China’s recent golf course crackdown masks staggering pace of construction

July 1, 2014

Chinese golf outlaws, beware! The law, uh, might find you.

According to Reuters, Chinese authorities have closed five golf courses throughout the country since March, digging up three and converting two more for other uses, a supposed signal to would-be violators of the government's 2004 ban on the construction of new golf courses that Beijing is getting serious about enforcement.

But if the news was meant to deter golf course developers from proceeding with new business, it doesn't seem to have had the desired effect:

"Nevertheless, developers interviewed by Reuters expressed little concern, saying golf courses were in demand by local authorities who wanted the revenue from selling land while attracting well-heeled visitors to their regions."

Since the 2004 golf-course ban, the number of golf courses in China has tripled to more than 600, even as the demands of the world's largest population and fastest-growing economy has put unprecedented strains on its land and water resources, the two things a golf course needs most. To avoid detection, local officials or developers simply call golf projects something else — a tourist resort, a sports training facility, an environmental preserve — on their building application. Mission Hills Haikou on the Chinese island of Hainan, for example, is expected to be the world's largest golf facility upon completion, but until its public debut in 2010 it was known only as "Project 791."

"I have never seen developers and local governments use 'golf course' as a project name or for land use purposes when seeking approval," Zhu Maoyuan, a lawyer practicing in Beijing, told Reuters.

Dan Washburn, managing editor of the Asia Society and the author of a new book about golf in China called "The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream," was skeptical that these recent developments represent a substantive policy change.

"I'm reluctant to read too much into this," said Washburn in an email to "Crackdowns such as these, whether they be isolated occurrences or part of a larger coordinated effort, have happened with some regularity over the past decade — and the number of golf courses in China has only continued to rise."

Bulldozing a few golf courses might create a few splashy headlines, Washburn said, in a country where golf is somewhat of a political powder keg, seen at once as an elitist, Western folly and a potential tourism boon.

"It's hard to say what sparks these dustups," said Washburn. "Maybe someone pissed off the wrong person, maybe local protests started getting too much attention, or maybe there were indeed violations that were too big to ignore."

However, Washburn doesn't see this recent crackdown slowing China's golf boom.

"More golf courses are getting built in China than anywhere else in the world," he said. "And I don't see that changing anytime soon."

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