the country’s approximately 600 fairways were allegedly built in violation of a 2004 national moratorium, and Beijing is no longer willing to look the other way. On Wednesday, China’s Ministry of Land and Resources shut down 66 illegally built courses nationwide, including three in Beijing. More closures could happen anytime.
This isn’t China’s first golf crackdown. In 1949, Mao Zedong deemed the game a “bourgeois” excess and had all the country’s courses destroyed. (The Shanghai Zoo is located on a former fairway.) But today’s Chinese government has its own reasons for targeting the sport.
Golf crept back into China in the 1980s, together with free enterprise. Of course, hardly any Chinese at the time knew how to swing a club. But, as in the West (and in confirmation of Mao’s assessment), Chinese businessmen, regardless of their handicaps, were eager to treat the sport as a networking opportunity. It was also a convenient chance for newly wealthy Chinese elites to indulge in some conspicuous consumption. (Course fees – currently over $150 per round, on average – have always been well beyond the means of ordinary Chinese.)
What sparked the current crackdown? In part, it seems to be an extension of President Xi Jinping’s ongoing campaign against extravagance on the part of public officials, who are said to be among the country’s most frequent golfers. Chinese media reported Wednesday – the same day as the golf course closures – that an official at the Ministry of Commerce was under investigation because he “allegedly played golf.”
But Beijing also seems intent on using the golf crackdown as a way to reassert its control over the country’s real estate market. In recent years, the insatiable search for fresh land to develop has started to conflict with the central government’s land use priorities. Although Beijing would like China to be agriculturally self-sufficient, real estate developers are increasingly buying up large stretches of what remains of the country’s arable land.
In 2013, the government announced that China had just enough arable land to keep the country above a self-declared food security red line. (And that’s before factoring in the effects of pollution: Last year the government reported that 2 percent of China’s arable land is now too polluted to support agriculture.)
This isn’t just a conflict between the government and developers – it’s also between the central government and local government officials. When developers have shown up in local government offices looking to buy acreage for golf courses, local officials have tended to treat it as an opportunity to fill public coffers, even if it involves skirting the law. (Golf goes unmentioned in any subsequent paper work.)
Although the central government has likely known about such transactions for years – and even offered its tacit approval in some instances in order to encourage economic growth – it now seems to want to put local officials on a tighter leash when it comes to land use policy.
The crackdown against golf is likely also motivated by environmental concerns. Golf courses can have a negative impacton the local environment, both as a result of their extensive water demands, and – in places with lax regulatory regimes, like China – the chemicals and pesticides used to keep them green. China faces water shortages and high levels of soil contamination even without golf. In 2012, the city’s water consumption levels were 70 percent greater than its supply.
To meet those needs, China is building a massive series of canals to divert water from the country’s wet south to its arid north, a project with uncertain environmental consequences. Meanwhile, close to 20 percent of China’s soil is polluted, and the government is actively trying to control pesticide use as a means to curb it. Golf courses only make the task harder.
Shutting down 66 courses is a strong start, but it leaves behind hundreds more, as well as many dozens frozen in various stages of development. In all likelihood, some of those will remain (if only to nurse Chinese dreams that they can eventually earn gold medals in another Olympic sport). But for Chinese officials, in particular, it’s clear that the days of approving, much less enjoying, an afternoon on the course, are over.
Adam Minter is based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.