The fight over South Korea’s decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system may have just had its first casualty – a chicken and beer festival.
Officials from the Chinese city of Qingdao cancelled their appearance at a festival in their sister city of Daegu at the last minute, and asked the mayor of Daegu not to attend a beer festival in Qingdao this month. The exchange between Daegu and Qingdao was meant to spark diplomacy and economic engagement, but instead may become part of the fallout from Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD.
At the beginning of July, the United States and South Korea officially announced they would be deploying the missile defense system near the city of Seongju, drawing immediate ire from Beijing. After the announcement, China’s Foreign Ministry “strongly urged” the two countries not to deploy the system, and the defense ministry posted a statement saying “The Chinese side will consider taking necessary steps to maintain national strategic security and regional strategic balance.”
In a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly said that Seoul “has undermined the foundations of trust between the two countries” and called the decision “regrettable.”
While the South Korean government has continued to defend its decision and is moving forward with the plan to deploy THAAD by 2017, Koreans are worried that if China chose to retaliate, it could bring severe economic consequences.
In fact, the retaliation could already be underway. Besides the chicken and beer row, an event involving popular Chinese bloggers was also called off. According to a source in the Gangwon Provincial Office, who sponsored the event, “We were contacted by the power blogger and told that they were in a difficult position [because of the THAAD issue] and hoped the schedule could be postponed.”
These one-off incidents may become the norm in the coming months. Several news outlets in China have been reporting that the Chinese Ministry of Information and Communication is planning to restrict guest appearances on Chinese broadcasts, essentially engineering a boycott of Korean entertainment. While this plan has not been officially confirmed, media insiders have been quoted as saying, “We have heard of such regulations being implemented, but details are still being evaluated.” Further, according to Daum News, Chinese broadcasters have already started moving foreign TV programs to non-peak times.
If these rumors are true, this will hardly be the first time politics have interfered with Korean entertainment in China. Last year, for example, a Taiwan-born member of a K-pop girl group was caught in a nationalist battle after she appeared on a Korean web program waving a Republic of China flag. The resulting backlash involved protests and boycotts on both sides, and caused the girl’s entertainment company to cancel several appearances in China.
Chinese leadership has long had problems with the popularity of Korean entertainment among Chinese consumers. In fact, the term Hallyu, which is now used to refer to the explosive popularity of Korean pop culture around the globe, originated in the 1990s in China, where it was meant as a derogatory term for the influx of Korean entertainment into the country.
More recently, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body, spent an entire meeting in 2014 “bemoaning why China can’t make a show as good and as big of a hit” as a Korean TV hit according to the Washington Post. One CPPCC member was quoted as saying, “It is more than just a Korean soap opera. It hurts our cultural dignity.”
At the meeting, the committee members discussed reasons why China has fallen behind its smaller neighbor, with some of them pointing to the country’s censorship process as a major factor.
Ironically, the very show they were discussing was officially rebroadcast on Chinese TV earlier this year – with one glaring change from the original. The final ending of the show, which is about a handsome alien falling in love with a Korean actress, was changed so that the protagonist is merely a novelist writing a story about an alien – essentially neutralizing the show’s main plotline. The reason? Chinese TV broadcasters strictly prohibit shows involving ghosts or aliens.
And in 2016, after the hit drama “Descendants of the Sun” captured the public’s attention, China’s official military newspaper ran a story saying the show “effectively delivers the national culture of Korea (to viewers) and vividly describes the image of the Korean soldiers.” Further, it said the show can be “a piece of great advertisement for conscription.” A few days later, however, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security posted a warning on Weibo, cautioning that “watching Korean dramas could be dangerous, and may even lead to legal troubles,” citing cases of domestic violence, divorce, and plastic surgery allegedly brought on by taking drama plotlines too seriously.
Despite these announcements, Korean content remains wildly popular in China. By the time its finale aired in April, the 16 episodes of “Descendants” had been streamed 2.4 billion times on iQiyi. And sales of the specific brand of lipstick worn by the show’s female lead jumped 360 percent year-over-year this March, largely thanks to Chinese consumers.
Chinese nationals are by far the largest group of tourists entering Korea each year, making up 48.8 percent of arrivals in June 2016. And a 2014 survey of tourists at Incheon airport found that among Asian tourists, 44 percent stated that Hallyu was a key factor in inducing them to visit.
While the Korean government has said that it will proceed with THAAD, it’s possible that economic fallout could strengthen domestic opposition to the missile defense system. It remains to be seen how seriously China will enforce any official or non-official boycotts of Korean entertainment or, perhaps more importantly, whether a Chinese populace crazy for K-culture would fall into line.
Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at The Korea Economic Institute of America. She runs KEI’s media relations and outreach along with managing KEI’s online presence. Follow Jenna on Twitter at @jennargibson.