China’s ruling Communist Party has softened its hard line on golf, but government officials may not be out of the rough yet if they don’t want to fall foul of the government anti-graft campaign.
“There is no right or wrong about playing golf, as it’s just a sport,” according to the Zhongguo Jijian Jiancha Bao, a newspaper run by the Communist Party’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI).
However, the paper points out that playing golf is still a breach of a new raft of stringent Communist Party rules which say that officials who violate rules to get VIP membership of golf clubs, or any kind of preferential treatment on the links, can be disciplined or fired, the Global Times newspaper reports.
Like Rolex watches and Porsche SUVs, golf became a powerful symbol of status among China’s nouveau riche and as such came in for scrutiny under president Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption.
Banned as a decadent bourgeois pastime by chairman Mao Zedong, the sport known as "Green Opium" enjoyed a brief boom earlier this century, especially during the SARS epidemic when outdoor sports were seen as a good idea but increasing links between the golf courses and the expensive real estate that springs up on their fringes have prompted the crackdown.
“Golf is an expensive sport, requiring huge outlays which technically a government official shouldn’t be able to afford,” Su Wei, a professor at the Communist Party School in Chongqing told the Global Times.
“Lawbreakers may cater to some officials’ penchant for leisure activities and offer them bribes disguised as sport, making the golf course an arena for corruption, said Mr Su, adding that golf can also feed into a cadre’s vanity, leading to a corrupt lifestyle that can damage the overall party image.
Among cadres racking up foul strokes for playing golf in recent years are Lin Chunsong, deputy mayor of Wuyishan in Fujian province, who broke Party rules to gain possession of a golf VIP card and took 13,908 yuan (€1,900) in bribes while playing golf, the CCDI newspaper reported.
By 2013, the number of golf courses in the country had risen to over 500, even though the building of golf courses has theoretically been banned since 2004 due to environmental concerns, the massive quantity of water required, and local villagers’ unhappiness at having to give up arable land.
“Governments at all levels and relevant state council organs have proactively carried out golf course rectification work and have achieved phased results,” the National Development and Reform Commission said last year. A round of “rectifications” in the past couple of years, linked to the corruption crackdown, saw 66 golf courses closed.