Keeping up with changes of timesA group of Chinese scholars were invited to a Korea-China seminar in Ulsan, South Gyeongsang, sponsored by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies last month. I was intrigued by a conversation with one of them. He said he brought his wife on the trip to Korea because she wanted to have her hair done here. Chinese citizens are flying to Korea not just to shop, tour and get plastic surgery. They are also dropping in for a new hairdo, as if Korea is their neighborhood salon.
These days, one can easily see Chinese-speaking women in the Gangnam shopping district with their faces covered in bandages near the subway station. They could not spend their precious time inside hotels until they get their bandages off after cosmetic surgeries. The Chinese are no longer foreigners on the streets of Seoul. The Chinese language that we hear in restaurants run by ethnic Chinese in the past is spoken throughout university campuses that host more than 80,000 students from China as well as in restaurants and subways.
But it is not just the Chinese. I was a little surprised during a luncheon with Cai Wu, the Chinese minister of culture, at the invitation of the Korea-Chinese Friendship Association. Korea’s Chairman Lee Sei-kee, a former unification minister, not only speaks Chinese fluently but can also sing in Chinese. Representative Chung Mong-joon, who attended the meeting, also spoke with the Chinese visitor in Chinese. I knew that the honorary vice president of the Korea Football Association was fluent in English, but was not aware he spoke Chinese.
The Chinese language is also becoming more familiar to Koreans. Last month, I attended a seminar on the Korea-China relationship hosted by Wonkwang University, which aims to specialize in Chinese affairs. The university’s president, Jeong Se-hyun, made his opening remarks in excellent Chinese. In the Korea-Chinese Public Diplomacy Forum in September in Seoul, National Assembly Deputy Speaker Park Byeong-seug divided his opening address in Korean and Chinese.
Many Korean elites have become more confident in speaking Chinese publicly since President Park Geun-hye delivered a speech in Chinese during a visit to China in June. Jo Jung-rae’s new novel “Jungle Great,” which is staged in China with Korean businessmen trying to survive and compete in a fast-changing Chinese market and economy, is currently a best-seller. The book sold 800,000 copies since it was first released in July.
A new Chinese boom may be brewing in Korea. It may be partly because the Chinese are practically the only people in the world who can afford to travel to another country to have their hair done. Sima Qian, China’s first major historian wrote in his historical record Shiji: “One envies and criticizes another if he is 10 times wealthier, fears him if he is 100 times wealthier, works for him if 1,000 times wealthier, and can be his slave if 10,000 times wealthier.”
The insight from more than 2,000 years ago holds the same truth today. U.S. publishers gave into Chinese censorship in order to sell books in the world’s most populated market. The British opened strategically important markets like the energy sector to draw in Chinese capital. Global mobile phone companies Apple and Samsung Electronics apologized to Chinese consumers after the CCTV criticized their consumer services and problems in smartphone devices. The Chinese government and its consumers can no longer be ignored.
The bigger China becomes, the more assertive it will be. It reportedly asked South Korea recently not to sell FA-50 fighter jets to the Philippines. Its demands would likely grow, and next time Beijing may not ask nicely. South Korea inevitably has to rely on China for economic growth, and the United States for security. And Seoul could be pushed to make a choice.
In carrying out massive killings in an anti-Communist campaign across China, Chiang Kai-shek declared, “The sky cannot have two suns.” His opponent, Mao Zedong, retorted it by saying that the Chinese people have a choice because their skies have two suns. In the sky of East Asia, the sun of Chinese is rising next to the sun of the United States. South Koreans would be asked to make a choice.
Five years ago, Beijing bluntly said the Korea-U.S. alliance was a timeworn legacy from ideological days. We may have to deliberate hard and muster wisdom to come up with a solution to our dilemma. We must first arrange our strategic interests. We must then prioritize the interests - territorial sovereignty and defense, unification, protection of the constitutional system and economic progress - and reach consensus in order of priority. Every time we come under pressure to make a choice, we must decide what interests come first in certain times and cases. In order to survive, we must learn to keep abreast of the changing times.
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.
By You Sang-chul