Areum Jeong says she enjoys teaching in China, especially when she has the opportunity to discuss typically taboo subjects through her university courses on South Korea’s modern culture. That includes K-pop, the boy bands and girl groups that have dominated the Asian music scene since the early 2000s.
Jeong, 37, an assistant professor at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute in southwestern China, said her students had been fascinated by a wide range of risqué topics, such as the #MeToo movement and homosexuality in K-pop bands.
But Jeong, who has a PhD in theatre and performance studies from the University of California, Los Angeles, said she had also bumped up against censorship in the classroom. Most recently it involved K-pop.
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In early October, Chinese social media attacked rapper RM from the K-pop band BTS for speaking of a “history of pain” between South Korea and the US in a reference to the 1950-53 Korean war. The group was accepting an award from a US organisation for their contribution to South Korea-US relations.
Chinese state media outlets, including the tabloid Global Times, were swift to criticise the group, calling their attitude “one-sided”.
The Chinese Communist Party’s narrative on the Korean war says it was the result of American imperialism, ignoring the invasion by North Korea that triggered intervention by the US and the United Nations. This version is taught in history textbooks in high schools across the country.
During the war, China sent troops into the conflict resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties.
While the Korean war ended in a stalemate 67 years ago, Jeong found the controversy generated in China by the BTS comment upended her teaching plans last month.
She had been expected to give a lecture about K-pop’s soft power at the university’s business school until a course coordinator told her to omit any mention of the BTS band, she said in an interview.
“I was offended that an academic institution was trying to censor a talk, especially because it’s based on nonsense spewed by nationalists,” said Jeong, who refused to give the lecture in the end. “I don’t self-censor.”
In 2003, China became South Korea’s biggest trading partner and as business boomed thousands of Koreans moved to the neighbouring country.
In a 2010 census, the most recent available, South Koreans were the largest group of foreigners in China at 121,000, followed by Americans with 71,000.
The wave of cultural exports from South Korea has only become bigger, with K-pop, Korean television dramas and Korean food all popular among China’s millennial generation.
Since 2016, a Chinese drama featuring Im Yoon-ah from the K-pop group Girls’ Generation, has reportedly racked up more than 10 billion views on all streaming platforms. Such popularity for all things South Korean allowed many Koreans to capitalise and set up businesses throughout China.
Students followed, with South Koreans making up 70 per cent of all overseas students at China’s top-tier universities in 2012, according to US-based Inside Higher Ed, a news and analysis website focused on higher education.
In 2018, China’s Ministry of Education listed 50,600 South Koreans in the country’s universities, by far the largest overseas student group and almost double the second largest, Thais, at 28,600.
But as university lecturer Jeong found, a clash of political systems and loyalties can quickly sour relations between the two countries and the sizeable Korean community living in China is caught in the middle.
Despite the popularity of K-pop, organising concerts in China is now almost impossible, according to the head of a Korean entertainment company in Beijing set up for Chinese seeking to emulate K-pop heroes. But it is not because of the BTS comments on the Korean war, it is because of US missiles.
In 2016, South Korea, which hosts about 28,000 US troops, agreed to install an American anti-missile system, citing the threat from North Korea which had ramped up its missile tests and defied United Nations resolutions to halt its nuclear weapon development programme.
Installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system the following year enraged Beijing, which said its powerful radar systems could be used to spy on Chinese territory.
The backlash hammered trade, with boycotts hitting South Korean consumer goods, from department stores to cosmetic brands. K-pop artists had their visa applications denied while Korean television shows and music were blocked from streaming services. Tourism between the countries plummeted.
It took a state visit to Beijing in December 2017 by newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in to improve relations. Moon had taken along EXO, a popular South Korean-Chinese K-pop boy band, to energise his diplomatic initiative.
However, K-pop concerts are still banned in mainland China as a remnant of the THAAD dispute, according to the Korean entertainment official in Beijing who declined to be identified because of concern about damage to his business.
The election that brought Moon to power in Seoul also had other ramifications for South Koreans living in China. Moon was swept into office on the back of what became known as the candlelight revolution, when millions of citizens took to the streets to call for the impeachment of then president Park Geun-hye on allegations of corruption.
According to South Korean students in China at the time, the candlelight revolution stirred discussions about organising protests in support of the Seoul marches on campuses in China.
About two dozen South Korean students at Peking University met to discuss the plan in the winter of 2016, according to one of the students who attended the meeting. Protests against the government are normal in South Korea, which went through several decades of authoritarian rule and bloody civil unrest before establishing itself as a full democracy in the 1980s.
In China, the last nationwide protest against the government – the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests – ended in bloodshed and the South Koreans at Peking University were convinced to drop their plan, said the student, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
“I told the president of the Korean students’ association, who wanted to organise a public petition, that any expression of our political opinions in China, even about our own country, was a bad idea,” the student said.
“I’ve lived in China for over a decade, but I still find the Chinese Communist Party intimidating.”
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that political sensitivities will dissuade South Koreans from moving to China, whether for study or business.
Han Seong, a recent graduate from Peking University who was not involved in the 2016 meeting, said that as South Korea’s largest trading partner, China would remain an attractive destination for South Koreans, especially students who failed to gain admission to prestigious universities in Seoul.
But he said he might look elsewhere for a job.
“Because of THAAD, many big Korean companies are more interested in Vietnam now, so that is also an option for me.”
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