I am Myung-mook
The author is an Asian Area Studies student at Seoul National University Graduate School.
International sports competitions like the Olympics and the World Cup often become manifestations of nationalism. But this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics went too far in indulging the nationalist biases of the host country. Korean outrage over China reached fever pitch after Olympic medalists Hwang Dae-heon and Lee June-seo were disqualified from the men’s 1,000 meters short track speed skating event despite coming first and second.
This year’s Winter Games irritated Koreans right from the opening ceremony on Feb. 4. Among a group of ethnic Chinese carrying the national flag was a girl dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok. This exhibition upset Koreans who thought that the Chinese were trying to claim an important part of Korean culture. Veteran Korean short track skater Kwak Yoon-gy has been attacked online by Chinese people for accusing China of ‘dominating their home turf’.
Old people sometimes ask why young people are always so negative about China and Chinese people. The younger generation cannot understand why their elders, especially those in positions of power, are so prone to China. The generational gap in sentiment toward China runs deep in Korea.
Some older people say they are only “pragmatic” about China when they bend over backwards not to ruffle its feathers, regardless of their personal feelings. The younger generation does not understand why Koreans are not allowed to speak out against obvious bullying or other types of injustice and refuse to hide their feelings – to a point that surprises their elders.
For young Koreans, there are far 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 into contact with China on the Internet and during the so-called “peaceful rise” of China.
Their view of China turned negative as the country regained confidence after overcoming the instability of the rapid transition period since the days of Mao Zedong. After President Xi Jinping came to power, Beijing has become more outspoken and contentious with Western countries. For the young Korean generation, China is seen as an invader of their culture. Through the rapid spread of Korean popular culture, China ironically came to wield great influence over Korea in both the public and private sectors. This was a market that Korea could not afford to offend.
Chinese netizens claim that kimchi and hanbok are part of their own country’s tradition, and gamers are rampant in hacking and pirating Korean games. They gang up on anyone who speaks against the one China policy.
For K-pop artists, the vulnerability was crystal clear.
BTS has come under harsh attack from Chinese netizens for shaming Chinese soldiers, who fought Americans in the Korean War, by commemorating Korea and the United States sharing a painful history in a Van Fleet Award acceptance speech in 2020. A member of BlackPink was censured for touching a panda. After a comment about the One China policy was posted and then quickly deleted from a social media page of RBW – Mamamoo’s management agency – the entertainment company and girl group suffered an outpouring of backlash. from Korean and Chinese netizens. Album sales have halved.
Young Korean fans also disapprove of Chinese members of Korean idol groups who embark on solo careers after becoming famous, such as former EXO member Chris. The risk of putting an ethnic Chinese in groups was previously raised when Taiwanese member Tzuyu of girl group TWICE was attacked by Chinese people for publicly holding a Taiwanese flag in 2015.
The fantasy drama “Joseon Exorcist” has ceased airing after two episodes sparked controversy over the distortion of historical facts in favor of China. Such suspicions, resentments and a sense of threat have turned into a culture war between the two countries.
If such hostilities on the online cultural front are ignored, the younger generation might seem to overreact to China. But for those in the online battlefield, ignoring obvious attacks cannot be tolerated.
The enmity of battles over cultural identity extends to the political front. Various communities are bristling with criticism of Beijing and its policies towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Uighurs in 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 furious with the reaction of the Korean government and the ruling party to the shameful events of the Beijing Olympics. Given its relationship with China, Korea could not have easily decided to boycott the Games diplomatically like other Western countries. President Moon Jae-in had hoped to use the Beijing Olympics as the stage to officially declare the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. He could never have seriously considered boycotting the Olympics. Otherwise, Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun could not have said that athletes from countries whose governments had declared boycotts could feel alone.
There was no comment 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 US government supported military rule in South Korea, but Congress remained critical. Korea’s ruling politicians are strangely silent on China’s affairs.
The discontent over the lack of representation of politicians despite the growing apathy towards China among many young people could have raised the question of why politicians are openly biased towards China.
The wise lecture condescendingly on the pragmatic necessity of maintaining good relations with China for economic and other reasons. But the DP is not so pragmatic when it comes to the United States and Japan. The party maintains that it cannot abandon principles for practicality. DP members lambasted former US ambassador to Korea Harry Harris when he raised concerns about the Moon administration’s policy on North Korea. One member accused the ambassador of looking like a Governor General from the Joseon Dynasty.
On the Supreme Court’s order to Japanese companies to individually compensate forced laborers in wartime, which sparked a trade war with Japan, the PD and the government have argued that the historical question is a question fundamental principles and that the court’s decision was a sovereign judgment of the judiciary. Do they really think the US and Japan offer less pragmatic gains than China?
Double standards don’t do justice to the DP’s argument about practicality. The government, legislature and civil society need not share the same view of principle and pragmatism as in the United States during the Cold War. The legislature and civil society should be able to offer diverse opinions to pursue pragmatism while respecting principles, and the government should reflect them in policies and take political responsibility for them. But such sentiment 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. He rarely asked the DP to challenge China.
When opposition People’s Power Party (PPP) presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol said most young Koreans disliked China, a DP spokeswoman slammed him for being intentionally uncivil. But even if the comment was rude, the young people’s antipathy towards China cannot be denied.
Ignoring obvious feelings and remaining silent for “pragmatic” reasons cannot be right. The ongoing culture war on the internet will only escalate, given the spread of the K-wave and China’s assertiveness. Dislike of China could lead to distrust of politics and greater hatred of China and its people. The DP’s obliviousness to imminent danger is disconcerting and disturbing.
Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
Hwang Hee, left, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and Park Byeong-seug, Speaker of the National Assembly, in the background at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on 4 February.