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January 27, 2023
Why do South Koreans despise China? Let them speak for themselves...
“South Koreans hold the world’s most negative views on China.”
In December 2022, research from the Sinophone Borderlands Project revealed South Koreans hold overwhelmingly negative views of their giant neighbor. Overall, 81% of South Korean respondents stated that they had very negative or somewhat negative views of China, by far the largest percentage out of the 56 countries surveyed. The next closes country was Switzerland at 72%, nearly ten points behind.
Somewhat more surprising is that South Koreans’ views of China are even more negative than those they hold regarding more traditionally antagonistic countries like North Korea (69%) and Japan (62%).
These negative perceptions of China shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise given Beijing’s inflammatory behavior across several domains.
Domestically, China has instituted mass surveillance and internment against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, quashed democratic movements in Hong Kong, and instituted some of the world’s most draconian measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the foreign policy realm, Beijing has rapidly accelerated its military buildup while constantly threating aggressive force against Taiwan, laid false claim to copious amounts of territory in the South China Sea, saddled developing countries with unsustainable debt traps, and can certainly be blamed for the initial outbreak and handling of the aforementioned COVID pandemic.
And of course, each of these policy decisions has been buttressed by hard-headed bully rhetoric that China refers to as “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, which until recently dominated the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
South Korea is not by any means unique in its disdain for China. A 2020 Pew report titled “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries” showed that public opinion on China was taking a nose dive nearly everywhere across the developed world. In fact, the median response across the 14 countries surveyed was 73% unfavorable to only 24% favorable.
What does make South Koreans unique is their particularly harsh view of the Chinese people, specifically. According to a recent article from The Diplomat, Europeans and Americans tend to hold separate views of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people, having generally positive views of the latter.
However, South Koreans seem to show little differentiation between the Chinese People and the CCP, with 77% of respondents having negative or very negative views of the Chinese populace.
So, what explains South Korea’s particularly high level of disdain for China? To find out I spoke with four Koreans and asked them the following questions.
- 1.What are the biggest factors that have resulted in South Koreans having the world’s most negative views of China?
- 2.Why do Koreans not only view the CCP negatively, but also the Chinese people?
The Koreans I interviewed are all college educated and range in age from 20-32, thus their views may not be representative of the entire population. Nonetheless, their answers provide much needed context and narrative to supplement the figures displayed in recent polling. Pseudonyms are used for anonymity purposes, but personal details such as occupation and age are accurately disclosed.
The most prominent answers given for Koreans’ negative views of China were related to pollution and the environment, specifically Yellow Dust.
Won-bin Kim, a 27-year-old graduate student, noted this as the most pressing issue surrounding South Korea – China relations. “I can’t generalize the answer, but for me the biggest issue is the environment,” said Mr. Kim. “When I was young, Yellow Dust should [sic] come like three to four days at Spring, but now in Korea, it’s hard to find a day without Yellow Dust in the spring.”
Yellow dust, or hwangsa in Korean, is a phenomenon where fine dust from the deserts of Northern China and Mongolia is blown by strong winds onto the Korean Peninsula. When the fine dust enters the lungs, it can cause sore throat and other respiratory issues such as trouble breathing. This dust is also capable of bringing with it industrial pollutants such as pesticides.
In truth the amount of Yellow Dust in South Korea has fluctuated year to year, with a steady drop in duration occurring between 2015 and 2020. However, 2021 did mark a six-year high with 22 days of Yellow Dust cover.
So, is China to blame for this problem? Well yes, and no. While there is a significant amount of the fine matter that does originate in China, studies have shown that large amounts come from within Korea. A recent joint study by NASA and the National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER) showed that at Seoul’s Olympic Park, only 34% of fine dust came from Western China, while 52% came from South Korean factories.
Koreans don’t see themselves as totally blameless, but they are most angered by China’s inaction and lack of ownership.
“Fine dust pollution is a difficult one since Korea is shitty at addressing it too,” said Joon Kang who is currently serving his mandatory military enlistment. “However, China building factories on their eastern coast and not taking any responsibility just angers Koreans even more.”
HISTORY AND CULTURE
After the environment the next most pressing issue was China’s attempted theft of Korea’s history and culture.
This was the sentiment expressed by Taeyang Park, a student currently studying in the US at an Ivy League university. “To be specific, some Chinese historians have claimed that Korean dynasties are actually part of Chinese history,” said Mr. Park. “Koreans view this as tantamount to theft.”
As part of its Northeast Project, which ran from 2002-2007, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences attempted to retcon historical borders and claim the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo, along with its successor kingdom known as Balhae, as historically being part of China. According to Chinese scholars, these entities were never autonomous, but merely vassals of China.
