• Reuters

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All that remains of the long fairways and manicured greens at an 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 elsewhere in China were also demolished, while a fourth was turned into an eco-friendly park and a fifth was converted into a tea plantation, suggesting the government could finally be cracking down on developers who have long ignored a 2004 ban on building new golf courses.

The government, which announced the demolitions in May, said its actions served as a warning and an attempt to educate would-be violators. 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 Chinese developer, whose company built a course after the ban and who spoke on the condition that his name, his firm and the course not be identified.

Nevertheless, developers expressed little concern in interviews, saying golf courses are in demand by local authorities who want revenue from land sales and seek to attract well-heeled visitors to their region.

The ban was imposed to protect 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 is the southern 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 Forward Management Group, a company based in the southern city of Shenzhen that offers a range of golf services in China.

Call it anything else

To skirt the ban, developers and local officials designate land as anything other than a golf course when building applications, developers and lawyers said, calling the projects sports training centers or tourist resorts. Many come complete with high-end villas.

Because of the large tracts of land needed for such projects, China’s Cabinet must give approval, said lawyer Zhu Maoyuan, who has seen disguised applications. “I have never seen developers and local governments use ‘golf course’ as a project name or for land-use purposes when seeking approval,” said Zhu, a partner at the Zhong Lun law firm in Beijing.

Many applications simply get the go-ahead from local authorities, said the anonymous developer.

The central government has promised to clamp down on illegal golf-course construction before, but the demolition order against the five mainly little-known 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, did not respond to a request for comment.

China’s National Audit Office said last month in a wide-ranging report on state firms that China National Tobacco Corp. had built one illegal golf course and China Metallurgical Group Corp. had made two courses. They were constructed from 2007 to 2012.

In response, China Tobacco said it had ordered the closure of the course. China Metallurgical said it had begun the “asset disposal process” and had 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 high use of fertilizer and pesticides 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 in Beijing, a nongovernmental organization.

In the rough

Golf has come a long way in China since it was banned as a bourgeois excess by the late leader Mao Zedong, with many wealthy Chinese seeing it as a way to affirm their status.

At the Mission Hills golf course in Shenzhen, fees for new members can cost up to 2 million yuan ($322,000).

But no one got a chance to tee off at the course in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, which was demolished before it opened.

During a recent visit to the 60-hectare (148-acre) site, a villager in his 20s told how workers had wiped out virtually all trace of the course in a few weeks. “Trucks went in and out. They almost destroyed the road in our village,” said the man, surnamed Wang, who declined to give his full name.

Someone has since planted corn on parts of the land.

The NDRC said the course had been built by Lao He Wan Investment Co. under the guise of the Delong Agricultural Model Park. Reuters could not find any trace of the company. Local authorities responsible for the district did not respond to requests for comment.

Among the other courses demolished, one was built in southwestern Yunnan province by a subsidiary of the medium-size property developer Agile Property Holdings Ltd., the NDRC said. Agile declined to comment.

All five developers were fined.

Up to now, building a golf course has been a win-win for developers and local governments.

A second Chinese developer said he was invited by a local government in eastern China in the years after the ban to build a golf course to help the region lure wealthy residents. “We got the land cheaply. We made money from selling villas around the golf course, and the government got the domestic consumption it wanted,” said the developer, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Villas are a key way to make profits, developers said.

An executive at a third developer said his firm had constructed a golf course in southern Guangdong province after 2004 and is now planning to build 100 ultra-luxury villas around it. The expected sale price: 70 million yuan ($11.25 million) each.

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