Financial Times Best Book of 2014
It’s still known as the “rich man’s game” and considered taboo, and yet golf is booming in China hundreds of new courses have opened in the past decade, despite it being illegal for anyone to build them. Award-winning journalist Dan Washburn follows the lives of three men intimately involved in China’s bizarre golf scene. We meet Zhou, a peasant turned golf pro who sees the game as his way into China’s new middle class; Wang, a lychee farmer whose life is transformed when a massive, top-secret resort springs up next door; and Martin, a Western executive maneuvering through a highly political business environment, ever watchful for Beijing’s “golf police.”
Charting these three different paths to the new Chinese Dream, The Forbidden Game is a rich and arresting portrait of a country of contradictions.
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About the Author
Dan Washburn is an award-winning reporter and managing editor at the Asia Society. His writing has appeared in the FT Weekend Magazine, the Atlantic, The Economist, ESPN.com, Foreign Policy, Golf World, Slate, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. He is also the founding editor of Shanghaiist.com, one of the most widely read English-language websites about China. After almost a decade spent living in China, he now lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Read an Excerpt
From the "Prologue" of The Forbidden Game
Zhou Xunshu was not yet thirty-two years old, and he had already far surpassed even his wildest dreams as a child growing up in Qixin, a remote mountain village in southwest China’s Guizhou province. But just exceeding his childhood dreams was no longer enough. He wanted more.
When he was in his teens, all he had wantedall he had ever thought might be possiblewas to get out of Qixin. Maybe he’d land a job as a public servant in Bijie, the prefecture-level city closest to his village. If he was lucky, he’d get something lined up in Guiyang, the provincial capital. Either of those options would have been “making it” for a poor peasant boy from Qixin. As far as Zhou was concerned, there wasn’t a world beyond Guizhou. Not one that had a place for him, at least.
But that was before Zhou found golf.
In his early twenties, Zhou forced his way out of Guizhou and landed a job as a security guard at something he’d never heard of beforea golf coursein Guangzhou, the birthplace of golf in modern China. And after eight years practicing this foreign game in secret, Zhou became good enough to work as a supervisor at a driving range.
He wasn’t getting rich working at the rangefar from itbut the work served as a gateway into a new sort of life. Every day, he was mingling with a class of people typically off-limits to someone of his meager origins. Sure, he was technically working for these people, but just being in their company made Zhou think that some aspects of their lives may now be attainable for him.
Maybe some day he’d be able to buy his own house and move his parents out of the village. Maybe now he could finally think about finding a wife and starting a family of his own. Golf, he was convinced, was the ticket to all the good things life had to offer. It was his ticket to the Chinese Dream.
But just what is the Chinese Dream? It’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days, ever since President Xi Jinping co-opted it for use as one of his primary political slogans not long after taking control of the Chinese Communist Party in the autumn of 2012. In his first address to the nation as president, Xi referred to the Chinese Dream repeatedly: “We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” While Xi says his Chinese Dream is the “dream of the people,” it’s a vision that seems to be primarily about China’s global status, clearly based more on collectivism than individualism. Take the question of the Chinese Dream to the Chinese people, however, and you’re unlikely to hear much about military strength, international influence or state solidarity. Their hopes and desires are more concrete, more immediate and, to a Westerner, surprisingly familiar.
The real Chinese Dream has much in common with the American Dream, which has long represented the belief that through hard work and determination every person, regardless of his or her social standing, has the potential to carve out a better life. While many in China still rightfully believe the deck is stacked against them, it’s true that more Chinese than ever before are not only able to dream, but are also in a position to expect some of their dreams may come true. For a certain class of people, the dream is to one day be able to purchase a home or car. For others it could be to provide a quality education for their child. Still more dream that one day they can live someplace where the air is clean, where the legal system isn’t corrupt, where they don’t have to work on a farm. Often it’s not complicatedpeople simply want a better life, for their parents, for themselves and for the generations to come.
Just a couple of generations ago in China, dreaming was something people only did to escape a harsh reality. This is how Zhou’s parents lived. There was no link between reverie and real life. Dreams were diversions. Now, the country and its people find themselves hurtling towards a dramatically new future.
Golf, its emergence and growth in China, is a barometer for this change and the country’s rapid economic rise, but it is also symbolic of the less glamorous realities of a nation’s awkward and arduous evolution from developing to developed: corruption, environmental neglect, disputes over rural land rights and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. The game of golf, and the complex world that surrounds it, offers a unique window into today’s China, where new golf courses are at once both banned and booming.
