A day before our presentation to an important mayor, my Chinese client called me to say, “By the way, prepare a plan without that golf course drawn in; they are not allowed to be openly proposed.” I admit that I responded in full panic mode: “What am I supposed to say about that huge space now suddenly empty?” “Don’t worry,” he said. “The mayor will get it. Just remember to refer to it as a ‘sports park’ or ‘green park’.”

It’s not likely that a 70-hectare parcel of land packed with fairways can easily pass for a regular “park,” even to the most amateurish eyes. I was amused by this phenomenon: Banning golf courses on paper while building them everywhere under all kinds of funny names? What’s behind this love-hate relationship between the Chinese government and golf courses?

Back in the Mao Days, golf was regarded as a symbol of a “bourgeois” and “decadent” lifestyle, and building golf courses was simply out of the question. After China’s reform and opening-up, a Hong Kong business tycoon invested in the first golf course in Guangdong, the richest province in China at the time, and initiated China’s booming popularity with this novelty.

It soon came to the Chinese government’s attention that many golf courses are built at the expense of farmland and forests. Besides, with an annual average consumption of 400,000 tons of water and 156 tons of fertilizer and pesticide for an 18-hole course, environmental impact has become a concern. In 2004 the Central Government announced the “Notice of Suspension of New Golf Course Constructions,” a temporary ban while the government figured out better regulation measures. However, by contrast with the Central Government’s strategy, local authorities have been exhibiting a curiously ambiguous attitude—golf courses continue to be built under an unspoken agreement between local government and developers, as win-win instruments to enhance a city’s image, attract investment opportunities, and boost real estate values. And, needless to say, lots of the local government officials are golf lovers themselves. As an ironic result, during the ten years since the ban was announced, China has seen its fastest growth in golf course history, from 178 to 587.

In July 2014, the Central Government announced the “Notice on the Clean-Up and Rectification of Golf Courses,” under which many built golf courses will face their judgment day, and it remains unknown what the government’s attitude will be toward future courses.

To me, this is the most important question: Are golf courses the right thing to ban? The increasing number speaks for a huge demand from the market as well as the importance of golf courses for local economies; and their popularity will only continue to rise since golf was added to the Olympic programs. As for environmental impact, there are golf courses built on quarries and other deserted lands that have essentially enhanced those places both aesthetically and economically, so one can argue that the overall impact in these cases is positive.

Simply banning golf courses, or ignoring them, will only result in more being built secretly and run unsupervised. Effective protection of farmland, water conservation, and prevention of water pollution can only be achieved by recognizing golf courses as an undeniable demand, and through adopting legislative measures and establishing technical standards that ensure golf courses be located, planned, and built with full ecological awareness.

For now, when landscape architects and planners are frequently tasked with helping Chinese clients sneak in those “green parks,” we should fulfill our responsibility by fully evaluating their ecological impact, and provide the most responsible recommendations when integrating them within our designs.

A golf course built on traditional farmland and forest in Yunnan, China. Image: Google Earth


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One Response to “The Secret Life of the Chinese Golf Course”

  1. los angeles landscape

    Thank you so much for the wonderful information .This is really important for me .I am searching this kind of information from a long time and finally got it.


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