The Koreas | Society | East Asia

The Korean Wave’s Rocky Road in China

After over six years, China has partially removed its ban on South Korean cultural content, but hallyu in China may never return to its glory days.

The Korean Wave’s Rocky Road in China

Members of South Korean-Chinese K-pop boy band EXO perform at a concert in Chengdu, China, July 5, 2014.

Credit: Depositphotos

Soon after the summit between the Chinese and South Korean presidents in November 2022, users of the Chinese over-the-top (OTT) platform Tencent Video found that South Korean movie “Hotel by the River” appeared on the content list. That followed a decision in December 2022 to allow the 2020 Korean movie “Oh! My Gran” to show in China. With some South Korean cultural products returning to China after more than six years, observers think China is in the process of lifting its ban on hallyu.

Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, refers to the cultural charm offensive launched by South Korea since the late 1990s, the first targets of which were South Korea’s East Asia neighbors: China and Japan. In fact, the term hallyu was first coined in relation to China, when it was used in the Chinese name of a Korean pop music CD. The word was then widely adopted by Chinese media to describe the success of Korean singers, and later expanded to other media after the airing of K-dramas in China.

In 2000, K-pop boy group H.O.T’s concert attracted 100,000 fans and set a record for attendance at the Beijing Workers Stadium venue. Since then, hallyu has boomed in China and been endorsed by China’s top leaders, such as Hu Jintao and former Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan. In 2005, then-President Hu told Korean journalists that he really enjoyed the drama “Dae Jang Geum,” but was too busy to finish it. Hu also managed to meet the drama’s actress, Lee Young-ae, three years later during his visit to South Korea. Wang, meanwhile, told delegates from Beijing that he occasionally watched K-dramas and acknowledged that “K-dramas are ahead of us” during a national conference in 2014.

Furthermore, when President Xi Jinping visited South Korea in 2014, China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan, told Korean officials that she thought photos of her husband in his youth looked like the protagonist from “My Love from the Star” – a clear confirmation that she had watched the K-drama series.

The comparison indicated hallyu’s popularity in China at that time. Not only were Korean artists coming to China to perform, but many Chinese singers went to South Korea as trainees and eventually made their debuts there, such as Han Geng from Super Junior, Victoria Song from f(x), Meng Jia and Wang Feifei from miss A, and Lu Han and Huang Zitao from EXO.

However, the landscape totally changed when Beijing decided to retaliate against Seoul’s decision to deploy a U.S. missile defense system in 2016. Although the Chinese authorities never recognized the existence of an official ban on hallyu and said China was open to cultural exchanges, people could easily witness that Korean celebrities disappeared from China since then.

China’s de facto ban on Korean cultural content was summarized in five points: Prohibit Korean media teams from coming to China to direct; prohibit new investment from Korean entertainment companies; prohibit Korean idol groups from performing to audiences of more than 10,000; prohibit new cooperation projects for K-dramas and variety shows; and prohibit Korean actors from appearing in dramas.

China’s ban on hallyu not only caused huge financial losses to the Korean cultural industry, but more importantly, the incident forced the Korean cultural industry to realize the need to reduce reliance on the Chinese market. From 2016 onwards, hallyu has evolved into a more international phase.

Inspired by the huge success of the song “Gangnam Style” on social media, hallyu began to harness various platforms for greater influence: YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Spotify. Besides, Korean idol groups started to absorb members from outside China and Japan, like Thailand (BLACKPINK’s Lisa), Australia (BLACKPINK’s Rosé) and Canada (NCT’s Mark Lee). Consequently, China fell to third place in terms of South Korean album sales, while sales in Europe and the United States soared significantly in 2020.

On the other hand, because a large group of K-pop artists from China returned to their homeland in the wake of the THAAD issue, China grasped the opportunity to develop its own idol-making TV programs in 2018. Lay Zhang from EXO and Jackson Wang served as judges of “Idol Producer” while Huang Zitao appeared on “Produce 101.” Still, these Chinese talent shows had deep Korean imprints, as in the case of “Idol Producer” champion Cai Xukun, who used to be a trainee in South Korea.

But this indirect influence did not last long, as the Chinese authorities imposed a series of crackdown on the entertainment industry in 2021. Targets included male idols that are derided as too feminine and the fandom culture originating from South Korea.

This brings us back to the unfreezing of hallyu in China since 2022. Even though the restriction on Korean cultural contents has been at least partially lifted, hallyu’s fate is still vulnerable to China’s political sentiments.

Perhaps the most famous example of hallyu intersecting with Chinese politics came in 2016. Chinese netizens expressed indignation after TWICE’s Taiwanese member, Chou Tzu-yu, waved a Republic of China flag in a variety show. This led to Tzuyu making an apology video, in which she asserted that “there is only one China.” The incident even forced the candidates of that year’s Taiwanese presidential election to respond.

In another incident, in 2020  the leader of BTS made a comment on the Korean War while receiving an award celebrating South Korea-U.S. relations, which aroused backlash from China. The foreign ministries of both China and South Korea gave restrained answers regarding the event in a bid to keep ties even.

In recent years, hallyu has also been caught up in the wider cultural controversy among two countries. There have been countless examples of what some Koreans call China’s “cultural imperialism” and some Chinese counter is Koreans’ “cultural appropriation”: China’s Northeast Project regarding the Goguryeo Dynasty, a South Korean city’s application for World Heritage status regarding the Dragon Boat Festival, a delegate wearing hanbok at the opening of Beijing Winter Olympic Games, Chinese paocai vs. Korean kimchi, hanfu vs. hanbok – the list goes on.

Most recently, there was a dispute centered on China’s Chinese New Year and South Korea’s Lunar New Year online. The Instagram post celebrating the New Year from Jang Won-young, a member of the K-pop girl group IVE, was flooded with demands to correct the name to “Chinese New Year.”

Therefore, even if the doors for Korean cultural content are now open, the era when artists could win the hearts of the people of both countries may be over.

According to a survey conducted by Stanford University in January 2022, 84 percent of South Koreans had a negative view of China, with cultural conflicts between the two countries as the main reason. The percentage who had an unfavorable impression of China is at an all-time high. It is also noteworthy that South Korea is the only country where young people had a more unfavorable view on China than the elder generation.

Amid the geopolitical schism taking place in the Indo-Pacific, Beijing and Seoul are growing further apart as the Yoon administration prioritizes strengthening the South Korea-U.S. alliance. China’s lifting of its ban on hallyu may be a boon to K-pop fans, but it is still a drop in the bucket in the bilateral ties.