Out of Bounds: Illegal Land Drives China’s Golf Course Boom

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A man tees off at a golf course close to where smoke billows out from a power plant in the background in Pinghu some 100 kms from Shanghai on April 10, 2010. (Photo: Philippe Lopez - AFP - Getty Images)

In 2004, China outlawed the construction of new golf courses. The move was supposed to save a water-parched land and cut down on flashy displays of wealth by China’s nouveaux-riches. But you wouldn’t know about any such ban if you looked at the newly manicured greens ringing China’s growing cities. Indeed, the People’s Daily, the government mouthpiece, reported in June that nearly 600 illegal golf courses had been built as of the end of 2010.

Then on July 12, Li Jianqin, the head of the Law Enforcement and Supervision Administration under the Ministry of Land and Resources, announced that in the first half of this year 18,533 hectares of land were illegally developed in China, according to the state-run China Daily. The main offender? Golf courses.

(READ: Golf, one of the Top 10 Evil Sports.)

Golf is big business in the People’s Republic, where the industry generated 60 billion yuan (or $9.2 billion), according to the China Daily. To get around the golf prohibition, some developers label the courses as green space or parks when they submit plans to local authorities. Even when it becomes clear that golf courses (usually surrounded by luxury villas) are what the land is really being used for, most courses have remained flagrantly open. With greens fees among the priciest in the world, it’s no wonder that developers are willing to risk breaking the law. After all, only six cases of illegal land use resulted in local officials being punished in the first quarter of this year, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources. (Those six cases also included instances of illegal mining.)

The pastime, like in any other country, is associated with privilege and power; it was outlawed during Chairman Mao’s era. But while golf is facing financial pressure in parts of the West, the sport is booming in China. Middle schools in rapidly developing cities like eastern China’s Nanjing have added golf to their physical education curriculums. And now that golf will once again become an Olympic sport in 2016, the country’s sports czars are racing to develop young Chinese amateur golfers.

So far, there is only one Chinese woman, 21-year-old Feng Shanshan, on the LPGA tour. The nation’s top male golfer is 32-year-old Liang Wenchong, who is the sole Chinese in the Official World Golf Ranking’s top 100 players. But with little evidence that the nation is cracking down on golf course expansion, China’s up-and-coming golfers will surely have enough venues to hone their games—that is, if the nation’s water doesn’t run out first.

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