President Xi Jinping has made fighting many different kinds of corruption a priority of his administration, and so far 180,000 party officials have been caught and punished in the government’s wide-ranging anticorruption campaign. As part of this campaign, the Chinese government recently banned golf memberships for Communist Party members — all 88 million of them. The complete ban is part of an anticorruption strategy that involves cracking down on many of the lavish banquets and other types of conspicuous consumption by public officials that have caused widespread public anger in recent years, anger both at corruption, and at the country’s deepening economic inequality. The golf ban comes after months of tightening restrictions on how officials can play golf, following a scandal involving a suspicion that a top member of the commerce ministry allowed a company to improperly pay his golf expenses, as well as reports that some officials were playing golf during working hours.
The golf ban is not an isolated anomaly: A significant part of the Chinese campaign has involved tightening restrictions on various forms of conspicuous consumption by public officials. For example, officials are now prohibited from staying in five star hotels with public money (a move that led 56 hotels to ask to be downgraded to four stars so that they can continue to accept government clients), while lavish banquets, once a mainstay, have been limited to “four courses and one soup.” Golf is the latest luxury activity to fall under government regulation. But while these crackdowns could help the government look like they are taking corruption even more seriously, banning golf and other types of conspicuous consumption may actually serve to worsen the problem.
Conspicuous consumption is often a particularly visible type of corruption that can lead to very embarrassing headlines for the communist party when they are caught. It is therefore disproportionately likely that this type of corruption fuels the public demand that something be done. Tackling corruption had to be an urgent priority for the Chinese government precisely because it is one of very few issues that, despite strict government censorship of criticism, managed to stoke public anger. President Xi declared that, if the government does not clean house, it will be met with “seething public anger, civil unrest and government collapse.”
Indeed, the complete ban on golf (as opposed to simply a restriction on who can pay for the golf fees) suggests that the government was attempting to ban even the appearance of impropriety–a “Caesar’s wife” approach to fighting corruption. At the same time, though, because party members are allowed to play golf as guests of others, the ban will be almost impossible to enforce, and may even invite corruption as golf-loving party members now will only be able to play as someone else’s guest.
The problem is that if people see the government cracking down on visible corruption, they are likely to think that they have cracked down down on all corruption, thus dissipating the public anger that in turn could push for more substantive changes. Of course, there is something to be said for the idea that a perception that a certain government or business environment is corrupt does its own harm: If people believe a game is rigged, they are less likely to try to play; moreover, a perception of corruption could also serve to worsen corruption if more people believe that breaking the formal rules is the only way to get ahead. But on balance, while reducing the perception of corruption could do some good, my concerns with the golf ban are that at best it will act as a placebo, one that could end up doing more harm than good if stronger medicine is needed to fight the real problem. Despite the great steps President Xi’s administration has taken to rein in corruption, there is still far too much government corruption in China for it to be productive to take steps that would lead people to believe the problem is gone. While the Chinese golf ban and other conspicuous consumption bans may be good politics, it is bad policy.