- Golf diplomacy is the regular practice of country leaders playing golf together, which can help bolster ties between countries.
- Japan has been very successful at exercising golf diplomacy with US President Donald Trump.
- But in China, golf is politically taboo and effectively banned for party officials.
- Instead, Trump’s visit to China involved a lot of military flair and pomp, rather than golf.
For all the pageantry and pomp on US President Donald Trump’s recent trip to China, the itinerary missed one thing: golf.
Country leaders golf together so often the practice has been dubbed “golf diplomacy.”And considering Trump’s passion for the sport — the president has visited golf clubs more than 70 times since his inauguration, including several games with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — the absence of the sport in China might have seem like a mistake.
But that’s not the case. Golf is controversial in China and party officials are essentially banned from playing.
As CNN reported in 2015, cadres are prohibited from accepting golf club memberships as gifts or using public funds to purchase them. But club fees cost far more than most officials’ incomes so “the rule effectively amounts to a ban,” CNN noted.
Since Mao Zedong called golf a “sport for millionaires,” it has occupied a moral grey area in a Communist country trying to operate a capitalist economy. And though Xi could probably afford a golf club membership, the sport remains politically taboo, even for the country’s leader.
So with China unable to repeat Japan’s success with Trump on the links, Xi instead used military parades, fancy state dinners and elaborate performances to win Trump’s praise.
Golf diplomacy humanizes world leaders
Golf diplomacy is popular between leaders because it encompasses critical aspects of traditional diplomacy — having open communication and strengthening ties between leaders — in a relaxed, low-pressure environment.
Ahead of a game with Abe earlier this year, Trump said “that’s the one thing about golf; you get to know somebody better on a golf course than you will over lunch.”
Diplomacy experts agree.
“Any personal contact between leaders — including golf, but assuming players enjoy the serenity of the course and count their strokes accurately — can potentially show the human side of a negotiating partner,” Geoffrey Wiseman, the director of Australian National University’s Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, told Business Insider.
It’s possible that Beijing’s approach to golf could have in fact harmed their international relations.
“Golf is popular throughout many parts of Asia and President Trump’s affection for the game suggests that China’s soft-power diplomacy may have overlooked golf diplomacy,” Wiseman said.
Despite being banned, golf thrives in China
Golf has a tumultuous history in China, having first been banned by Mao in 1949.
The country’s first course was built in 1984, but another ban — targeting the construction of new courses in order to protect land and water resources — went into effect in 2004.
Still, golf began to thrive.
Over the last decade China has built more golf courses than any other country. In 2004, there were 174 golf courses in China, and 10 years later there was reported to be more than 1,000.
“One developer likened golf in China to prostitution. ‘That’s illegal, too,’ he said. ‘But there are still prostitutes everywhere in this country,'” wrote author Dan Washburn in his book “The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream.”
“People unfamiliar with the way China works often express confusion as to how a country can experience a golf course boom during a moratorium on golf course construction,” Washburn said. “Those who’ve spent more than five minutes in China do not suffer from such confusion.”
“In fact, the Chinese have several sayings for the disconnect that often exists between Beijing’s best intentions and how they’re interpreted — or simply ignored — out in the provinces,” he said.
One of those sayings is, “Where there are policies from above, there are counter-policies from below.”
Local governments blatantly ignored the Communist Party’s golf course crackdown. Instead local officials encouraged the building of golf clubs to raise profits from selling land, driving tourism, and benefiting from the golf courses’ 23.5% tax rate.
Some golf courses applied for approval by using other euphemisms, such as “parks,” “green space,” “leisure facility,” and “health facility,” or were converted into golf clubs once plans were approved.
But the use of natural resources, and golf as a symbol of wealth in a communist country, weren’t the only worries.
Amidst an anti-corruption crackdown, Xi’s party was concerned that exorbitant golf fees could be used to corrupt, or give the image of corrupt, officials.
As a result, politicians began registering at golf clubs under fake names.
But earlier this year, in one province where cadres are banned from playing golf during work hours, party officials have been performing unannounced spot-checks at golf clubs.
One club manager told NPR: “They will say, ‘On this day, was this person was here?’ They actually look through your computers. Then they start checking day by day, how much he spends, who [he] is playing with, all that.”
CNN asked Washburn earlier this year whether it was at all possible for Xi to play golf with Trump, and his answer was decisive.
“For Xi, golf is just such a touchy topic back home, saddled with so much baggage — the optics would be awful, with or without Trump,” he said. “It represents a lot of the things he has spent much of his presidency fighting, so it’s hard to envision the government embracing the game any time soon — at least publicly.”
It has been more than 25 years since a member of China’s elite was pictured holding a golf club.
Japan has found success in golfing with Trump
Japan’s leader has put great effort into building a relationship with Trump, and using golf has been key to that effort.
Less than two weeks after Trump’s January inauguration Abe again visited the US and played 18 holes with Trump — one of the first times the president had played since taking office.
And on Trump’s recent visit to Japan, Abe organised for the two to play nine holes with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, the world’s No. 4 golf player, before gifting Trump with a golf cap emblazoned with the two leaders’ names.
Abe even described his actions as golf diplomacy during Trump’s visit.
“Yesterday’s diplomacy between Donald and me attracted so much attention, and we actually made everything public, except for the score. When you play golf with someone not just once, but for two times, the person must be your favourite guy,” said Abe.
Importantly, he used Trump’s first name — a rare signal of friendship that Trump reciprocated back to Abe, the only leader he referred to by their first name during his Asia tour.
The closeness of the two leaders is also evident in the frequency of their communications. Aside from the two visits and games of golf, Abe has spoken to Trump 13 times on the phone — more than he did with Obama during his second term in office.
While there are some concerns in Japan that golf diplomacy skirts the norms of keeping records of diplomatic exchanges, Trump continues to praise Abe and their time golfing together: “Playing golf with Prime Minister Abe and Hideki Matsuyama, two wonderful people,” Trump boasted earlier this month.
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