The Beijing Winter Olympics has attracted worldwide attention. The opening ceremony not only wowed the audience but also sparked outrage among the media and netizens of South Korea, one of China’s closest neighbours. Many South Koreans, including top politicians, accused China of “stealing” South Korea’s traditional culture when they saw the hanbok being featured in the opening ceremony.
But the disapproval and accusations did not stop there. South Korean netizens called for a firm boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and beyond, believing that many South Korean athletes were being “unfairly treated” in Beijing. They were particularly outraged that their short track speed skaters were “unfairly disqualified” by referees. A recent editorial by a leading South Korean newspaper even used terms like “grab” and “snatch” to complain about how Chinese athletes took the medals from the hands of the Koreans. The Chinese media and young Chinese netizens responded with eye-for-eye rebuttals. Why has a sporting event, which was supposed to promote communication and friendship, become a trigger for blame and abuse among the netizens of two neighbouring countries?
When conflicts and disagreements, which unfortunately involve a nation’s historical memory or sense of pride, arise among nations, the public and especially netizens are often eager to express or even vent their negative sentiments, with or without genuine justifications. This may be one of the instincts if not weaknesses of human nature, and it certainly transcends national boundaries. Outrage is a kind of sentiment, not necessarily an opinion or position based on rationality.
What about Chinese Koreans’ right to their own cultural heritage?
So, what happened in the case of the hanbok featured in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics? A costume can be a symbol of cultural tradition and representation of a country and nation’s historical memory. So was China really “stealing” South Korea’s culture and historical memory?
Expression of one’s own heritage
Just as South Korea also uses Chinese characters and retains many Confucian traditions in its culture and family customs (although, of course, these cultural elements have undergone a long period of “localisation” or “Koreanisation”), China is not stealing South Korea’s tradition or culture but displaying the traditional dress of the Chinese Korean people, one of China’s many ethnic minorities. If we follow the logic of the accusations from South Korea, then are millions of Chinese Koreans stealing South Korea’s traditional culture just by wearing their own ethnic costume and speaking their own language? What about Chinese Koreans’ right to their own cultural heritage?
Let’s take Chinese calligraphy as another example. In the more than a decade that I have lived in South Korea, I have seen South Koreans, often old grandpas in traditional costumes, namely the hanbok, intently writing Chinese characters with brushes on important holidays and other occasions, mostly based on classical Chinese works. Some characters or phrases might be slightly localised or Koreanised, either in form or meaning. It is called 서예 (seo ye, in Chinese 书艺 shu yi, which means calligraphy and what the Chinese call 书法 shu fa). I certainly understand that it is already a part of South Korean people’s culture and customs, and I believe that most Chinese would not think of making a complaint at any level or feel that an accusation should be made against the South Koreans.
...differences are undeniable, although issues and conflicts involving China and South Korea alone are not that frequent or serious.
History of riffs not irreconcilable
However, the point is that when other factors and considerations are added in, the situation may become more subtle and complex. It is true that since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea 30 years ago, economic and trade relations between the two countries have grown by leaps and bounds, while political mutual trust has also reached a very high level. But even with the increasingly frequent exchanges of the people of both countries, differences are undeniable, although issues and conflicts involving China and South Korea alone are not that frequent or serious.
Among other differences, disagreements over the so-called “Northeast Project” involving disputed history in the early 2000s, and the fishing clashes especially around 2010 may be regarded as relatively more serious ones. The deployment of the terminal high altitude area defence (THAAD) system, however consequential it was and will be, is a very serious issue between Beijing and Seoul that was originally brought about by a third country, the US, which claimed to target North Korea with such a system. Hence, theoretically, there is no fundamental, core or irreconcilable conflict of interest between China and South Korea.
Blown out of proportion
Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the South Korean public’s favourable opinion of China has dropped significantly recently. According to a recent public survey, the South Korean public’s view of China has dropped to a rather low level that is even lower than that of Japan. This is probably due to the accumulated long-term effect of several factors, including the recurring disputes over certain aspects of historical or cultural heritage, the delicate and crucial role of the US as South Korea’s ally that sees China as a strategic competitor, and most recently the issue of the Covid-19 pandemic.
...the current outrage in South Korea is being exaggerated and that it plays into the hands of the conservatives, especially given the time of the upcoming South Korea’s presidential election...
“I don’t think it is a big thing at all,” Stephen Costello, non-resident scholar at GW Institute for Korean Studies at George Washington University, and former director of the Korea programme at the Atlantic Council, explained to me in an email exchange. He believes that the current outrage in South Korea is being exaggerated and that it plays into the hands of the conservatives, especially given the time of the upcoming South Korea’s presidential election that might change South Korea’s domestic and foreign policies significantly.
The year 2022 not only witnesses South Korea’s presidential election but also marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between Beijing and Seoul. I believe that there are many more incentives and opportunities than obstacles for China and South Korea — for example, through multi-level personnel exchanges — to overcome existing differences and do their best to put aside the interference of extra-regional factors so that bilateral relations can move forward smoothly on a rational track.
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