Newspaper article International New York Times

War on Graft Takes Aim at 'Sport for Millionaires' ; in Xi's China, Golf Is Seen as a Vice That Promotes 'Unclean Behavior'

Newspaper article International New York Times

War on Graft Takes Aim at 'Sport for Millionaires' ; in Xi's China, Golf Is Seen as a Vice That Promotes 'Unclean Behavior'

Article excerpt

President Xi Jinping's crackdown on corruption has a new target: the popular capitalist pastime of golf, derided by Mao as a rich man's game.

President Xi Jinping's crackdown on vice and corruption in China has gone after drugs, gambling, prostitution, ill-gotten wealth and overflowing banquet tables. Now it has turned to a less obvious target: golf.

In a flurry of recent reports, state-run news outlets have depicted the sport as yet another temptation that has led Communist Party officials astray. A top official at the Commerce Ministry is under investigation on suspicion of allowing an unidentified company to pay his golf expenses. The government has shut down dozens of courses across the country built in violation of a ban intended to protect China's limited supplies of water and arable land.

And in the southern province of Guangdong, home to the world's largest golf facility, the 12-course Mission Hills Golf Club, party officials have been forbidden from golfing during work hours "to prevent unclean behavior and disciplinary or illegal conduct."

The provincial anticorruption agency has set up a hotline for reporting civil servants who violate nine specific regulations, including prohibitions on betting on golf, playing with people connected to one's job, traveling on golf-related junkets or holding positions on the boards of golf clubs.

"Like fine liquor and tobacco, fancy cars and mansions, golf is a public relations tool that businessmen use to hook officials," the newspaper of the party's antigraft agency declared on April 9. "The golf course is gradually changing into a muddy field where they trade money for power."

Dan Washburn, author of "The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream," said the crackdown was not surprising given the game's reputation in China as a capitalist pastime and the extent of Mr. Xi's prolonged campaign against corruption, which has toppled senior party and military leaders.

"This is Xi Jinping's China, and it's clear he's intent on making his mark," Mr. Washburn said. "Everyone's a potential target in this ongoing crackdown on corruption, and golf is a particularly easy and obvious one."

Golf has faced harsh suppression in China before. When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, Mao Zedong condemned the game as a "sport for millionaires," and courses that had been built for foreigners were turned into public parks, zoos and communal farms.

The sport went dormant for three decades before China's first course since the revolution opened in Guangdong in 1984. Now, as many as one million people play the game in China. Though it is popular among members of the wealthy elite -- including party bureaucrats, apparently -- some of China's earliest professional golfers are former workers and farmers who stumbled onto the game.

Huang Wenyi, a onetime construction worker who is now the world's 1,189th-ranked player, thrilled Chinese fans Thursday after he led at the end of the first day of the Shenzhen International, a European Tour-sanctioned event in the southern Chinese city. (He had fallen out of the lead by Friday afternoon.)

Chinese players in their teens and even younger, drilled by parents and coaches with a resolution that rivals that of state-run sports schools, are expected to be strongly represented among the world's top players in coming decades.

The national government banned the construction of new courses in 2004, citing concern over the environmental impact of unrestrained development. But even that did not stop the game's rise. In defiance of the ban, the number of courses in China has grown more than threefold since then, to more than 600 today, according to industry estimates.

Courses were often built as part of luxury housing developments to increase land values and attract rich property investors. …

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