China’s jaundiced view of Korea

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China’s jaundiced view of Korea

I had an opportunity to visit China’s key Internet companies, Baidu and Tencent, during a recent trip to China. Baidu is one of the most popular Chinese-language search engines. Tencent is one of the largest Internet companies in the world, running lucrative and popular instant messenger Tencent QQ. Its revenue last year approached 15 trillion won ($12.6 billion).

The two are indispensable parts of the lives of Chinese. Mobile communications dominate lives in China, where more that 900 million people own smartphones. Together with Alibaba, the two companies are China’s dream employers. They make their country proud. Backed by the world’s largest population of smartphone users, they compete head-to-head with multinational giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

As a reporter from Korea, I take pride in the fact that Korea is an IT powerhouse. As I sat through a briefing by an executive of Baidu in charge of overseas investment, I realized Korea was entirely off its business radar.

He said the company was not interested in making inroads into Korea, having done poorly in Japan. He said it was impossible to squeeze into Korea and Japan, where the local Internet environments are fully ripe.

Instead the company has turned to emerging markets like Brazil. Its Brazilian version of Baidu launched last year has been doing well.

Brazil is a lot more like China with huge masses of land and population and yawning gaps in wealth, he explained. Research and development staff takes up half the work force there.

Tencent had similar ideas about Korea. Although the headquarters for the holding company is in Shenzhen, its media staff is based in Beijing. It runs the mobile chat service WeChat, which is similar to KakaoTalk.

The person in charge of media said the only Korean news the Chinese are interested in is entertainment.

Korean TV programs are still hugely popular with the Chinese. Few Chinese are interested in hard news from Korea. News editors also told me Chinese are not that moved by Korean news. Their language was atypically direct considering the fact that Chinese are usually polite and ambiguous in speech in order to avoid offending anyone in conversation.

Even taking into account they are of a younger generation, they were quite straightforward and practical. At the same time, it reflects the fact that the younger Chinese view of Korea has changed a lot. In the 20 years that their country’s status has grown through newfound riches, they have gained that much self-confidence.

As the people of the world’s second-largest economy, they no longer fret about “mianzi,” giving or losing face. Mianzi has a comprehensive meaning for the Chinese. It encompasses self-respect, pride and reputation.

How much has China’s view of Korea changed? I asked a student who was taking a post-doctorate course in China.

He said China traditionally is engaging towards outside cultures and civilizations but at the same time maintains a double standard.

The Chinese tend to be more open-minded towards other races and cultures if they think the cultures are below their own. The Chinese accept foreign cultures and ways as long as they do not threaten their own. The same approach has been applied to Hallyu, the so-called wave of Korean pop culture.

Korea’s political, economic and social systems no longer impress China. The disastrous Sewol ferry sinking and outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, public distrust in the judiciary and legislature, and over-reliance on the Chinese economy all have boosted China’s pride and sense of superiority. The Chinese think they have outstripped us Koreans.

The news of corrupt politicians and the lackluster performance of Korea Inc. have added to the negative image of Korea for young Chinese people. But I still could not avoid a sense of relief that we are better than them as I looked at the masses of police encircling Tiananmen Square ahead of the Sept. 3 military parade and celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Then again, can we say we are any better if we made elderly people use stairs because an elevator had to be reserved for the prime minister when he made a visit to a community center for the elderly? I am not sure if we can.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 21, Page 30

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Jae-hyun

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