I was in Shanghai interviewing a Chinese film director and an actor. We were discussing government censorship. How did anyone manage in China, I lamented. The two men burst out laughing. I had not understood at all. ‘Because everything is forbidden, everything is permitted. You are free to do anything,’ they assured me.
Dan Washburn in his book The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, uses golf and the business around it to pin down the paradox that is China today. Golf is his back door into understanding the last 20 years, as China has grappled with modernity and an unnerving speed of change. Corruption, rural land disputes, environmental destruction, economic growth, the chasm between rich and poor and the supremacy of political whim over the rule of law: it is all here in this engrossing story.
Mao Zedong banned golf courses as a decadent and dangerous import — the ‘green opium’. The building of golf courses is still banned by central government, even as building booms in the provinces. From 2005 to 2010 the number of golf courses tripled to more than 600, despite them being technically illegal. Government officials use false names when they play and wear long-sleeved shirts to avoid the giveaway golfer’s tan. That is the central contradiction of golf in China that my Shanghai friends understood only too well.
Washburn chose three men to tell his story and has followed them for a number of years. Zhou Xunshu, the would-be professional golfer, comes from a tiny village in one of China’s poorer provinces; Martin Moore, an American and China’s most successful builder of golf courses; and Wang, the peasant farmer whose family land is stolen to build the Mission Hills golf course in Hainan.
Martin Moore, in the tradition of foreign businessmen in China from Marco Polo onwards, describes a fabulous world of money, power and whim. Here are Chinese tycoons who make the author stand in the corner like a naughty child when he arrives five minutes late for a meeting, drop £40 million on a golf course and demand that it ‘needed to be big — bigger than anything else in the world — and done yesterday’.
He describes a development where a dozen golf courses are under construction simultaneously with 500 pieces of heavy machinery, its own concrete factory and enough topsoil to fill Wembley stadium nine times over. ‘They bought a mountain… and turned it into a lake,’ calling it, as one environmentalist said bitterly, ‘an ecological restoration’. Or demand that he build a water-themed golf course: ‘No golf carts. No cart paths. Golfers would travel from hole to hole by boat.’
Zhou Xunshu is caught uneasily between this legendary world and the realities of trying to be a self-taught golfer with no money, no sponsorship and bones stunted from childhood malnutrition. He complains that in China people associate golf with corrupt government officials using public money to play. ‘No one talks about how we can get more people interested in playing the game or how we can make golf more affordable. But this is the situation in China, and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ The book follows his heartbreaking attempts to achieve even a modest golfing success. A western coach warns him he will never get better until he learns to relax. But calmness is a western indulgence he can ill afford. How can he remain relaxed when, ‘If I didn’t play well my family would starve… I viewed every stroke as my last chance of survival.’
Wang is a lychee farmer whose village land is seized by a golf course company in a series of violent confrontations between peasants and security staff. Wang turns the disaster around by opening a shop opposite the construction site. It flourishes but as he sits beneath the phoenix tree, the centre of his old village life and now surrounded by development, he muses on what his village has lost. It is not just the butterflies and ancient palm trees. ‘Today, when all our attention is focused on how to make money,’ the old interactions have also gone. ‘I never thought things like chess or even just nighttime chatting between villagers would disappear so quickly.’
This is a marvellous and subtle book. And it’s not just China that it makes you think about.
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