[Book review] Discontented youth in East Asia and the rise of anxious nationalism

Posted on : 2021-10-29 17:45 KST Modified on : 2021-10-29 17:45 KST
Young people in China, Korea and Japan grew up in advanced economies at a time of unprecedented abundance — so why are they so unhappy?
Cover of “The Real Reason Young Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese Hate Each Other: Understanding Youth Conflict in the Era of Anxious Nationalism”
Cover of “The Real Reason Young Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese Hate Each Other: Understanding Youth Conflict in the Era of Anxious Nationalism”

“The Real Reason Young Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese Hate Each Other: Understanding Youth Conflict in the Era of Anxious Nationalism”

Written by Motoaki Takahara, translated by Jeong Ho-seok (Samin Books, 2007)

Polls show that South Korean millennials are particularly ill-disposed toward China. Several explanations are possible, including the truism that neighboring countries often don’t get along. But the primary cause is the diplomatic isolation that China has brought on itself through the policies of the “Chinese dream” and “wolf warrior diplomacy” pursued by Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

To become a hegemon, a country needs not only hard power in the form of military and economic might, but also an appealing vision that can create new social norms. But China hasn’t offered any alternatives to its self-centered “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese people. Instead, China’s repression of Tibetans and Uyghurs and the democracy movement in Hong Kong and its selective silence on the coup in Myanmar reveal its national limitations.

Korean, Chinese and Japanese millennials encounter each other in a much greater variety of ways than they did in the past. Chinese students are ubiquitous at smaller universities in the Korean countryside — there’s even a joke that such universities depend on Chinese tuition. But in addition to such face-to-face encounters, young people from the three countries also meet each other every day on social media platforms such as YouTube and through online games.

These Northeast Asian millennials have ample reason to feel pride and affection for their countries. Japan was the first Asian country to host the Olympics and remains an economic leader in Asia. Since it opened up its markets, China has risen to a position where it vies with the US for global hegemony. And here in Korea, we take pride in having toppled an authoritarian dictatorship, achieved economic growth and democracy, and become a cultural powerhouse as exemplified by the film “Parasite,” the TV show “Squid Game,” and K-pop group BTS.

Each country has its own slang terms for jingoistic netizens — in Korea, they’re called “gukppong” (national high); in China, “xiao fenhong” (little pinks); and in Japan, “netto-uyoku” (internet right-wingers). The fairly benign patriotism of Northeast Asian millennials — as epitomized by the “Welcome, First Time in Korea?” reality show — can be dubbed “petit nationalism.”

But in Korea, there has been an explosion of anti-Chinese sentiment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in the years after China banned Korean culture products during their spat over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system. That sentiment has been whetted during various keyboard battles waged by Korean netizens enraged by China’s controversial Northeast Project; the growing Chinese tendency to claim Chinese provenance for all manner of things, including hanbok (traditional Korean attire), kimchi, and even the Gangneung Dano Festival; and the inclusion of Chinese cultural elements in “Joseon Exorcist,” a Korean TV show, which led to its cancelation.

The problem is that the subtle national chauvinism that originated from petit nationalism is just one step away from the hateful jingoism that is one of the main drivers of clicks in the era of the attention economy. Through repetition and confirmation bias, such feelings gradually harden into ideology.

While young people in Northeast Asia may be spreading national chauvinism online, the actual reality they face is very grim. Each country has its own term for the cohort — they’re called the MZ Generation (combining Millennials and Generation Z) in Korea, the Balinghou (those born in the 80s) and the Jiulinghou (those born in the 90s) in China, and the Lost Generation, living through an Employment Ice Age, in Japan.

They all have one thing in common: they grew up in an advanced service economy in a time of unprecedented abundance. And yet, they face volatility that keeps them from feeling optimism or certainty about the future. Whereas their national chauvinism represents a kind of mania, their political impotence and concerns about an unstable future give rise to melancholia.

In the summer of 1914, the people of Europe enjoyed peace and plenty and depended heavily upon shared culture, international exchange, and economic cooperation. For all those reasons, Europeans didn’t believe there could be a rupture. Nevertheless, they were sucked into the maw of war by a complex web of alliances and by festering feelings of exclusive national chauvinism.

If peace and stability are to be maintained in Northeast Asia, politicians, media, and civil society in Korea, China and Japan need to come together and contemplate what can be caused by exclusive nationalism and by feelings of loss and alienation from abundance and stability in the very societies that appear to enjoy those qualities.

By Jeon Seong-won, chief editor of Hwanghae Review

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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