An hour’s drive north of downtown Shanghai, on the island of Chongming, lies a little paradise. Lan Hai International Golf Club boasts two 18-hole courses. But the place is not strictly for golfers. It’s a preserve of those who have profited the most from China’s economic boom.
Any given Saturday morning, you’ll find the elite gliding from hole to hole in their electric golf carts, the players accompanied by two caddies alert to their every command and quick to advise on how to play the course. The game invariably winds up at the clubhouse, its entrance flanked by two superb Italian fountains.
For these golfers, the drive from Shanghai is no obstacle; they come and go in powerful sedans. Some even own one of the Tuscan-style villas that rim the links. “It’s a lifestyle,” says the club’s manager, Zhang Hongze. He’s convinced Chongming will soon become what Long Island is to New York. His reception room boasts a fireplace right out of a French chateau.
This lifestyle, however, is now being targeted by China’s President Xi Jinping and his powerful ally Wang Qishan, the country’s anti-corruption boss. Mao Zedong once denounced golf as a bourgeois pastime, and since Xi took office in 2012, the president has led a campaign against excesses by state officials and their friends in business. To dodge the purge, many now avoid displays of conspicuous consumption, even if they got rich the legal way and even if to them golf is merely a means to network with the powerful.
Communist party leaders want to show they’re still close to the common people, and if there’s one glaring symbol of wealth in China, it’s golf. Unlike the US, Japan and Korea, where golf is a sport of the leisured middle class, in China high membership fees, equipment costs and associated expenditures make it very much a privilege of the rich.
Inevitably, the political storm now sweeping China has hit the golf courses of the nation and the players who use them.
In April, five months after submitting to an official government inspection, China Southern Airlines – Asia’s largest carrier by fleet size and passengers carried – announced it would no longer offer free golf holidays to its most loyal customers. And last December, the province of Guangdong ordered its officials to steer clear of the fairways, too.
The sport is getting a bad reputation in other ways. To be maintained properly, golf courses have to be watered regularly – this, at a time when northern China is suffering from chronic water shortages. And building new ones means expropriating farmland, often under highly dubious circumstances – this at a time when the most heavily populated country on the planet strives daily to maintain enough arable land to feed its people.
In March, China’s national development and reform commission, the state’s central planning office, announced the closure of 66 golf clubs – about one out of every 10 in the country, according to American journalist Dan Washburn, author of The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream .
Read more at The Guardian.