Now, some believe that China's war on golf may be hitting a mulligan. On Tuesday, an article in the official newspaper of China's anti-corruption agency declared that as golf was "only a sport," it could be neither right nor wrong.
The apparent change in attitude has caught the attention of a variety of media outlets. The Guardian reported that the Communist Party had decreed that "teeing off is not a crime," while Time Magazine suggested the sport was "no longer forbidden among China's governing elite." State-run newspaper China Daily noted that it now appeared that golf was "OK" for officials, as long as they pay out of their own pocket.
Dan Washburn, perhaps the foremost Western expert on golf in China and author of "The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream," says that the idea that golf has been made legal is a misinterpretation of the previous guidelines: Golf was never actually illegal in China for either average citizens or party members, he argues. "As is common in China, the regulation’s language does seem vague, perhaps purposefully so," Washburn writes in an email. "It doesn’t explicitly say that Party members are forbidden to play golf, just that they can’t own golf memberships."
"Now they've reemphasized that officials need to pay their own way on golf courses. But the simple fact remains: No Chinese government official should be able to afford to play golf in the first place," Washburn adds. "Golf's real and perceived links to corruption didn't just go away over night. I'd be really surprised if this results in a slew of cadres dusting off their golf clubs."
China's official distrust of golf goes back to 1949, when the country became a communist state. While golf-like games have been played in China for centuries (one particular game, Chuiwan, is said to go back to about A.D. 1,000), the Western version of the sport, thought to have originated in Scotland, was quickly restricted. The orders may have come from Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader of the People's Republic of China, himself, who is reported to have dubbed it a "sport for millionaires."
It was only in 1984, years after Mao's death, that China opened its first golf course — Chung Shan Hot Spring — designed by legendary American golf pro Arnold Palmer. By the 2000s, golf had become fashionable in a rising China (as The Washington Post's Maureen Fan wrote, it was "a way to affirm one's status") and hundreds of golf courses were being built across the country. Chinese golfers like Shanshan Feng soon began to win major international tournaments.
With the arrival of Xi as president in 2012, however, golf began to run into real problems in China again. The Chinese leader vowed to crack down on both the "tigers" and the "flies" — high-ranking officials and lower-level underlings – in a widespread battle against corruption among party officials. This campaign often focused on luxury goods that most officials shouldn't be able to afford with their official salaries: things like watches, cars and, yes, golf club memberships.
Reaffirming that position, Su Wei, a professor at the Party School of the Communist Party's Chongqing Committee, told Chinese state newspaper the Global Times that golf was unusual among sports, as it required large expenses to play, making it a useful tactic for bribery. "Golf can satisfy some officials' vanity, corrupting their lifestyle, which can lead to damage to the Party's image and the erosion of officials' ability to serve," the Global Times quoted Su as saying.
For Washburn, the confusing thing with the new message is the timing. "Why they felt the need to issue this clarification is what interests me. My best guess would be golf's inclusion in this year's Olympics — they don't want anything to sully their quest for glory," he writes. "But with China, you never know."
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