Hong Kong and Beijing - All that remains of the long fairways and manicured greens at the 18-hole golf course on the outskirts of Beijing are bits of rubble and mounds of mud. In March, Chinese authorities sent in workers to dig up the course and tear down the clubhouse.
Two others across China were also demolished while another was turned into an eco-friendly park and a fifth converted into a tea plantation, suggesting the government could finally be cracking down on developers that have long ignored a 2004 ban on building new golf courses.
The government, which announced the demolitions last month, said its actions served as a warning and an attempt to educate “would-be” violators. All five developers were fined. A few weeks later, the national auditor joined in, publicly shaming two big state-run enterprises for building golf courses.
“It’s a stepped-up campaign for sure,” said one developer, whose company built a course after the ban.
But developers expressed little concern, saying golf courses were in demand by local authorities that wanted the revenue from selling land while attracting well-heeled visitors.
The ban was imposed to protect China’s shrinking land and water resources in a country that is home to a fifth of the world’s population but has just 7 percent of its water. The only place exempt from the ban is the resort island of Hainan.
Developers had built 639 golf courses across China up to the end of last year, tripling the total since 2004, according to the website of Forward Management Group, a company based in Shenzhen that offers a range of golf services.
To skirt the ban, developers and local officials designated land for anything other than a golf course in building applications, developers and lawyers said, calling the projects sports training centres or resorts.
“I have never seen developers and local governments use ‘golf course’ as a project name or for land use purposes when seeking approval,” said lawyer Zhu Maoyuan, who has seen disguised applications.
Many applications simply got the go ahead from local authorities, said the developer.
The central government has promised to clamp down on illegal golf course construction before but the demolition order against the five developers by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic planning body, has been the first real sign of enforcement.
The NDRC, which urged local authorities to adhere to the rules and punish violators, ignored a request for comment.
In a report on state firms last week, China’s National Audit Office said China National Tobacco Corporation had built one illegal golf course and China Metallurgical Group two courses between 2007 and 2012.
China National Tobacco said it had ordered the closure of the course. China Metallurgical said it had begun the “asset disposal process” and punished the officials responsible.
The crackdown could be more serious now because of China’s pollution crisis, developers said. One of the reasons for the 2004 ban was because the use of fertiliser and pesticide to grow grass for golf courses was causing water pollution.
“The way many golf courses are built and managed has a negative impact on the environment,” said Ma Jun, a director at the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an environmental NGO.
Golf has come a long way since it was banned as a bourgeois excess by late leader Mao Zedong, with many wealthy Chinese seeing it as a way to affirm their status. – Reuters