More recently, a 2022 exhibit on ancient Korean history at the National Museum of China omitted both Goguryeo and Balhae from its chronological table of contents, further exacerbating the rift between the two nations.
Outside of China, most historians consider Goguryeo to be part of Korea’s historic entity, and part of the Three Kingdoms period along with Baekje and Silla. Goguryeo occupied small parts of modern South Korea, the entirety of modern North Korea, and part of Manchuria.
From 598-614 Goguryeo fought with Sui China in a series of wars that ended with Goguryeo defeating the Sui Dynasty, leading to its eventual demise. Goguryeo commanders included King Yeongyang, Gang Isik, and Eulji Mundeok. Sui prominent figures included Emperor Yang Guang, Yuwen Shu, and Yu Zhongwen.
Mr. Park noted the inconsistencies in Koreans extreme disdain at Chinese attempts at claiming Korean history when neighboring Japan is doing the same thing. “As a Korean citizen, I find this a bit awkward as Japan is basically doing the same thing with Dokdo,” said Mr. Park. “It would make sense for Koreans to hate Japan more than China, but in reality, sentiments towards China are much more negative.”
Mr. Kang, the soldier, explained that China’s appropriation of Korean tradition doesn’t stop at borders either. “Chinese people claim that kimchi, the Hanbok, and other Korean cultural icons as [sic] their own even though there is too much historical evidence that it’s clearly Korea’s.”
Recently some in China have even attempted to claim Arirang, one of Korea’s most famous traditional folk songs, belongs to the Chinese people. This prompted the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea (VANK), a non-governmental diplomatic group, to release an advertisement with text reading “Arirang this time?! China why again?... Sign the petition to stop Chinese cultural hegemony.”
Of course, responses weren’t limited to the environment or cultural theft. There was also widespread anger towards China over the COVID outbreak, as well as Beijing’s response. In fact, all four mentioned COVID but offered little elaboration as though it should be obvious.
There was also agreement to the geopolitical threat that China poses, including its military buildup, support of the regime in North Korea, its clandestine spy network, and operating of police stations in foreign countries like South Korea.
One topic, however, that wasn’t mentioned was the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or
THAAD. After the United States and South Korea agreed to install the missile defense system to defend against North Korean missiles, Beijing became irate claiming the system was a tool that could be used to spy into China. As a result, China levied heavy sanctions on South Korea which caused a major blow its economy.
THE CHINESE PEOPLE
But what about the people? Remember, unlike their international counterparts, Koreans views of Chinese citizens are nearly as negative as their views on the CCP.
Responses here were all over the place, but one thing they all had in common was a lack of ambiguity.
Mr. Kim, the graduate student, revealed a few stereotypes that Koreans hold about Chinese citizens, including that they are noisy in public spaces and that they act ignorant and selfish, and that they often have poor hygiene.
Sujin Kwon, an office worker in central South Korea stated that it was “everyday life” that inspired anti-Chinese sentiment in Korea. “Honestly I believe hatred towards China comes from everyday life,” said Ms. Kwon. For example, “Chinese people coming here and take [sic] advantage of Korea’s healthcare system.”
Ms. Kwon also referred to Chinese nationals “killing people in daylight.” When asked to elaborate Ms. Kwon referred me to an incident from May 2022 where a Joseon-jok man in his 40s assaulted and killed an elderly Korean man. Joseon-jok, though ethnically Korean, migrated to Northeast China during the Japanese occupation and have since returned to Korea. They generally speak Chinese and live in Chinatown enclaves and are thought of in Korea as Chinese.
Then there is the issue of Chinese students attending Korean Universities.
In the words of the soldier, Mr. Kang, “Chinese students are a menace to academia. During the Hong Kong protests, any sign of support was faced with aggressive extremist, and sometimes violent opposition by Chinese students. Ripping down posters, shoving students, and overall disrupting the democratic student process.”
Continuing with his answer Mr. Kang revealed that for Koreans, separating the CCP and the Chinese people isn’t necessarily an easy task.
“Our hate for China stems from the CCP, but the Chinese people support that same cancerous regime,” said Mr. Kang. “Obviously not everyone, but the ones who do are the most up front and the loudest. To me, supporting the CCP doesn’t make you and different than being a Chinese agent.”
In one final diatribe Mr. Kang summed up why China is seen in such a negative light in South Korea, even when compared to Japan which colonized the Korean Peninsula for 35 years, and an antagonistic and now nuclear armed North Korea. “There’s a saying in Korea, Japan is the enemy for 100 years, but China is the enemy for 1,000 years,” Mr. Kang noted. “China is a growing cancer in the world and poses a legitimate existential threat to the Korean nation, state, and people. It’s no wonder Koreans hate China.”
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