China Sends Mixed Signals About Golf
It appears that the nation of China doesn’t know precisely what to do with the game of golf. Following a ban on new development over a decade ago, small developers in individual locales began to build their own courses, sneaking them through the red tape, and trying to bring interest to their communities and perks to government officials. But, with all the potential and competitive interest going on with China and golf in general, there are problems that prevent the country from really committing to it.
With all of the local courses being built throughout the country, China has concerns about diminishing resources of soil and water, a pretty sensible consideration if things aren’t going to be built efficiently. Beyond that, however, the actual game is viewed askance by a government that, at the same time, supports its worldwide competitors and multi-billion dollar venues that bring major tournaments, not to mention hailing its own international champion in Shanshan Feng.
Golf, as seen by the government in China, is still a western game, created for the elite and requiring enormous sums of money that, in the national view, separates the prosperous from the masses, especially government officials who indulge in such a form of amusement. With many courses built over the past decade, officials have joined golf clubs under aliases, in direct violation of President Jinping’s “8 rules of official behavior.” One of those rules, prohibiting membership with any club, comes with an instruction for citizens to report offenders via a special hotline.
The tropical island of Hainan was, in a sense, set aside as a golf spot, a place where China’s new golf culture could most ably show itself off to the outer world. China doesn’t get involved in international competition unless it intends to do very well, and quickly. One might have thought that Hainan would be safe from recrimination, but even here, three courses have been closed, part of a group of seventy courses shut down in the past month. Only now, it seems, is the ban from 2004 receiving any real effort at enforcement. By closing many courses and ploughing them under, the Chinese government cites what they see as successful “clean-up ad rectification work.”
China seems partly caught in the Maoist era, in which golf was expressly categorized as a bourgeois, western activity, a symbol of decadence within an already classist group of European and North American cultures. Even recently, when Tiger Woods was set to receive a sum of sixteen million to design a course, China reacted in utter disbelief, one official waving a hand at the U.S., and declaring, “What a country!”
There was no disbelief expressed, however, when China held an enormous HSBC Championship, in which many of Asia’s finest players were present. Last year, China created a “major” at which the world’s best were in attendance. Gallery crowds and the larger nation itself erupted in jubilation when the first major Chinese golf championship was won by a Chinese citizen.
It isn’t just golf that is being targeted. In order to avoid the enormous gap between “haves” and “have nots,” any sign of excess is discouraged, including the presentation of major purchase gifts between government officials, high-profile media events, and large-scale banquets. Still, it appears awkward to carry your first Chinese golf hero in the streets and crackdown on the jewels of China’s courses. Perhaps the bulk of the discouragement is intended to keep control of golf’s growth within the parameters of government regulation, and out of regional or local hands, where facilities cannot be so easily monitored. But, if Shanshan Feng continues to win tournaments as she has, it all looks a bit peculiar to rail against the game as western frivolity.