Interview: Dan Washburn

Dan Washburn, author of The Forbidden Game, on the complex rise of golf in China.

Interview: Dan Washburn
Credit: Dan Washburn

The Diplomat’s Justin McDonnell speaks with Dan Washburn, a journalist, founding editor of Shanghaiist, and author of the recent book The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, about the complex rise of golf in China.

How did Forbidden Game come to fruition?

I guess you could say it’s been nearly a decade in the making. Not long after I started writing about the topic, I realized the story of golf in China is much bigger than golf itself. Ever since golf reemerged in China 30 years ago, its growth has served as a barometer for China’s economic rise. But golf’s enduring reputation as an elitist, land-and-water-hungry pursuit runs counter to nearly every stated focus of the Chinese government. Golf is a symbol of corruption, rural land rights disputes, environmental neglect, the growing gap between rich and poor, and a shrinking supply of arable land. In many ways golf, and the complex world that surrounds it in China, is a microcosm of the contradictory country as a whole.

But I didn’t want this to be a dry work of nonfiction – a chapter on this topic, a chapter on that topic. I wanted it to be alive and character-driven. So that’s when I decided to tell the story from the perspective of three men caught up in China’s bizarre golf scene in very different ways. Their stories intertwine and intersect, and make the book much more show than tell. But to do it correctly required a large investment of time. I hope the end result was worth the wait.

Why is golf still largely forbidden in China?

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Golf itself is not forbidden, as it was after Mao came to power. But building golf courses is technically illegal. I say “technically” because although there has been a supposed moratorium on golf course construction since at least 2004, no country in the world has built as many golf courses as China over that period of time. Not even close.

If China still bans the construction of golf courses, how then could the sport be booming?

As is often the case in China, enforcement of the moratorium has been sporadic at best. Beijing put the ban into effect because of what it saw as “blind construction” of golf courses. But then they basically turned their backs and let things grow even more out of control. Truth is, no golf course in China is getting built without government involvement, but that involvement is always at the local level. Local governments in China often welcome and encourage golf development, because they profit mightily from it. Thus, they are willing to fudge the rules a bit. Rule No. 1 when planning a golf course in China: Don’t call it a golf course.

What do the “Chinese dream” and the game of golf have in common?

Well, the fact that golf exists in China and is growing is a sign that some form of a “Chinese Dream” exists, albeit for a small portion of the population. In China, there are few things more aspirational than golf, and the luxury lifestyle that often surrounds it. But the three men featured in my book exist outside of this exclusive bubble. They are blue-collar guys who trying to figure out how to use their accidental entries into China’s unusual golf scene to build better lives for themselves.

Environmentalists criticize the game in China, saying exotic courses endanger biodiversity and water systems, as well as arable land that could otherwise be used for farming. What would lychee farmer Wang Libo, whose story you illustrate in great detail, have to say about the game’s growth?

I think he’d say, “Mei banfa.” Wang is a realist, and he’d likely feel there’s no use in him having an opinion on the matter, because it’s surely out of the control of a villager like him. Wang realizes that, with the backing of powerful developers and government officials, golf’s growth is inevitable, and he had better figure out a way to adapt his life and livelihood to account for this inevitability.

How might his perspective differ from the Horatio Alger-like golf player, Zhou Xunshu?

I think Zhou, who grew up a peasant farmer, obviously feels for the rural residents whose lives are affected by development. But overall, he likely welcomes the game’s growth. He may not have known golf existed until he was in his 20s, but now he supports his family through the game. He coaches China’s rising stars, so any overall growth is good for business.

Do you think we’ll be seeing a Chinese golf prodigy within the next few years?

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We already are seeing them – and their numbers will only continue to grow. This is really the first generation of Chinese golfers who were able to grow up playing the game from a very young age (remember, golf in China is only 30 years old). These are mostly rich kids with passionate parents who can afford to pay for top-level coaching and travel to tournaments. Just take a look at the nationalities competing in junior events across the globe and it’s clear the landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade.

Does the socialist state sports system need to be reformed in order to strengthen China’s rising talent?

China is already taking a different approach to golf than it does, say, gymnastics. For its national team in golf, China is not heading out to villages looking for kids that meet certain physical characteristics. Instead, they are picking from the top. Young golfers selected for the national team were already top performers in junior tournaments, meaning most team members likely come from well-to-do families. Ever since it was announced that golf would be an Olympic sport, the Chinese government, which we all know places a lot of important on Olympic medals, has been pouring an unprecedented amount of money into its elite national team, although they try to do it under the radar. It’s one of the only ways the Chinese government has officially embraced the game, which is still considered politically taboo.

Generally, how much is it to play a round of golf in China?

Most Chinese who have heard of golf likely know it as “the rich man’s game,” and in China that’s exactly what it is. It’s prohibitively expensive to play – probably $150 or more per round – especially when you consider there are nearly 1 billion people in China living on less than $5 a day.

When should we expect the China’s ruling politburo to be enjoying a round of golf? For that matter, when might everyone be able to enjoy the game, and aspire to be the best, not just the status-conscious new rich who have profited from the country’s reforms?

Maybe some politburo members already do enjoy golf – but you’d never see any proof of it. Because of its elitist reputation, golf is not something these officials can afford to align themselves with, at least publicly. It’s just too touchy a topic, tied to corruption in the minds of many. So, I don’t think you should expect to see Xi Jinping playing a round of golf with Barack Obama anytime soon. Likewise, golf is unlikely to enter anything close to the mainstream in China. Only a tiny sliver of the population can afford to play, and I don’t see the introduction of affordable “public” courses happening in the foreseeable future. In China, land is far too valuable a commodity to allow it.