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"The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream"
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“I only hunt for the sport of it.”

For those interested in the human sciences, golf is an interesting sport, perhaps second only to hunting and fishing (the original meaning of “sport”), because it’s a landscape game. Acquiring and preparing these landscapes requires resources, nowhere more so than in modern China. From a book review in The Economist:

The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream. By Dan Washburn.Oneworld; 316 pages; $18.99 and £12.99. Buy from, …

Dan Washburn, a journalist who lived in China for a decade, uses golf as a barometer of change. Under Mao Zedong the sport was banned, like so many things that were decadent and fun. When the country began to open up under Deng Xiaoping, a few golf courses were allowed, to entertain foreign investors. As China grew richer, more and more locals wanted to try the sport. Suddenly more golf courses were being built in China than anywhere else, despite the fact that their construction was technically illegal.

Stone Forest International Country Club, China

For Mr Washburn golf is symbolic not only of China’s economic rise but also of “the less glamorous realities of a nation’s awkward and arduous evolution from developing to developed: corruption, environmental neglect, disputes over rural land rights and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor”. …

The book’s other main characters are Martin Moore, an American who builds golf courses, and Wang Libo, a lychee farmer whose land is bulldozed to make way for one. Both tales are as gripping as they are revealing.

Mr Moore, a laid-back, outdoorsy southerner, knew nothing about China before he accepted a job in the remote city of Kunming. But he soon realised that he was not in Florida any more. The local mayor insisted that he join him for a booze-up and a public execution. Mr Moore watched drunkenly as two drug-smugglers were placed on a stool and shot. He couldn’t refuse this grisly hospitality because golf-course-developers cannot operate without friends in government.

The tycoons Mr Moore worked for were as ambitious as they were tough. One course was never enough—they wanted ten, or even 36. They wanted the biggest and most opulent golf resorts in the world, and they wanted them built “faster, faster, FASTER”. Every step required bribes for officials to look the other way. When the central government cracked down, Mr Moore’s workers had to fill in bunkers and pretend that the project was something other than a golf course.

Many new courses appeared to make no economic sense—the owners couldn’t plausibly recoup their costs by charging green fees. Mr Washburn explains that golf was often a marketing tool to sell luxury villas nearby. Many Chinese officials have heaps of cash and no easy way to invest it, especially if it has been illicitly earned.

Here’s a new L.A. Times story by Scott Reckard about how Chinese money launderers are amazed by how cheap golf courses are in Southern California. (Of course, that’s because it’s hard to make any money off a crummy course in SoCal, but it’s also hard to get permits to build houses on it.) This is very reminiscent of how South Koreans lost a fortune in the previous decade buying mediocre SoCal golf courses. (I was tangentially involved just before the Crash in helping a friend of the family try to peddle a Korean-owned golf course in Orange County for some asking price that was absurd even in the summer of 2008, much less in the fall.)

Buying property is considered both prestigious and a safe investment, even though China’s property market swings more wildly than a drunk golfer.

The victims of China’s golf boom are the same people who suffer from other mega-developments: the peasants. When well-connected developers bulldoze villages, the inhabitants are compensated, but they do not get a choice. Mr Washburn describes peasants who rioted after receiving barely a tenth of the payout to which they were entitled. Their protest earned them only tear gas and jail.

That said, Chinese peasants are hardly passive in the face of injustice. Of the 187,000 mass protests that the Chinese government admits occurred in 2010, two-thirds were over land grabs. Some villagers use trickery to boost their compensation—when rumours spread that a new golf course is to be built, phoney graves suddenly pop up on the site, since developers must pay for each one they move.

You have to give Premier Deng a lot of credit, but he should have ordered in the 1980s that golf would be played in Red China only with Jack Nicklaus’s “Cayman Ball” that only flew half as far and thus would need only one quarter as much land for golf courses (about 50 acres instead of 200).

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  1. Is China immune to the laws of economics? I don’t think so. The misallocation of capital is breathtaking. It appears to be squandering the life-savings of hundreds of millions of Chinese working people, all in the name of full-employment and a housing bubble like no other ever seen. Expect a crash. The biggest crash in history. Then what? Then, I expect, China will begin to draw down the trillions of dollars it has invested in the West in a desperate attempt to succor its people. This will lead to a tidal shift in our balance of trade. No longer will Americans consume more than they produce, running up hundreds of billions of trade deficits annually. Instead we will start producing more than we consume, exporting the difference. Our living standards will go down (that is what happens when you consume less rather than more than you produce) even as we enter into the biggest manufacturing boom since the Guilded Age. All of this is perfectly predictable (I think). The only question is when?

