[Column] Anti-China sentiment among younger Koreans

Posted on : 2021-09-02 17:19 KST Modified on : 2021-09-02 17:19 KST
We can no longer afford to ignore this recreational hate if we wish to maintain sharp criticism of the oppression of minority groups, the censorship and surveillance, and the crackdown on various forms of civil society that have intensified under Xi Jinping
Cho Mun-young
Cho Mun-young

By Cho Mun-young, professor of anthropology at Yonsei University

The Institute of East Asian Regional Studies at Sungkyunkwan University the Amorepacific Foundation held a symposium on Koreans’ attitudes toward China on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the end of August. Since the CCP has restored Chinese hegemony during its century in power, the anniversary prompted various assessments in the academy and the press. But there was little interest from the public, where anti-Chinese sentiment has been heightened since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent speech in which Chinese President Xi Jinping said that foreign countries will “bash their heads bloody” against a “Great Wall of Steel” made of the “blood and flesh” of more than 1.4 billion Chinese has only added kindling to the raging fire of anti-Chinese sentiment.

The symposium included a debate about Koreans’ attitudes toward China, with the goal of assessing how China had become the subject of so much negativity and distaste. The participants at the debate had each arrived at their interest in China through a different channel.

A shocking presentation was delivered by Kim Jun-ho, a graduate student in Chinese literature at the University of Seoul. Kim provided a detailed examination of the hatred against China that’s rapidly proliferating online.

The language used in the videos and comments was so inflammatory that Kim had to give a trigger warning to the Chinese listeners who’d logged into the symposium. There were numerous posts about bullying Chinese as a form of recreation, while commenters on any Chinese video — even videos on subjects as innocuous as puppies or food catchers in the kitchen sink — found farfetched connections with politically sensitive topics such as Tibet, the Uyghurs, Hong Kong, and the incident at Tiananmen Square.

Videos that present China in a positive light were singled out for hate and accused of being part of a CCP strategy of cultural infiltration. Kim drew attention to the fact that anti-Chinese videos were being viewed millions of times and getting thousands of likes, indicating that anti-Chinese sentiment has taken its place as a dominant cultural code among the younger generation.

Kim’s observations confirm the results of a survey about Koreans’ anti-Chinese sentiment that was published by SisaIN, a weekly news magazine, this past June. Lee Oh-seong, a reporter with the magazine, noted that young Koreans hold a negative view not only about the CCP and Chinese products but also about Chinese cultural artifacts and cuisine. Lee also reminded readers that Korea was the only country in which young people viewed China more negatively than middle-aged people in a poll about attitudes toward China conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center in 2020.

In short, Koreans under 30 have emerged as a key group who hate everything about China.

Younger Koreans’ anti-Chinese sentiment is distinctly different from their anti-Japanese sentiment, which was analyzed last year by professor Suk Ju-hee based on the East Asia Institute’s poll about Korea-Japan relations.

According to Suk, Koreans tend to distinguish between the Japanese government and people in their views on Japan. Younger Koreans, in particular, are much more positively disposed toward Japan than Koreans in their 50s and show a strong tendency to view culture separately from history and politics in Korea-Japan relations.

In fact, researchers have considerable reason to avoid highlighting young people’s anti-Chinese sentiment. It’s widely thought that the older generation often resorts to sweeping statements about younger people for their own advantage, and there are also concerns that China is simply joining women, minorities, and refugees on the list of targets of hate speech in online communities not only in Korea but around the world.

But for a young researcher who’s interested in the Cultural Revolution to deliberately use the expression “we” while problematizing the younger generation’s attitude toward China suggests a critical stance on the academic community’s reluctance to face up to this phenomenon.

Earlier generations became interested in China through various channels, including socialism, martial arts-focused films such as “Little Dragon Maiden,” and historical novels like the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” But young people today, Kim says, grew up under an international sense that China poses a threat and aren’t very attracted to the Chinese people or culture.

“Unfortunately, young people are completely oblivious about the valuable results of older academics dedicated research on China,” Kim said, pointing out that there are few indications of academic efforts to adapt to the changing media environment and produce an alternative discourse on China.

That criticism hit home. I found myself asking whether academics had become complacent in their own cliques and their ritualistic cycle of articles and conferences. I also wondered whether the Chinese ruling elite’s characteristic conflation of state and nation had been appropriated against China itself while we were disregarding the diversity of public dynamics.

We can no longer afford to ignore this recreational hate if we wish to distinguish between hatred of China and criticism of China and if we wish to maintain sharp criticism of the oppression of minority groups, the censorship and surveillance, and the crackdown on various forms of civil society that have intensified under Xi Jinping.

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

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