Golf is booming in China, where it has quietly become the business networking sport of choice, just as it has in every other Asian tiger economy.
Another unfortunate parallel with the rest of Asia is price. Golf club memberships are costly in China and you won’t get around 18 holes on the weekend for less than US$100, which is about equal to half a month’s wage for a moderately well-paid factory worker. The people’s sport, it ain’t.
That helps explain why, unlike the rest of the world, golf in China doesn’t have a profile in politics. George W. Bush has been photographed on the links and ASEAN meetings are often preceded by a relaxing round of golf. But heaven help any Chinese politician caught on the course.
The US court papers in the corruption case involving jailed former head of China Construction Bank (CCB) Zhang Enzhao captured the sensitivity of golf beautifully.
Zhang had been discreetly invited to play the iconic Pebble Beach course in California (referred to as "Cobble Beach" by his assistant) by a US company lobbying for IT contracts. Zhang asked the firm to throw in a set of clubs too, because he complained that a man in his position couldn’t be seen carrying the things through Beijing airport.
Don’t tell me Zhang is a businessman and not a politician. As head of CCB, he was a government functionary and a senior party member. For him to be exposed playing at Pebble Beach amounted to a prima facie case of malfeasance.
What is going on here? For the killjoys in the Communist Party, golf has become synonymous with corruption. In the myriad of circulars that the party sends to senior officials, recipients are often reminded that golf is off limits.
There are some supposedly "objective" reasons for this. In a political climate ostensibly biased towards the rural poor, golf gets lots of black marks.
New courses take away farmland and gobble up scarce water resources. Farmers are often thrown off their land in the name of golf, which explains why Fat Dragon often feels he is wandering through someone’s fields when on the back nine.
You often see former farmers wandering around the course doing odd jobs where they once tended crops. For Fat Dragon, it can give the courses a slightly eerie feeling. God knows how it makes the farmers feel about them.
Like most rules in China, the party circulars condemning golf are largely observed in the breach. And despite a ban on golf course construction, they continue to be built. It is very much a case of keeping up with the Joneses – if the city next door to you is building a golf course at its new industrial park, then you had better have one as well.
So what are party members allowed to do outside for exercise, beyond the favorite Chinese pastimes of walking, and even walking backwards? The game of choice is tennis, which takes up little green space and can be housed within compounds not visible to the hoi polloi.
That’s a sport fit for a harmonious society.