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  2. […] Source: Steve Sailer […]

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  3. “Cayman” golf courses might have offered China an interesting form of protectionism. Since almost all the courses would be in China it would sort of guarantee that the best players would also be Chinese. And the rational could be environmentalism not nationalism or protectionism. The Chinese would of course be mocked until the enormous prize money offered for winning made the Cayman course tournaments no longer funny.

    Anyone from Russia and Canada? I think arctic nations need extra large golf courses with balls that fly twice the distance of more temperate nations.

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  4. Washburn:
    What if I owned a company that wanted to buy land to build a golf course?
    “Foreign companies can’t build golf courses,” the official said.
    “In China, there is a restriction on golf.”
    I mentioned a nearby golf development. How did they do it?
    “They’re a domestic company, and they’re not doing golf.

    ” What were they doing then?
    “Leisure!” he said with a wink. “Just don’t mention golf.”

    To get around the restrictions, savvy developers label their projects as “resorts”, “sports parks” or “ecological restoration projects”.

    One developer I spoke to likened golf in China to prostitution.
    “That’s illegal, too,” he said. “But there are still prostitutes everywhere in this country.”

    And that’s how pragmatic Sinorgy work-around got a hole in one.

    BTW,Bilbo should really restrain himself from the Photoshop.

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  5. IA says:

    The way this whole thing is framed by Washburn and/or The Economist is so predictably status-marking Eloi. Why would they expect China to “develope” along western lines? The courses being built cannot be played by 99.9% of the people. There may never be public golf courses in China. Or India. Or anywhere in the ROW (rest of the world). These courses are there for wealthy managerial and expat foreigners and a very few nationals. When you think about this fact you begin to understand how different the ROW really is. But, the elites want to downplay these radical differences. It doesn’t fit The Narrative.

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  6. IA says:

    Golf courses are interesting in many ways, as you know, Steve. But, they miss the point entirely and instead start whining about “the peasants” and projecting their own preoccupations. What a shame, as there could be real insight here concerning the vast chasm between the west and the ROW. Although, admittedly, a west that’s looking more like the ROW.

    I’d look more at public golf courses. Ratio per capita. Ratio of private clubs to public. Rising or falling? You gotta have a middle class to make and maintain public golf courses.

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  7. Another point of interest not mentioned. Caddies. In the west caddies are only used by the pros. In ROW you cannot golf without one. In China, as a commenter shows with a photo, they are all women. In India, all men. Why?

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  8. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Of course, golf has or had a certain social cachet, being associated as it is with a certain type of playboy, golf loafing leisured middle class lifestyle perhaps best epitomised by Edwardian English toffs or 1950s American lounge and martini types. Despite these stereotypes being oh so passe, the notion that the golfing lifestyle equates to a certain sort of lifestyle, income and social caste has never gone away. And as we all know east Asians are the world’s champion imitators, bizzarely in western eyes adopting wholesale western practices that to a westerner would seem odd that anyone would want to copy lock stock and barrel. Hence the oddness of modern South Koreans taking up christianity in recent decades perhaps in the hope that western magic will rub off on them.
    Mention here must be made of the infamous ‘rat pack’ of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis jnr who more or less symbolized the 1950s martini lounge music roll neck and whisky golfing scene the lifestyle that a Heff himself tried to peddle ( sans nude broads). The British had to have a rat pack of golf loving micro celebs of their very own such was the dominance of US culture over 50s Britain. This piss poor imitation consisted of the bargain bucket and rather frightening forms of Bruce Forsyth, Jimmy Tarbuck and Kenny Lynch. That just about says it all. Like comparing Alvin Stardust to Elvis Presley, methinks.

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  9. Priss Factor [AKA "Cloudcastler"] says:

    Charlie don’t golf–not.

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  10. “Many Chinese officials have heaps of cash and no easy way to invest it, especially if it has been illicitly earned.”

    I know someone working for an architecture firm who mentioned that a Chinese millionaire once tried to hire him to design a full size Medieval European-style Castle, to be used as a personal residence. The request seemed insane when I first heard about ti, but its starting to make sense in light of this article.

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    “Pyongyang Golf complex is North Korea’s only golf course. It is located on the banks of Taicheng Lake, 27km from Pyongyang City. The 18 hole par 72 course covers 120 hectares with 45 hectares of green and is 7km long. The course can service up to 100 competitors at a time and includes a clubhouse covering 2700 square metres, including club shop, restaurant (the best in the country!), conference rooms, games room and changing facilities. It is claimed that when Kim Jong Il opened the course in 1987, he shot a world record 38 under par on his first ever round of golf (including 11 hole in ones!)

    Enter now for your chance to play on the world’s most exclusive golf course!”

    It’s being held July 27-28.

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  12. Google Maps view of the course here:

    Maybe Steve can comment on the architecture. Perhaps it was the time of year, or the North Koreans got on the Links craze, but the fairways don’t look very lush.

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