Anti-Chinese sentiment mounting among young Koreans long before Olympics

Posted on : 2022-02-10 17:08 KST Modified on : 2022-02-10 17:08 KST
Still, some young people express wariness at politicians stoking xenophobia ahead of next month’s election
During the opening ceremony for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics on Feb. 4, a woman dressed in a hanbok with a daenggi ribbon in her hair helps convey the Chinese flag to the flagpole. (Yonhap News)
During the opening ceremony for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics on Feb. 4, a woman dressed in a hanbok with a daenggi ribbon in her hair helps convey the Chinese flag to the flagpole. (Yonhap News)

Controversial referee calls during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have stoked the fire of anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea. The outpour of negative reactions against China online is especially noticeable among Koreans in their 20s and 30s. The older generation’s singular explanation of this phenomenon is that China’s unfair actions have angered the younger generation, who deeply care about fairness.

However, negative perceptions of China have slowly accumulated over the past 10 years in schools, online and in everyday life. There’s no simple solution to the matter. Experts as well as those belonging to younger generations are cautioning politicians against getting on the anti-Chinese bandwagon or stirring up such sentiments in the guise of discourse on fairness ahead of next month’s presidential election.

According to 10 young Koreans in their 20s and 30s interviewed by the Hankyoreh on Wednesday, various factors contributed to negative attitudes against China other than considerations about fairness.

Lee, a 32-year-old office worker who frequently goes to China on business, said they began harboring negative feelings against Chinese people in college. Lee’s college at the time was a popular destination for Chinese tourists. Shops near campus transformed into makeup and clothing stores catering to Chinese tourists. Chinese tourists would come into campus and aim their cameras at college students and take photos time and time again, according to Lee.

“It became impossible to even study in the reading room, so I started to think that Chinese people have no scruples about crossing boundaries,” Lee added.

Domestic universities’ mass recruitment of Chinese international students and subsequent frequent conflicts between Korean and Chinese students on campuses also led to growing anti-Chinese sentiment. Concerning a 2019 incident in which posters hung at Korean university campuses advocating for the democratization of Hong Kong were vandalized, Kim Kwang-ok (25) said, “China did what China does.”

Yonsei University student Jeong (22) said as well, “I lived in a dormitory with Chinese people and began to think that they are very self-centered.”

Though based on individual experiences and personal impressions, these attitudes began to take the form of anti-Chinese hate when they were incorporated into negative attitudes against Chinese nationalism and patriotism in China reinforced during the Xi Jinping administration; human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Hong Kong; and military pressure placed on Taiwan by China.

University student Lee Ho-bin (25) said, “I think that during the transitional period between the moderate line of the Hu Jintao administration and the ethnocentrism of the ‘Chinese Dream’ espoused by Xi Jinping, China’s image among the younger generation solidified into that of a rude, aggressive nation.”

Park Ji-yoon (31), who studied Chinese language and literature in college, said, “When I studied abroad in China, I was shocked by the Sinocentrism of young people there, who would say, ‘I love my China ever so much.’ To me, the Chinese government, which acts selfishly on the international stage, and Chinese people, who attempt to China-wash kimchi by calling it ‘pao cai,’ are not so different.”

The globalization of K-pop and Korean games also provided platforms through which young Koreans developed negative perceptions of China. One 29-year-old surnamed Yi said that they started to think “Chinese people are selfish” when a Chinese member of their favorite K-pop group returned to China after gaining popularity in Korea. Yi said, “Many Chinese idols who become famous in Korea return to China and post on social media praising China’s Communist Party, which led me to feel disappointed in China.”

University student Seo Seong-jun (25) also said, “When I play League of Legends, I see a lot of Chinese users trolling their teammates.” League of Legends is a popular multiplayer online game.

According to the study “Online Anti-Chinese Sentiment Among Young Koreans,” presented by University of Seoul Chinese language and literature professor Ha Nam-seok at last year’s symposium of the Korea Association for Contemporary Chinese Studies (KACCS), young Koreans rated China’s likeability as 2.14 points on a scale of 0 to 5 — even lower than Japan’s 2.83 points — in 2018. The most popular reasons for disliking China were “Because Chinese people are [uncultured]” (48.2%) and “[China’s] dictatorship and human rights violations” (21.9%).

Won Dong-wook, who serves as KACCS president in addition to being a professor of international studies at Dong-A University, said, “China’s retaliation against THAAD [in Korea]; human rights issues such as the suppression of the democracy movement in Hong Kong; the pandemic of the COVID-19 virus, once called the ‘Wuhan pneumonia’; and the online controversy surrounding kimchi and hanbok by young Chinese internet users — all of these issues have amplified and resulted in young Koreans, in particular, exhibiting intense anti-Chinese sentiments.”

Still, even young Koreans cautioned politicians against hopping on the anti-Chinese bandwagon of Korea’s youth and instigating and exploiting anti-Chinese hate without coming up with solutions.

Freelancer Kim Bo-kyeong (30) said, “I don’t understand why the People Power Party is trying to use anti-Chinese sentiment as their campaign strategy, or how the ruling Democratic Party thinks this would be unfavorable to them. I think there are many young Koreans who can differentiate between the Chinese government and the Chinese people they encounter in real life.”

University student Yeo Geun-ho (24) also said, “[Anti-Chinese sentiment] should not lead to prejudice and discrimination against individual Chinese people.”

Experts criticized not just politicians but also Chinese and Korean media that amplifies and reproduces anti-Chinese sentiment.

Professor Won said, “Pandering for votes using anti-Chinese sentiment during the presidential election campaign season can ultimately backfire and lead to tremendous losses in profits obtained through trade with China. This is a matter that should be approached with great composure by politicians and the media.”

He continued, “Right now, in time for the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China, a desirable relationship [between Korea and China] should be built by dispassionately observing the pros and cons of [the relationship], rather than by provoking the emotions of the general population.”

Choi Pil-soo, professor of China trade and commerce at Sejong University, also said, “The media is provoking emotional reactions by copying over superfluous views expressed by internet users in both countries.”

By Lee Woo-yun, Ko Byung-chan and Seo Hye-mi, staff reporters

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