On China’s side?

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On China’s side?


What is the correlation between inter-Korean relations and demand for North Korean experts in Korea? When the relations improve, the demand for experts in the progressive or liberal camp goes up. They get more opportunities to give lectures and participate in seminars. If lucky, they can earn up to 10 million won a month. But if relations stall, they have no engagements to attend. They can barely make 1 million won a month.

Similar things happen in international relations. When Korea’s relationship with Japan deteriorates, the scholars and experts who emphasize friendship between the two countries maintain low profiles. The situation is not much different in Japan. As Korea-Japan relations become increasingly unfriendly, the pro-Korean group with consciences go off the radar. Instead, Korea bashing by anti-Korea figures picks up. They compete to complain about Korea and humiliate it. They can make money by beating up on Korea.

How about China experts in Korea? Under the leaderships of Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping, the Korea-China relationship is cruising along politically and economically. It is basically a honeymoon period. And the demand for China experts grows proportionally to the expansion of China’s influence. Should I rejoice as a China expert? Before being so complacent, I have to exercise a little caution.

Last month, the Hallym University of Graduate Studies hosted the 2015 Korean Association for Contemporary Chinese Studies spring seminar and the topic was the future of Korea-China relations. Former ambassador to Taiwan Jeong Sang-gi raised the question why Korean scholars researching Chinese studies are considered pro-Chinese. “Research is largely ‘interpretation’ and delivery of China’s position rather than analysis,” he argued. “Also, the studies are often fragmented and from China’s point of view without taking Japan or the United States’ positions into account.”

While Jeong’s question was not the theme of the seminar, scholars attending the seminar could not get over it all day. Dongduk Women’s University professor Lee Dong-ryul proposed two explanations. The first was that the scholars are most often asked what China’s position is on certain issues, and explaining China’s position could make them seem pro-Chinese. Another is that offering explanations for the background of China’s arguments makes scholars look pro-Chinese, and that is why they are labeled as such.

I could not agree more. As Lee pointed out, China experts are most often asked to explain what China’s intentions are. The Chinese way of speech includes ambiguous expressions. For example, China under Xi Jinping’s leadership wants to establish a “new type of major power relations” with the United States, and the United States should respect China’s core interests.

Few foreign experts can immediately interpret their intentions. What does “new type” mean and what are China’s “core interests?” The big picture is drawn by comprehensively putting together Chinese authorities’ claims, experts’ opinions and interpretations by Chinese media. When I barely grasp what China intends to convey and work hard to explain what the hidden meanings are, people often cynically ask, “Are you representing China?”

What went wrong? I was reminded of the time I served as a Beijing correspondent a decade ago. I had to mediate a partnership between a JoongAng Ilbo subsidiary and a Chinese company, and someone told me, “You act almost like a Chinese. Remember who pays you.”

In order to make the deal clearer, I did my best to explain the position of the Chinese company, and it apparently offended the company executive. I may have seemed inconsiderate to the Korean side. Similarly, when a Koran expert on Chinese affairs interprets the intentions of the Chinese government, he needs to be sensitive to how his audience will take his comments rather than simply providing a kind of scholarly interpretation service.

Professor Lee’s second point also makes sense. Some of China’s opinions diverge from internationally accepted standards, and enthusiastically explaining China’s position could arouse antipathy. For example, China fully vindicates one-party rule by the Communist Party based on its national principles. This is something Korean society finds hard to embrace.

Moreover, China’s interpretation of democracy is very different from ours. As I elucidate the background on how China’s arguments are based on values very different from our own, people often mistake me as being “pro-Chinese.”

Here, some may ask, is being pro-Chinese inherently bad? Also, those who label China experts “pro-Chinese” may already have antagonism against China. However, these counter-arguments are not very productive solutions.

What Korean experts studying Chinese affairs need to do is to humbly embrace the reality that China experts are considered pro-Chinese and to study the background of such a prejudice in depth. We need to take some time to look back on our own work and ask whether our explanations of China were mere interpretations.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 13, Page 28

*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.

by You Sang-chul

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