China’s thin skin
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Multinational corporations and stars must take extra care so as not to irk the Chinese, as they are notoriously spiteful. In April, British soccer star David Beckham came under attack from Chinese netizens for an innocent posting on social media asking fans in Taiwan for tips to stay healthy while in confinement from Covid-19. The Chinese were angry about Beckham referring to the country as “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei.” Nothing slight is too small for this colossal population puffed up with its nation’s economic ascension.
Comments by BTS members upon receiving the Van Fleet Award by the New York-based Korea Society on Oct. 7 for their contributions to improving South Korea-U.S. relations do not contain much to get angry about. Group leader RM’s mention of shared sacrifices by the two countries on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953) was nothing extraordinary. It was a standard boilerplate by an award recipient.
However, that’s not how the Chinese saw it. The Chinese have become more assertive and more easily offended, perhaps because the Great Wall on the internet keeps them from reading anything straightforward. BTS-bashing could be just the beginning. China has a track record of Sino-centrism. Beijing went to extremes when Seoul raised tariffs on cheap garlic imports from China in 2000. It put punitive duties on key Korean shipments including electronics. Seoul had to yield and retract its import duty. Korea paid an even dearer price in 2016 for allowing the deployment of a U.S. antimissile system Beijing disapproved of. Lotte had to pull out of its grocery store business in China for surrendering a golf course for the deployment of the antimissile unit. Group tours to South Korea were banned, causing business and job losses for many travel agencies in Korea.
Any other group would have suffered more if they had been a target for irking “China’s dignity” with anodyne comments. Fortunately, BTS is protected by its global fans, which call themselves ARMY. Media outlets around the world also came to the group’s defense and criticized China’s narrow historical view and obnoxious nationalism. Eventually the Chinese Foreign Ministry had to intercede to restrain bloggers. Blind nationalism flourishes in cyberspace among the Chinese raised on Beijing’s blinkered view of the world. Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor had to remove BTS ads on their websites in fear of a backlash.
The fiasco reminds us all of the Chinese risk. China is a colossal market in terms of opportunities. Colossal too, is the risk. Australia relies on China for 30 percent of its exports. But it declared it won’t trade its free democracy values to indulge Beijing. It has come under merciless attacks from Beijing. China recently announced it will stop importing coal from Australia.
South Korea is arguably more vulnerable as it needs Beijing’s backing to contain Pyongyang. Yet policymakers are oblivious. Lee Soo-hyuck, Korean ambassador to Washington, recently said, “Just because South Korea chose the United States 70 years ago does not mean it has to choose the United States for the next 70 years.” His remarks could be an insult to the Korea-U.S. alliance that helped South Korea pull out of the war and industrialize. The Chinese Foreign Ministry would not have stepped in if not for strong BTS defense by U.S. media outlets. President Moon Jae-in, who invited BTS to the Blue House, stays mum even as his most beloved K-pop group came under heavy attack from Chinese netizens.
South Korea is on its own. Today’s national dignity comes not from military power, but from economic power. Sadly, Korea has one company the Chinese and others envy: Samsung Electronics. China has been spending astronomically to catch up with Korean chipmaking. That is why Samsung Electronics makes strenuous efforts to keep its lead in the industry. BTS has global fans to protect it. But Korea Inc. must stand to protect national dignity. To keep Chinese abuses at bay, we must produce more world-class names like Samsung Electronics and BTS.