Korea easygoing on China’s boycotts

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Korea easygoing on China’s boycotts

The author is the head of the China Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In a report published by the Swedish National China Center last month, Korea was found to be the fifth most boycotted country by China among foreign companies. According to the report, 91 boycotts of foreign companies took place in China between 2008 and 2021, and 71 cases, or 84 percent, occurred after 2016, when China launched its aggressive “wolf warrior diplomacy.”

The No. 1 target was the U.S., with 27 cases. Japan and France came in second, with 11 cases each. The fourth was Germany with 8 cases, followed by Korea with 6. Italy, Taiwan, Canada, Sweden and Britain are also on the boycott list. Industries boycotted were diverse, but mostly fields where Chinese companies’ growth could be helped by beating on foreign companies.

The problem is that Chinese authorities were involved in nearly one-third of the boycotts: 25 percent of the boycotts were backed by the government, and 3 percent were actually initiated by the Chinese authority. Chinese consumers became an economic weapon of the regime. That’s why some sigh that the consumer market has gone from a “golden field” to a “minefield.” What is the best way for boycotted foreign companies to behave? According to the report, 52 percent of the foreign companies made public apologies while 48 percent did not. Foreign companies decided whether to apologize based on the grounds for the boycott.

Companies mostly apologized for issues related to China’s sovereignty — such as Taiwan and Hong Kong — but did not apologize for human rights issues such as Xinjiang, because such an apology could lead to a boycott from Western consumers. The report analyzed that when an issue arises, “it might be best to stay quiet and out of sight of the Chinese public.” There is no right answer.

But there is one thing we should pay attention to. As Sweden has had a rough relationship with China for the past few years, it established the Swedish National China Center with government funding in 2020 to conduct in-depth research on China. The report investigated in detail how Swedish clothing brand H&M was being boycotted in China. Korea certainly suffered more boycotts than Sweden, but there was not a white paper on China’s Thaad retaliation. When Sweden is making such efforts from far away, it is regrettable that Korea, destined to be adjacent to China forever, is so easygoing on this issue.
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