Why the young generation dislikes China

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Why the young generation dislikes China

Im Myung-mook
The author is a student in Asian regionalstudies at Seoul National University Graduate School. 
International sports competitions like the Olympics and the World Cup often become displays of nationalism. But this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics have gone too far in indulging the nationalistic biases of the host country. Korean outrage towards China crested after Olympic medalist Hwang Dae-heon and Lee June-seo were disqualified from the men’s 1,000-meter short track speed skating race despite coming in first and second.

This year’s Winter Games irked Koreans from the very opening ceremony on Feb. 4. Among a group of ethnic Chinese carrying the national flag was a girl clad in a traditional Korean hanbok. This display upset Koreans who thought the Chinese were trying to claim an important element of Korean culture. Veteran Korean short track skater Kwak Yoon-gy came under attack online by Chinese for accusing China of “home-ground domineering.”

Older folk sometimes ask why the young are always so negative about China and the Chinese. The younger generation cannot understand why their elders, especially those in powerful positions, are so supine to China. The generation gap in sentiment towards China runs deep in Korea.

Some older people say they are only being “pragmatic” about China when they bend over backward not to ruffle its feathers, regardless of their personal feelings. The younger generation cannot understand why Koreans aren’t allowed to speak up about obvious bullying or other kinds of unfairness and refuse to hide their feelings — to an extent that startles their elders.

For young Koreans, there are many more reasons to dislike China than to like it. They were born under the waning influence of Hong Kong pop culture and Chinese classics in Korean culture. They first came in contact with China on the internet and at the time of China’s so-called “peaceful rise.”

Their perspective on China turned negative when the country gained confidence after overcoming the instability of the fast transition period from the days of Mao Zedong. After President Xi Jinping took over, Beijing turned more outspoken and contentious with western countries. To the young generation in Korea, China is viewed as an invader of its culture. Thanks to the fast spread of the Korean popular culture, China ironically came to wield great influence over Korea in both the public and private sectors. It was a market Korea couldn’t afford to offend.

Chinese netizens claim kimchi and hanbok as part of their own country’s tradition and gamers commit rampant piracy and hacking of Korean games. They gang up on anyone speaking against the One China policy.

To K-pop performers, the vulnerability was crystal clear. 
BTS came under harsh attacks from Chinese netizens for shaming Chinese soldiers, who fought Americans during the Korean War, by commemorating the co-sharing of a painful history by Korea and the United States in an acceptance speech for the Van Fleet Award in 2020. A member of BlackPink was censured for touching a panda. After a comment of the One China policy was posted and then quickly removed from a social media page of RBW — the management agency of Mamamoo — the entertainment company and the girl group suffered a flurry of negative responses from both Korean and Chinese netizens. Album sales halved.
Young Korean fans also disapprove of Chinese members of Korean idol groups who go off on solo careers after rising to stardom such as Chris, a former member of EXO. The risk of putting an ethnic Chinese in groups was already raised when Taiwanese member Tzuyu of girl band TWICE came under Chinese attack for publicly holding a Taiwanese flag in 2015.
The fantasy drama “Joseon Exorcist” stopped airing after two episodes stirred controversy over distorting historical facts in favor of China. Such suspicions, resentments, and a sense of threat have evolved into a cultural war between the two countries.
If such hostilities on the online cultural front are overlooked, the young generation could appear to be overreacting to China. But for those on the online battlefield, overlooking obvious aggressions cannot be condoned.
Enmity from battles over cultural identity spreads to the political front. Various communities are bristling with criticism of Beijing and its policies toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the South China Sea. Gender conflict — arguably the most sensitive issue among young Koreans — is no match for arguments about China.
The online community is livid over the response by the Korean government and ruling party toward the shameful events at the Beijing Olympics. Given its relationship with China, Korea could not have easily moved to diplomatically boycott the games like other Western countries. President Moon Jae-in had hoped to use the Beijing Olympics as a stage to declare an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War. He could never have seriously considered boycotting the Olympics. Otherwise, Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun could not have said the athletes from countries whose governments declared boycotts could feel lonely.
There have been no comments from the ruling Democratic Party (DP). Even if the government could not have joined the boycott, the National Assembly could have raised a critical voice. During the Cold War, the U.S. government backed the military regime in South Korea, but Congress kept a critical tone. Korea’s ruling politicians are strangely muted on the affairs of China.
Displeasure about the absence of representation from politicians despite the growing apathy towards China by many young people could have raised the question why politicians are overtly biased toward China.
The elders condescendingly lecture on the pragmatic need for maintaining good relations with China for economic and other reasons. But the DP isn’t so pragmatic when it comes to the U.S. and Japan. The party argues that it cannot surrender principles for practicality. DP members lambasted former U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris when he raised concerns about the Moon administration’s policy on North Korea. One member accused the ambassador of sounding like a governor general in the Joseon Dynasty.
Over the Supreme Court’s ordering of Japanese companies to individually compensate wartime forced laborers, which triggered a trade war with Japan, the DP and government maintained that the history issue was an issue of fundamental principles and the court ruling was a sovereign judgement by the judiciary. Do they really think the United States and Japan offer less pragmatic gains than China?
The double standards do not give justice to the DP’s argument on practicality. The government, legislature, and civil society do not need to share the same opinion on principles and pragmatism as in the U.S during the Cold War. The legislature and civil society should be able to offer various opinions to pursue pragmatism while upholding principles, and the government must reflect them in policies and bear the political liability. But such a sense cannot be expected from the ruling front, which sent National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug to the Beijing Olympics to represent Seoul. The main opposition party is no better. It has rarely asked the DP to challenge China.
When opposition People Power Party (PPP) presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol commented that most young Koreans do not like China, a DP spokeswoman criticized him for being intentionally uncivil. But even if the comment was impolite, young people’s antipathy toward China cannot be denied.
Ignoring obvious sentiments and keeping silent for “pragmatic” reasons cannot be right. The ongoing cultural war on the internet will only escalate, given the spread of K-wave and China’s assertiveness. Aversion to China could lead to distrust of politics and greater hatred toward China and its people. The DP’s obliviousness to the looming danger is bewildering and worrisome.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
Hwang Hee, left, minister of culture, sports and tourism, and Park Byeong-seug, National Assembly speaker, in the background of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Feb. 4.
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