[Column] Where did S. Korea’s anti-China politics come from?

Posted on : 2022-02-10 17:18 KST Modified on : 2022-02-10 17:18 KST
Anti-Chinese sentiment has been on the rise, but where did it all start?
“Anti-China” (Illustration by Jaewoogy.com)
“Anti-China” (Illustration by Jaewoogy.com)

Biased rulings in the short track speedskating competition at the Beijing Winter Olympics this week tossed a lit match onto anti-Chinese sentiment that has been building up in Korea like a cloud of gas fumes.

Online comments have gone beyond debates over the merits of the rulings, with many posts outright condemning or expressing hatred of China.

Before diplomatic relations were established between the two countries in 1992, South Koreans didn’t think much about China at all. All we knew were the phrases we had learned in textbooks.

But after relations were established, the 2000s ushered in greater activity in terms of trade and private interaction, and the two sides increasingly came into collision.

One key moment that shaped the South Korean public’s feelings of alarm about China came during the torch relay for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Around 6,500 Chinese international students poured into the streets of Seoul to stop demonstrations for Tibetan independence. They wrapped themselves in Chinese flags and shouted out for “One China!”; some of them even resorted to violence.

This first encounter with large-scale demonstrations by international residents left South Koreans with an experience of aggressive nationalist sentiment and a sense of the alien.

As relations with Japan sourced later on over matters like the wartime military sexual slavery issue, the two sides were able to grow closer for a time as fellow victims. But that didn’t last.

Things really began escalating around 2016 and 2017, when South Korea was introducing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system. China responded with economic retaliation measures and a ban on its citizens from traveling to South Korea on group tours. This, combined with the troubling emergence of China’s “Northeast Project,” which laid claim to parts of Korean history, ushered anti-Chinese sentiment to a whole new level.

In particular, there’s been a major difference in anti-Chinese attitudes between older generations and younger people today. Younger people have often had encounters with Chinese people their own age in their personal lives, and their feelings have built up over the course of regular online battles with them in games and in “comment wars.”

Perhaps it was an awareness of this that led the four main candidates in next month’s presidential election to all issue messages condemning the biased short track rulings.

The People Power Party (PPP) made no bones about trying to score some domestic political points with the ruling controversy, asking, “What is the price we pay for the past five years of pro-China policies?”

It’s right for political leaders to respond to public outcries and share in their sentiments. But it’s worrisome when they put domestic political aims ahead of anything else and attempt to turn diplomatic relations into a means to an end.

Late last year, PPP presidential nominee Yoon Suk-yeol commented at a talk with the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea about how “most Korean young people dislike China.” He also said relations between the South Korean and Chinese publics had gotten worse because of the “pro-China bias” in the Moon Jae-in administration’s policies.

Over the Lunar New Year holiday, Yoon called for additional THAAD deployment and accused migrant workers of being “freeloaders” on the national health care system, saying that eight of the 10 foreign nationals with the highest health insurance benefit payouts are Chinese.

After the appearance of a Chinese participant in a Korean traditional hanbok outfit at the opening ceremony of the Olympics touched off accusations of an attempt to claim the clothing for China, Yoon denounced it while posting a video of Seo Taiji’s song “Dreaming of Bal-Hae” on Facebook.

Democratic Party nominee Lee Jae-myung said in an interview with the Segye Ilbo on Tuesday that Korea “should sink Chinese fishing boats that violate South Korean territorial waters.”

Even as governor of Gyeonggi Province, Lee had advocated a “zero tolerance” approach to Chinese fishing boats entering South Korean territorial waters. He had stressed the importance of hard-line measures, including capturing the vessels — but “sinking” them is a very different thing. It’s concerning.

In the short term, it may appear politically safe and beneficial not simply to criticize biased sports rulings, but to fan anti-China hatred. But the election doesn’t last for the next five years.

Whoever wins is going to have to run the administration. We’re going to need to engage in diplomacy, trade and private interchange. It’s one thing to sternly protest biased adjudication through the official channels, but it’s not right for politicians to try to score political points by mixing sports with domestic politics.

Hwang Dae-heon, 23, was one of the skaters who suffered a disqualification, despite coming in first place in the men’s 1,000-meter short track semifinal. In a post to his Instagram account at 11:39 pm the same evening, he posted a quote from Michael Jordan:

“Obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

By Kwon Tae-ho, editorial writer

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

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