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 Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk …
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.
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).