Forget FIFA: China Battles Corruption by Banning Golf

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.

4 thoughts on “Forget FIFA: China Battles Corruption by Banning Golf

  1. Pingback: Forget FIFA: China Battles Corruption by Banning Golf | GAB  | Anti Corruption Digest

  2. Thanks for the fascinating post! I really like your perspective, and am fascinated by the idea that banning golf could lead to more corruption, since public officials can still accompany friends golfing, many of whom will have interests in communist party decisions.

    That said, I want to stand somewhat in defense of the ban, not to say it’s good policy, but to say it’s better and more understandable than we might think. One of the major problems in China, as you astutely point out, is disparate economic outcomes. Golf is an elite sport which few Chinese can afford to play (the average golf membership costs 53K in 2008 according to golfbench: http://golfbenchmark.com/article/china_is_one_of_the_most_expensive_places_in_the_world_to_play_golf_kpmg_report_reveals). In China nearly a billion people live on less than five dollars a day. If part of the proper role of a public official is to understand and live lives similar to the people they work for, it’s understandable that some people may think it’s inappropriate for them to play golf. That’s to say, it’s not just about stopping corruption; it’s about recognizing the appropriate lifestyle for public officials. Now as an American from a libertarian country, I’m uncomfortable with the government dictating they type of lifestyle’s our politicians can lead absent clear conflicts of interest. But I’m not sure an American understanding of the proper role of government need be reflected in China’s decisions.

  3. I am inclined to agree with your placebo concern, particularly if the golf ban has received a lot of positive coverage in state-run media. Although President Xi’s anticorruption effort has made real progress by many accounts, it is fair to question the level of attention being placed on what I would call superficial initiatives, such as this one. Although Courtney’s point is well taken, there is a valid concern that focusing on who pays for golf might distract attention from corruption that is costing Chinese citizens who do live on less than $5 million a day.

    Turning back to public perception, I would be interested to see an analysis of how much media coverage the golf and banquet crackdowns have received compared to less obvious but more systemic efforts to curb corruption in China. As you say, if the public perceives President Xi as having taken the necessary steps to curb corruption despite the fact that these examples (and others) do not address systemic causes, it might relieve the public pressure necessary for deep and lasting progress.

  4. I am more inclined to agree with Courtney’s take on the policy perspective, and am a bit more skeptical than Nathan is as to the placebo concern. This post is fascinating–the various examples of the restrictions on consumption are so interesting. When I read about them, though, I wondered if “freezing out” conspicuous consumption might mean there’s less currency with which bribe-givers can bargain. This might, of course, lead to its own problems, but in some ways, I could see why this might actually be effective in reducing the attractiveness of taking or soliciting bribes, by changing the cost-benefit calculus. Moreover, I’m not sure that public anger would abate in a significant way through consumption-related policies–people would indeed see the government cracking down on visible forms of corruption, but to the extent they remain affected in their daily lives by encountering it themselves or having to pay bribes for services, I don’t know that citizens would be so easily fooled. In your post, you suggest that there’s still much government corruption, such that President Xi’s steps forward, while commendable, are not enough to lead people to believe the problem is gone; relatedly, I’m not sure that cracking down on conspicuous consumption would do that either, so I may be slightly more optimistic about this policy!

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