China Declares War on K-Pop Superstars BTS over Pro-U.S. Remarks

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 21: K-pop boy band BTS visit the SiriusXM Studios on February 21, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Samsung removed products referring to the world’s most famous South Korean pop (K-pop) band Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS), Chinese communist propaganda newspaper Global Times claimed on Sunday, after communists expressed outrage that the band applauded the relationship between South Korea and America.

BTS is one of the few acts in a crowded K-pop industry that has managed to break through into major international markets, including the United States. The group, whose output mostly consists of innocuous boy-band love songs, made history last year as the first South Korean musical group to perform on Saturday Night Live. The band’s fan base, known as “BTS Army,” are responsible for generating billions of dollars between consuming music, concerts, and band merchandise.

Last week, the Korea Society honored BTS with its James A. Van Fleet Award, the youngest-ever honorees of that award. The Van Fleet Award, named after the renowned American general who founded the Korea Society, goes annually “to one or more distinguished Koreans or Americans in recognition of their outstanding contributions to the promotion of U.S.-Korea relations,” according to the organization.

Rapper RM, recognized as the lead vocalist in BTS, used the occasion of the award to highlight the unique relationship between South Korea and the United States given America’s participation in the Korean War — which, despite an armistice ending open hostilities in 1953, technically remains in vigor.

“The Korea Society’s 2020 Annual Gala is especially meaningful, as this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean War,” RM said. “We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women.”

“After 70 years, the world we are living in is much closer than before. Boundaries in many aspects are getting more blurred. As members of the global community, we should build a deeper understanding and solidarity to be happier together,” he concluded. “In pursuit of this cause, BTS will always remind ourselves of the meaning of the Van Fleet award and keep doing our best in all that we do. Thank you very much.”

As no side signed a peace agreement or surrender in the Korean War, South Korea is still technically at war with both North Korea and China, just as the United States and China are still technically at war on behalf of either Korean state. The Global Times propaganda outlet, in this context, interpreted RM’s remark that the band will “always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together” as an attack on China.

“Two nations he referred to are the U.S. and South Korea. Many Chinese netizens pointed out that the speech plays up to U.S. netizens, but the country played the role of aggressor in the war,” the Global Times noted. The newspaper claimed that “many” fans have abandoned the group in China, offering only alleged comments from unnamed Chinese “netizens” as proof.

“There were thousands of Chinese soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the war. You are South Korean people and you can say that, but I am Chinese so I decided to be angry and quit the boy band’s fan club to express my clear attitude,” an alleged BTS former fan said, according to the state propaganda outlet.

The Global Times noted on Sunday that Chinese users could no longer purchase any BTS-related products from Samsung’s official online stores following RM’s speech. The outlet allowed for the fact that the missing products may simply be in the process of restocking. The Communist Party has not openly admitted to a ban on BTS at press time.

“Users on popular Chinese e-commerce platform JD.com on Sunday found that BTS-edition smartphone and earphones – Galaxy S20+ 5G BTS Edition and Galaxy Buds+ BTS Edition, disappeared on Samsung’s official store on the e-commerce platform,” the Global Times claimed. “However, a member of staff from the store’s pre-sales services told the Global Times on Monday that the two products are no longer in stock.” The newspaper also claimed that Fila, an Italian brand, had deleted a post on China’s communist-controlled Weibo platform featuring BTS.

The Communist Party of China regularly claims that unspecified “netizens” are “outraged” with various, largely innocuous statements made by celebrities and brands in the free world, threatening to cut off access to the lucrative Chinese market. China’s most prominent attempt to bully a foreign enterprise into silence occurred last year after the general manager of the Houston Rockets NBA team, Daryl Morey, posted a message on Twitter in support of anti-communist protests in Hong Kong. The Communist Party abruptly cut off its relationship with the NBA, costing the sports league “hundreds of millions” of dollars in profit.

The Communist Party is also particularly sensitive about pop music and youth culture, attempting to control all media accessed by the young to prevent them from being open to other ideologies and cultures. Dictator Xi Jinping launched a campaign in the latter half of the 2010s to promote communism through “rap with Chinese characteristics,” resulting in a deluge of anti-American rap songs in the Chinese market, a single referring repeatedly to President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan as a “bitch,” and unfortunately technocratic rap songs like “The Reform Group is Two Years Old.”

While Communist Party rap proved widely unpopular, The Rap of China, a reality TV competition featuring Chinese rappers seeking a record deal, became one of the most-watched programs in the country, largely due to the ability of the rappers to perform content outside of the scope of communist propaganda. In response, the Communist Party banned rappers from Chinese television as part of a larger censorship of “vulgar and immoral content.”

The few The Rap of China alums to have continued on to a successful career now largely parrot Communist Party talking points on social media.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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