“Golf in China: Setting the Record Straight”
By Stephanie Wei under Golf Courses


For most of the past few weeks, I was working on a very intriguing story about the current state of golf in China for the National Golf Foundation’s newsletter. It was a fun challenge, as obviously most of my sources live in Asia, so I was up at all hours connecting with many industry insiders and experts. I could’ve written 3,000-plus words on the topic and my first draft was about 2,500 words, which was more than two-times too long, but golf and China have a long and complicated relationship. 

As you may recall, there were reports earlier this year that the Chinese government had launched a new campaign against golf, announcing the shutdown of 111 courses. There were many conflicting and confusing reports in the Western press and I was able to piece together the source of them. From my story in the NGF newsletter:

When the Chinese government issued its official paper on golf this January, Asian Golf Industry Federation President Richard Walne immediately called a colleague to discuss what he thought was promising news. His take was contrary to misleading reports from Western media outlets portraying another blow against golf in the world’s most populous nation.

A story from the Associated Press’s Beijing bureau earlier this year stated that China had launched a “renewed crackdown on golf” and closed 111 golf courses. Many interpreted that the Chinese government had just shut down 111 more courses. They failed to note that those closures were part of President Xi Jinping’s anti‑corruption campaign that had occurred over several years.

The confusion appears to trace back to an incomplete translation of an English‑version of a Chinese news outlet, which left out notable information and painted only a partial picture. In turn, some Western media outlets passed along articles that convey confusing and/or misleading statements.

The doom‑and‑gloom situation reported to those outside China isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, industry insiders in China and Southeast Asia provide a much more promising viewpoint, along with clarification, for the report.

Despite the Chinese government’s official report, the NGF had difficulty reconciling its list and found quite a few issues. The NGF has found China to be the most difficult out of 208 countries with golf courses to track the precise number, even with satellite imagery.

The report states there were previously 683 golf properties in China. Following a series of closures, the official number of properties provided by the government is 496 (with 569 18-hole courses) that are legal and approved. Approximately 50 of the 496 legal properties haven’t opened for play because they’re still under construction or in the planning stages.

In recent years, operations for a total of 187 existing or pending golf courses and facilities were cancelled or shut down, according to the Chinese government report. Of those, 111 were deemed illegal because local governments gave them prior approval that wasn’t within their jurisdiction, while 11 were closed down by ownership. Another 65 courses were declared illegal in a report published by the central government in March 2015 – 18 of which improperly used ground water, arable land or protected land in nature reserves, while 47 were pending approval and still in the planning stages.

I recommend reading the full story HERE.

I am so grateful that I was able to reach old and new contacts that spoke candidly on the situation for background purposes, but I was also very, very careful with how I attributed quotes. I understood that I had to be very careful because there was certainly a real sense of fear and I knew that the potential backlash and consequences that could happen for the individuals and their companies was also more than plausible.

As I tweeted a few times, it reminded me how much we take basic liberties, like freedom of speech and an independent, free press for granted. The current political situation in America has already made me appreciate our democratic ideals and institutions more than I ever have, and I’ve also realized how much I’d taken our freedoms and republic for granted. Well, the reporting I did for this story and writing it made me even more aware of how fortunate we are.

China does not have a free press — it is all state-run. Because of this, I’ve written what I thought were harmless flattering blog posts that were construed and interpreted by the Chinese as negative and offensive. I’m also Chinese-American and I’m well aware of how the country functions. I knew that for this story, I would have editors and others editing my work, but I still spent hours and hours parsing every word to ensure they couldn’t be interpreted as criticism.

I’ve never written so many different versions of the few opening paragraphs. I basically would rip up a draft (figuratively) and start over and I did this like five times. How could I delicately explain that although building golf courses had been banned since 2004 — when there were less than 200 courses in China — the industry had gone through a massive boom and propped up the rest of the world during the economic downturn? Between 2005-2010, no other country built more courses than China, where the total number of courses (which is still unknown for various reasons, most of which I outlined in my story) totaled an estimated 700.

For a country that is home to the world’s largest population of 1.39 billion people, there are only an estimated million who play golf. It was also unknown how many courses existed in the country that is approximately the same size in terms of land mass as the United States.

Golf has a complicated relationship with China filled with murky political and intricate cultural connotations that cannot be explained in black and white terms, nor can it be understood without knowing the perceived connotation of the sport that has been cultivated since 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power under Mao Zedong, not to mention a strong grasp of the subtle nuances and labyrinth of paradoxes that come along with Chinese business culture.

The country is filled with “alternate realities,” as journalist and author Dan Washburn describes.

I definitely want to follow up with this story in six months or so to track the progress of the industry and write a longer piece for a news outlet, but if I do, I might have problems if I want to enter the country to visit my dad, who lives in Guangzhou now. And I wish I were joking.