I knew little about the sensitivities surrounding golf in China when I first started covering tournaments there in 2005 for ESPN.com. And while my first assignments involved the likes of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Luke Donald and Adam Scott, I quickly gravitated toward China’s fledgling domestic professional golf tour, the Omega China Tour, which featured names that few would recognize. Names like Zhou Xunshu. Zhou (pronounced “Joe”) and his colorful peers belong to China’s decidedly blue-collar first generation of pro golfers, a ragtag group of newly minted professional athletes with personal histories unheard of in the Western world of contemporary golf. They are former farmers, sushi chefs, stunt motorcyclists, kung fu experts and People’s Liberation Army soldiers who somehow stumbled into a sport that for most of their lives they never knew existed. Now golf is the means by which they can realize their modest slice of the Chinese Dream.
Until fairly recently, this wouldn’t have been possible. Golf, one of many things considered too bourgeois by Mao Zedong and the Communists when they came to power in 1949, had long been forbidden in the country, leading some Western journalists to brand it “green opium”a dangerous import that Chinese leaders reportedly believed to be a gateway to decadence. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, as part of Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” program, that golf gained a foothold in China. Then, it was seen largely as a way to attract foreign investment. Yet, golf remained politically taboo, and remains so today. Its enduring reputation as an elitist, land-and-water-hungry, pesticides-and-chemicals-using pursuit runs counter to everything the Chinese government is supposed to stand for. Truly the “rich man’s game,” it’s restrictively expensive to play golf in China, and so, in the minds of many citizens the game is linked to corruptionthe common belief is that any public servant who can afford to play must be corruptand the Communist Party has been known to send circulars to cadres warning them not to play. Still, a fair number of Chinese government officials enjoy golfeven Xi Jinping is rumored to have been quite fond of the game during his long tenure in Fujian provincebut rarely, if ever, will they participate publicly in such a capitalistic activity. To do so would be career suicide. Instead politicians register at golf courses using fake names.
As I began to learn the history of the game, I realized quickly that the story of golf in China actually had very little to do with golf itself. I had to conduct much of my research surreptitiously. Many of my conversations had to be off the record. Never was this more true than when I was investigating the murky world of Chinese golf course construction. More courses were being built there than anywhere else in the world. Lately, if you weren’t working in China, you weren’t working at all.
Indeed, in the past decade China has been the only country in the world to experience what might be called a golf course boom. While the struggling global economy had courses shutting down elsewhere, they were opening by the hundreds in China. From 2005 to 2010, the number of Chinese courses tripled to more than six hundred. An impressive feat, especially when you consider that building new courses has been illegal in China since at least 2004. In China, however, there is always a way. And no one knows that better than Martin, who has overseen the construction of more golf courses there than anyone else.
Bill may be considered a trailblazer of sorts these days, but back when his career was just getting started, China never crossed his mind. He knew nothing about the place. He ended up in China by accident, and when he decided to focus his business there, everybody thought he was crazy. Communist China was the last place people thought of when the conversation turned to golf.
Bill, with his work boots, golf shirt and baseball cap, may not dress like the typical foreign executive in China, but few would be more adept at navigating the country’s byzantine business landscape. Working in the legally nebulous world of golf course construction has a way of educating you fast. He knows how to handle the greedy local government officials who are willing to bend the rules to line their pockets. He knows how to manage the egos of eccentric owners who are more familiar with Beaujolais and Bentleys than building golf courses. He knows how to get his job done while constantly looking over his shoulder for the “Beijing golf police.” These are not attributes Martin aimed for when he was growing up in Floridabut then he never knew he’d end up chasing his dreams in China.
Since courses are often built in poor, rural areas, luxury homes can sit across a creek from ramshackle shacks. Two very different worlds collide, and golf maintains its reputation as a rich man’s activity. A recent study showed how the number of government-approved land grabs in rural China has increased markedly since 2005, with nearly half of the country’s villages affected in some way. And of the 187,000 mass demonstrations reported in China in 2010, 65 percent were related to disputes over land. An estimated four million rural inhabitants in China have their land taken by the government each year, and the compensation they receive is far below market value. The government pays farmers on average $17,850 per acre, then turns around and sells the same land to developers for $740,000 per acre. That is when tempers rise.
And this is where the story touches Wang Libo, a lychee farmer on China’s tropical Hainan island. In Wang’s ancient village of Meiqiu, most people still live in small single-story homes with dirt floorsand it’s been this way for centuries. But, in 2007, their insulated way of life changed forever. A top-secret golf complex, drawn up to be the world’s biggest by far, moved in next door, and land long managed by the residents of Meiqiu was included in the plans. Some villagers were happy to cash in, others protested for more money, and nearly everyone worried what life would be like for future generations once large chunks of their family land was in other people’s hands...
This book is about three mentwo born in China, and one who never thought he’d end up therewho find themselves, by accident or by fate, pursuing the Chinese Dream...
Table of Contents
2. First Club
3. Keep Moving
4. Playing the Game
5. No Choice
6. The Mountain Is High
7. Scrape the Bone, Dry the Glass
8. Time to Make Claims
10. Striking Black
11. The Golf Police
12. The Road Is Wider
13. Chasing the Next Dream