What do young S. Koreans think of candidates’ anti-China politics? We asked, they answered

Posted on : 2022-02-22 16:47 KST Modified on : 2022-02-22 17:20 KST
The Hankyoreh’s interactive online debate forum was a site of heated discussion on relations and antipathy between Korea and China
Candidates for this year’s presidential election, from left to right: Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party, Sim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party, and Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party. (graphic by Baek Ji-suk)
Candidates for this year’s presidential election, from left to right: Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party, Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party, Sim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party, and Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party. (graphic by Baek Ji-suk)

On Feb. 14, the Hankyoreh kicked off a debate on the topic “Korea-China relations: How should we resolve things?” on its interactive online discussion forum for young voters. Right out of the gate, the discussion became heated.

“If China’s ‘culture project’ [attempts to claim other countries’ culture as its own] continues, we’re going to need to show our resolve with a ‘no China’ movement. We young people have to band together and drive Chinese games out of the gaming market and reduce our consumption of Chinese food and ‘made in China’ items,” wrote Yu Su-jin.

“I don’t agree with the idea that we have to make a choice between China and the US. I wish we could get past this approach of politicians drumming up feelings of mutual hatred to win votes in the election, and stop encouraging feelings of hate toward a particular country,” Kim Jeong-geun commented.

The subject drew the most responses of any of the four topics on the forum, where young people and staffers from the different campaigns carried out a debate in the form of comments on the forum.

Park Seung-wook noted that the televised election debate on Feb. 3 “had all of the candidates being asked to select the order they would meet with the leaders of the US, Japan, China, and North Korea and their order of priorities.”

“I see that kind of ‘US or China?’ attitude as an oversimplification of diplomacy. When it comes to relations with China, or to choices between the US and China, Korea’s direction should be based on the situation,” he concluded in his first post.

This led to a rebuttal from Noh Hyeon-woo, who wrote, “The recent issues we’ve seen with [China claims to] kimchi or hanbok and the biased Olympic judging are examples of China trusting in its power to carry across its unreasonable claims.”

“China is only going to push the envelope more if South Korea continues reacting passively to its unilateral claims and threats without a minimum reaction at the government lever, such as a position statement,” Noh predicted.

One of the most striking characteristics of this year’s election has been the front-and-center role of anti-China politics.

In interviews with various media, Democratic Party nominee Lee Jae-myung has pledged to “crack down sternly on illegal actions by [fishing boats from] North Korea and China in our eastern and western waters.”

“This is an illegal violation of our territorial waters, and [such boats] should be sunk,” he said at one point.

In response to a firestorm over biased rulings in short track speed skating events at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, People Power Party (PPP) candidate Yoon Suk-yeol posted a Facebook status identifying the “core of the issue” as lying in “the Northeast Project and China’s attempt to claim the history of the Republic of Korea for itself.”

As the responses show, the candidates from both of South Korea’s largest political parties have been seeking to capitalize on anti-China sentiment.

Hankyoreh’s online forum debate saw a clash between posts representing quite different perspectives in terms of their attitude on China and assessment of the current situation.

Venus Pluto, the director of the foreign affairs and national security newsletter Delta Worlding, wrote, “At a time when South Korea is examining how it might stand on its own in a world without the US or China, I don’t know whether framing things in terms of ‘pro- or anti-China’ or ‘pro-China or pro-US’ is really appropriate.”

In response, Noh wrote, “The ‘pro- or anti-China’ frame isn’t a matter of confrontation. In a multipolar foreign affairs environment, it’s realistically difficult for a country like South Korea to create its own ‘bloc,’ which means we need to make a definite decision as to which major bloc we’re going to be part of.”

Where does young people’s “anti-China” sentiment come from?

Also seen in the debate were posts stressing the need to confront where young people’s “anti-China” sentiments are rooted.

Jeong Hyeon-hwan cited experiences with Chinese students while attending university.

“Most Koreans have been through experiences with [Chinese people] who can’t speak the language, and when they cause problems, they just run away, saying ‘I’m a foreigner,’ rather than trying to fix things,” he recalled.

“For young people in their 20s and 30s, living with Chinese people is an unavoidable reality,” he said. “The reality of the ‘China issue’ that young people confront every day is too deep and broad for us to put it simply in terms of whether the ‘media is fomenting anti-China hatred’ or whether it’s an ‘objection to China’s Northeast Project.’”

Gang Nam-gyu said, “Among young people today, anti-Chinese sentiments are basically the mainstream.”

“Even with friends who tend to agree with me almost 100% when it comes to other progressive issues, I’ve had a lot of experiences butting heads when it comes to China issues, which leads me to think anti-China sentiments right now are more than just a matter of ‘ideology,’” he added.

Calls for policy vision, not opponent-bashing from candidates

Some posters criticized the South Korean government for its halfhearted response to human rights violations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Others, such as Son Min-seok, called on the different election camps to “share a concrete vision and answers to establish diplomatic consistency, rather than simply denouncing their political opponents.”

“They need to give answers on what their vision is for achieving social unity and addressing anti-China sentiments among people in their 20s and 30s,” Son wrote.

In response, Kim Su-hyun, who is in charge of foreign affairs and national security policy for Justice Party candidate Sim Sang-jung’s camp, said, “We need to make the necessary demands of China and maintain an assertive posture as a sovereign state, but we also need to move beyond our criticisms of China and avoid actions that exploit feelings of antipathy.”

Kim went on to explain about Sim’s pledge to “move past the ‘Three Noes’ on additional THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] battery deployments and bring about an East Asian version of the Helsinki Process,” as well as to “propose and implement an East Asia ‘green détente’ model of forgoing arms races and confrontation and cooperating to overcome the climate crisis.”

Kwon Ji-woong, co-director of the youth election measures committee for Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung, said, “We need to develop South Korea-China relations from a strategic standpoint of being resolute when it’s time for resolution and cooperating when it’s time for cooperation.”

Kwon also said Lee would “work to reduce conflict through interaction at the personal level by actively expanding personal interchange among members of the younger generations in South Korea and China.”

A contrasting message was shared by Han Jeong-min, director of the youth headquarters for People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo’s camp.

Han explained that Ahn “emphasized the importance of immediately discontinuing the ‘Three Noes’ policy [no additional THAAD deployments, no participation in the US missile defense network, and no trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan] and responding in a swift and principled manner to acts of military provocation by China.”

He went on to say, “Pro-China people are making arguments under the frame of it being ‘problematic to exclude a particular country for emotional reasons.’”

“But establishing relations with China on a proper footing is not a matter of emotions — it’s about the future of South Korea,” he stressed.

By Lee Wan, staff reporter

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

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