Fears Over China Golf Craze

Use of arable land and scarce water may stoke social tensions.

The China Open golf tournament underway at the Luxehills International Country Club in Chengdu, April 23, 2011.

A growing craze among China's newly rich for membership of country clubs with immaculately mown golf courses has led to hundreds of illegal golf courses being built in recent years, sparking environmental concerns.

A recent report from Beijing's Forestry University found that the number of golf courses in China rose from 170 in 2004 to nearly 600 now, in spite of a government ban.

China's central government imposed a ban on the construction of new golf courses in 2004 in a last-ditch attempt to protect the country's shrinking land resources.

But local residents, often in areas of natural beauty and high biodiversity, soon find themselves in competition with the nation's newly rich for another dwindling resource: water.

Lingshui Li Minority Autonomous county has been singled out as one of the poorest counties in China's relatively rich coastal regions.

And yet a recent plan to develop the area as a natural beauty spot included plans for nine golf courses, one of which has already been built in Xiangshuiwan, near Gangpo village.

'A thirsty neighbor'

A golf course at the Mission Hills Golf Resort in Haikou city, Hainan province, May 2, 2011.

Local resident Yang Qiaoyun said that villagers still mostly depended on growing food to make a living.

"Villagers here at Gangpo village still rely on crops to live," Yang said. "We grow rice here, with some cucumbers, pea shoots, and bitter melon in the winter."

But she said the golf course has proved a thirsty neighbor, pointing to a key cause of tension in China, which is increasingly hit by water shortages and drought.

"There has always been enough water here, with small brooks and water up in the hills as well," Yang said. But she added: “The golf course uses up a lot of water," Yang said.

Sichuan-based environmental expert Yang Yong said that out of 600 golf courses built in recent years to fuel growing demand among the newly rich, only 10 were legal.

Yang said golf courses are hugely wasteful of resources, with each one taking up dozens of hectares of land, often in sites of spectacular natural beauty.

"Legally speaking, the ... approvals process is very chaotic," he said. "This has led to golf courses that haven't gone through the approval process."

Social tensions

He said the new craze for golf is likely to stoke social tensions because of the huge strain on rural societies and on the environment.

"We think that all future golf course proposals, including those that are already in existence, should be submitted to an assessment," Yang said.

"The government should be managing the ecological impact of golf courses at a nationwide level."

He said local governments often use golf courses as a means of boosting local property values and contributing to economic growth figures.

Many, however, turn into white elephants, because most Chinese lack the spending power to join an up-market country club.

"There should be an assessment of the impact on the environment, on local ecosystems, and on the demand placed on water resources," Yang said.

"Existing golf courses should also be assessed in this manner," he said.

Developers ignored orders

Official media have already highlighted the building of an illegal golf course at the Shilin Stone Forest UNESCO World Heritage Site in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

The Shilin Country Club takes up a staggering 4,050 hectares, including three beautifully manicured golf courses in the midst of one of the country's most famous karst landscapes.

"All of it was built after the government had put a halt to the construction of golf courses seven years ago," the state-run China Daily newspaper reported recently.

Local officials were quoted as saying that the developers of the club had simply ignored orders from local land resources officials to stop building the courses.

Two local officials lost their jobs over the scandal, but other developers do not seem overly concerned at the gesture.

Illegal use of land

Beijing alone is now home to more than 170 golf courses, at least 70 of which are believed to be illegally occupying arable lands, the Southern Weekly newspaper reported.

According to the Beijing Forestry University, a standard 18-hole course normally takes up more than 607 hectares.

Such a course could consume as much as 36,000 cubic meters of water daily to keep the green look that its privileged users have come to expect.

Many of the courses get around the ban by calling themselves country clubs, sports parks, or greenbelts, and simply make no mention of golf courses in their planning applications.

Now, Beijing has given the go-ahead to the island province of Hainan, a major tourist destination, to build golf courses.

But Li Jianqin, director of the law enforcement and supervision department of the Ministry of Land and Resources, has warned developers that this doesn't indicate that other provinces can ignore the ban.

Li has pledged to clamp down on the use of land for illegal purposes, especially for the construction of luxurious villas and golf courses.

About 11,000 hectares of arable land were used illegally in 2010, official media reported.

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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