Beijing-style gagging order to stop Wentworth Golf Club members speaking out backfires on Chinese owners

Attempt to quell members’ dissent with new rules creates another storm at ‘golf club with Chinese characteristics’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 5:06pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 5:37pm

The thwack of driver on ball at the exclusive Wentworth Golf Club has been replaced by the crack of the whip by its Chinese owners, who have moved to silence its rebellious members.

In what has been dubbed a “golf club with Chinese characteristics”, the members of the prestigious home of the Ryder Club and PGA European Tour HQ have been banned from airing their views on the club and its billionaire Chinese-Thai owner, Chanchai Ruayrungruang.

The sweeping changes to the 91-year-old Wentworth’s rule book mean members now face instant ejection for making public any negative comments about the owner and his vision.

The attempt to quell dissent follows the ferocious and vocal opposition to Beijing-based Reignwood Investments’ plans 18 months ago to turn the already pricey establishment into a bespoke, eye-watering expensive country club for the international super-rich.

That rebellion not only saw Reignwood, a leisure and soft drinks conglomerate headed by Ruayrungruang, publically dragged through the mud after attracting international headlines but also forced concessions; plans to reduce the 4,000-strong membership by more than three-quarters, a one-off levy fee of £100,000 (HK$988,400) and a 75-per-cent fee increase for an adult member to £13,500 a year were abandoned.

Reignwood, which bought the club for £135 million from UK property tycoon Richard Caring in 2014, defended the price increases, saying at the time it had invested heavily in facilities, refurbishing one of the three courses at a cost of £5 million and planned to restore the “tired and crumbling” clubhouse.

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But suspicious members feared they were being forced out of the club nestled in the exclusive stockbroker belt outside of London, and successfully revolted.

Humiliated, Ruayrungruang has reverted to similar methods used by hardline governments.

His new rule allows Wentworth to boot out any member whose comments “on social media, the internet or in any newspaper or magazine article” are deemed by the board to be “injurious to the character or interest of the club”.

The committee has been replaced by a “membership panel”, designated by the owner, which reduces the potential for internal dissent.

Reignwood has also curtailed the members’ say in activities at the headquarters of the PGA European Tour, which is located next door to the clubhouse. Members used to elect the majority of seats on the general committee, which takes decisions on matters such as club competitions, the appointment of officers and catering.

A spokesperson for the European Tour said: “We have no comment to make as this is a matter solely between Reignwood and the members of Wentworth club.”

The gagging rule and threats of expulsion appear to be working. Long-time member Nigel Moss was a vocal critic of Reignwood and Ruayrungruang during the infamous battle in late 2015 to overturn new membership limits and joining fees.

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Amid that war of attrition, Moss elicited the help of local MP Philip Hammond, who was then the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth minister and is now the Chancellor of the Exchequer – and the Chinese ambassador to London stepped in to help mediate.

But when asked by the SCMP for comment on the new gagging order, Moss, the club’s captain, replied: “I regret that I am not permitted.”

Calls to other former club activists received the same response.

However, one member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “China has come to Wentworth. They thought they would force us out last year, but having failed, they are resorting to tactics seen in some of the most morally bankrupt and corrupt places in the world.

“If they think gagging us will allow them to run over our traditions and stop us airing our views, clearly they are mistaken.”

Another told a British newspaper the new rules smacked of hypocrisy: “The owners said they want a good relationship with us after last year’s fracas but their actions say something very different. Having tried to kick us out and failed, they are now just trying to shut us up.”

Former members forced out or who decided to quit after the uprising in 2015 exercised their freedom and right to comment without fear of reprisal.

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Former club captain Michael Fleming, who delivered a petition to the Chinese embassy in London during the last revolt, told the SCMP: “Is there any other golf club where the owner knows that his treatment of the members is likely to result in bad press, and he thinks eliminating free speech will be a good idea?”

A Wentworth club spokesman defended the new rules, insisting they were not “materially dissimilar” to the ones previously in force.

He said the restriction on media contact had been introduced because Reignwood wanted “member complaints to be handled through established internal channels, committees and consultative forums at the club, rather than through the media”.

Ironically, the censorship has failed to prevent more negative headlines. The Financial Times ominously described Wentworth as “a golf club membership with Chinese characteristics” – a direct mocking of Beijing’s duplicity and ambiguity to excuse its well-documented suppression of free speech and its bending of international rules and systems.

According to the deputy editor of public relations industry publication PRWeek, the exercise to quell dissent and protect the Reignwood brand has backfired.

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John Harrington said: “The owners of Wentworth have shot themselves in the foot with this heavy-handed, draconian approach to handling criticism.

“Their argument, that such matters should be discussed privately, is unrealistic, particularly in the age of social media, and you can see why some members found it insulting.

“The owners need to show they are listening to concerns and addressing them, not trying to silence criticism through coercion.”