China closes 66 'illegal' golf courses

BEIJING (AFP) - China has closed down nearly 70 "illegal" golf courses, a government statement said, in what appears to be the first sign of enforcement of a decade-old ban.

The announcement by China's ministry of land and resources comes amid a high-profile anti-graft campaign spearheaded by President Xi Jinping, which has seen crackdowns on banquets, lavish gift-giving and other official excesses.

The ruling Communist Party has long had an ambivalent relationship with golf, which is both a lucrative opportunity for local authorities and a favoured pastime of some officials, but closely associated with wealth and Western elites.

"Presently, local governments have shut down a number of illegally-built golf courses, and preliminary results have been achieved in clean-up and rectification work," read the announcement on the ministry's website late Monday.

Three of the 66 "illegal" golf courses listed by the ministry are in Beijing. Eight are in the eastern province of Shandong, while the southern and southwestern provinces of Guangdong and Yunnan are home to six each.

Even the tropical island province of Hainan - considered the capital of the sport in China - has not been spared, with three unsanctioned courses shut down, according to the statement.

It did not give a time period for the closures.

Central authorities ordered a nationwide moratorium on new courses in 2004, but development continued as revenue-minded local officials went their own way, even offering tax breaks for operators of new courses in places such as Hainan.

Government officials keen on joining golf clubs often do so under false names, wary of being perceived as corrupt or out-of-touch, according to author Dan Washburn, who has written a book on China's relationship with the sport.

No reason was given by the land resources ministry for the facilities' closure, but water and environmental concerns were cited among the factors that drove the 2004 ban.

Nonetheless the number of courses in China has flourished, from fewer than 200 in 2004 to more than 600 at present, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

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