China’s President Xi Jinping is well known to be a keen soccer fan. It appears he does not feel the same about golf.
On Thursday, China announced that owning golf club memberships is officially banned for all 88 million members of the Communist Party.
It was placed, along with the vices of excessive eating and drinking and having “improper sexual relations with others,” on an eight-article moral and ethical code issued by the Politburo of China’s Communist Party Central Committee, the nation’s 25 top leaders, meant to promote clean governance.
The code forms part of Xi’s efforts to rebuild the party’s public image by eliminating corruption and extravagance. Golf falls short on several counts. It's a symbol of Western lavishness in a country where Xi is determined to eliminate Western values. Golf courses are also seen as venues for officials to strike corrupt deals with rich business people.
The Communist Party has long had a difficult relationship with the sport. Mao Zedong expressly banned it, believing it to be frivolous and bourgeois. As Dan Washburn notes in “The Forbidden Game,” golf courses were dug up, and Shanghai’s premier club was turned into a zoo.
But the sport made a comeback after Mao died, and getting rich became expressly encouraged by Deng Xiaoping. Still, as my colleague Adam Taylor noted in a previous blog post, the suspicion of the game has never entirely faded.
The first course was opened in 1984, designed by famous golfer Arnold Palmer, and the sport took off in China. But 20 years later, the government banned construction of new courses.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last year, Washburn said that ruling was widely ignored by local governments keen to monetize land holdings and attract wealthy clientele and business.
The number of courses is said to have tripled in the five years following the ban, and now there may be anywhere from 600 to 1,000 courses in the country. Nobody seems to really know, because many hide under deliberately misleading names, like the massive 22-course complex in Hainan officially known as the "Yangshan District Land Consolidation and Ecological Project,” as this review of Washburn’s book notes.
In 2009, the Guang Ming Daily, a state-run newspaper, called the game “green opium” and warned that officials were too addicted to playing golf to fulfill their duties.
But it is only since Xi came to power that the wind has changed more definitively.
In March, the government announced it had closed 66 illegally built courses. State-run media complained that the courses not only occupied land illegally but also used massive amounts of water and caused environmental damage though broad use of pesticides. Around the same time, the anti-corruption agency in the southern city of Guangzhou said it was targeting officials who played the game. In September, Wang Shenyang, the director of the Department of Outward Investment and Economic Cooperation of the Ministry of Commerce, was removed from office for using public money to play golf.
In June, the People’s Daily published an opinion piece calling golf “a kind of elegant bribery.” It went on to suggest some other, more acceptable, ways for rich people to do business and make friends, such as equestrianism, with its reputation for “British style and lordliness,” as well as luxury cruises and private wine-tasting parties.
But even without official blessing, golf is not about to die in China. In fact, as Brook Larmer reported for the New York Times in 2013, Chinese golfing “wunderkinds” are beginning to infiltrate the top levels of the game globally. In 2012, golfer Shanshan Feng became the first Chinese player to win a major championship on the LPGA tour.
Nevertheless, it has been a bad year for the game in China, "and that's saying a lot," said Washburn. "This latest news, which lumps golf together with gluttony and improper sex, surely won’t help the game’s already battered image there."
In theory, Washburn says, party members might still be able to golf as guests of other members, "but in the current political climate, would you really want to be the first CPC (Communist Party of China) member to test this?"
"Golf is currently squarely in the crosshairs of China’s anti-corruption campaign, and several public officials have been disciplined, or even fired, for their golf-related activities over the past year. It’s all gotten rather serious," Washburn wrote in an e-mail. "What’s ironic is that this latest bit of bad press for golf in China comes just weeks before the world’s best golfers arrive in Shanghai for one of the biggest, and most lucrative, tournaments of the year — the WGC-HSBC Champions, with $8.5 million in prize money. No doubt the event will be accompanied by quite a bit of hype and hoopla, and the local government will likely not complain too much when it takes its cut of the winners’ checks."
As part of the anticorruption drive, the Communist Party has also sought to curb official banquets, and the latest rules expressly forbid excessive eating and drinking. A previous ban on “keeping paramours and committing adultery,” has been toughened to outlaw all “improper sexual relations,” state news agency Xinhua reported.
Party officials commonly have a mistress or multiple mistresses, showering them with luxury gifts and renting them plush apartments, all financed by the spoils of corruption. Research by scholars at Renmin University of China in 2012 found that 95 percent of officials under investigation for corruption were cheating on their wives.
The new regulations, Xinhua reported, also banned the forming of inter-party cliques, defying principles, hiding personal issues that should be reported to the party and seeking profits for family members and staff with their political powers, among other offenses.
As Foreign Policy reported in January, China’s corruption watchdog said that in 2014 alone it had “disciplined” or “severely disciplined” more than 95,000 cadres.