Globe and Mail on Chinese droughts and illegal golf courses

Just a quick note to let you know I was interviewed for a short piece in the Globe and Mail by the Beijing bureau’s Carolynne Wheeler. Her focus was a series of recent stories in the Chinese media linking China’s golf course boom to its problems with drought (some English examples here and here). Since she used a small portion of my comments in the story, I’m going to post them in their entirety here:

Is this latest diatribe against golf a distraction from real issues causing drought?

I am not sure what is driving the latest batch of stories, but very few would argue with these facts: parts of China are drought-prone, and the maintenance of a golf course can require large amounts of water. Whether there is a direct cause and effect there or whether golf is more guilty than any of the many other kinds of development happening throughout China, I am not the right person to ask. But golf is definitely an easy and obvious target if you are looking to sell newspapers or generate clicks. It hits all the right buttons. It’s an elitist — especially in China — Western activity that is emblematic of many of China’s current challenges: government corruption, environmental concerns, land rights issues, the gap between rich and poor.

Specific to your question about drought, however, I think to focus on golf itself as the culprit is to miss the bigger picture. Many dominoes have to fall along the path that leads to a golf community — or a factory or a shopping center or any number of kinds of development — being built in an environmentally sensitive area. Who brokered the deal? Why was the land for sale in the first place? Were existing environmental regulations properly enforced? Those would seem to be the bigger issues to me.

Is this the latest reason to try to re-impose China’s golf course ban? Is it all talk and no action?

Some would argue that the ban was never imposed in the first place. It seems every summer I read a series of stories in China’s state-run media about this crackdown on golf development or that crackdown on golf development. The last couple years have been especially rife with announced crackdowns. But what’s always the end result? More golf courses in China. Some crackdowns seem to be more serious than others — the severity varies greatly from province to province — and it’s probably true that they have succeeded in slowing things down somewhat. But there’s no denying that China, the country that has supposedly banned golf course development, is building more golf courses than any other country in the world. Prior to the 2004 moratorium, there were probably less than 200 golf courses in China. Seven years into the ban, that number has more than tripled, with hundreds more courses in the works.

What percentage of golf courses in China are actually illegal?

Almost all of them are illegal — technically. There are maybe a dozen courses that have an official government license that says “golf” on it (ironically, very few in the golf industry here are able to name them) and all of those “legal” courses were built prior to 2004. But this is not to say that the hundreds of courses that came after the supposed moratorium don’t have other kinds of licenses or that they don’t pay taxes — they do. And the overwhelming majority of courses, although they may not have Beijing’s official blessing, were definitely approved, in one way or another, by the local governments, who tend to profit greatly from these development projects, either from the land deal itself or from tax revenues or from the other businesses that follow the golf course into the area.

So, in effect, by initiating this golf course ban and not enforcing it, the Chinese government has created a thriving yet legally nebulous industry. You can say that new golf courses are illegal in China. But you can also say that China is the only country in the world in the midst of a golf course boom. Figure that out.

I bet if you polled those working in golf course design and construction in China, the majority would love it if the Chinese government were to establish and enforce a clear set of requirements — complete with all of the environmental and land acquisition red tape you might find in Canada or the United States — that, if met, could lead to a 100 percent legal golf course. The way things are now, they are always looking over their shoulder because there is no truly lawful way to build a golf course here.