China’s Campaign to Bully South Korean Boy Band BTS for Pro-U.S. Comments Fails

South Korean band BTS presents the award for Best R&B Album during the 61st Annual Grammy Awards on February 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), through its most aggressive media arm, appeared to stand down Thursday on a campaign it claims Chinese “netizens” launched against pop supergroup BTS for remarks praising the relationship between America and South Korea.

BTS, or Bangtan Sonyeondan, became the youngest-ever recipients of the Korea Society’s James A. Van Fleet Award, given to individuals or entities that have made an “outstanding contribution” to ties between America and North Korea. BTS is the world’s most successful Korean pop (K-pop) band, making history this month by claiming the top two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Big Hit Entertainment, BTS’s record label, became South Korea’s largest entertainment company on Wednesday with its debut on the stock market, worth more than the second-, third-, and fourth-biggest companies in the country combined.

During their acceptance speech, the band applauded the decades of friendship between South Korea and the United States.

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

China’s state-run propaganda outlet Global Times condemned RM and his band for the remark, claiming it was “one-sided” as it did not also praise the Chinese military. China fought against South Korea in the active portion of the Korean War and, as no side has signed a peace treaty, the war is technically still ongoing.

The Global Times claimed “netizens” on the Communist Party-controlled Chinese internet were demanding apologies from the band for recognizing the sacrifices of the South Korean and American militaries. Some, it claimed, were boycotting the band or, at least, abandoning its fan base, known as the BTS “ARMY.”

Neither RM nor the band itself has apologized for the remarks, which both the Korean government and the U.S. State Department welcomed. Despite the lack of response from the band, the Global Times abruptly changed its tune on Thursday, claiming that South Korean fans, not the Chinese, had overblown the incident.

“The incident involving South Korean K-pop band BTS has caused a stir on China’s internet. Over in South Korea, public opinion is even more shrill,” wrote the Global Times‘ editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin. Hu made the claim that, while the Chinese were “uncomfortable” with RM’s innocuous remarks, the South Korean backlash to Beijing’s latest attempt at censoring foreign cultural content had gotten out of control.

“Many Chinese people naturally felt uncomfortable with his words. … However, very few [of] China’s mainstream media outlets reported or commented on this issue,” Hu said, omitting the fact that his was one of the few to do so. “A response from a spokesperson from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also showed restraint when asked about the matter by reporters.”

“By contrast, South Korea’s mainstream media have all reported on the reactions of Chinese netizens, with clearly sensational tendencies. A heavy-weight from the opposition party even criticized the silence of the administration of President Moon Jae-in on social media. All these moves are heightening tensions,” Hu argued.

Hu’s praise for the Chinese Foreign Ministry for responding with “restraint” to the controversy also belies the fact that, in free societies, the government typically does not weigh in officially on statements by celebrities. For example, in 2012, the State Department did not have any official comment after an old performance by Psy, the South Korean artist world-famous for his hit “Gangnam Style,” surfaced in which he rapped, “Kill those fucking Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives … Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers/Kill them all slowly and painfully.”

Hu concluded by arguing that Koreans taking offense at his newspaper stoking popular sentiment against BTS was disrespectful to the freedom of speech of Chinese “netizens,” which does not exist under communism.

“All in all, this incident illuminates the fact that select quarters of public opinion in South Korea do not respect the rights of Chinese netizens to express their own ideas,” Hu argued. “In their view whatever the South Koreans say is correct because they have freedom of speech, but it is inappropriate for Chinese netizens to utter dissatisfaction. And if they do, they are dismissed as merely being nationalistic. That’s not fair.”

China rarely takes a “low-profile,” as Hu described it, attitude towards speech abroad that it considers a violation of communist values — in part because its targets typically respond to the bullying with effusive apologies and the censorship of what Beijing found offensive. Last year, China successfully managed to pressure multiple global fashion brands — Coach, Versace, and Givenchy — into offering apologies for correctly failing to depict the nation of Taiwan as part of China. The National Basketball Association (NBA) also apologized last year to Chinese communists after the now-former general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, publicly expressed solidarity with anti-communist protests in Hong Kong.

The comments on Chinese social media outlets, which the state strictly censors, also did not match Hu’s description of them as less aggressive than the ones on free Korean networks.

“Before, I thought some BTS songs were pretty good. Now, they seem to be covered in excrement,” a comment on the Chinese social media outlet Weibo read, according to the Associated Press. “Insulting China is absolutely not allowed.”

Another, catalogued in the Global Times, read: “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.”

The Global Times also attempted to claim that multinational companies were abandoning sponsorship deals with the group in China, using as evidence that Samsung’s online store no longer had BTS content available. Samsung later clarified, however, that the materials in question had sold out.

Unlike the aforementioned cases where companies rapidly apologized, BTS’ record label did not weigh in and the government of South Korea appeared to support the group. The head of South Korea’s Military Manpower Administration, Mo Jong-hwa, called RM’s comments “quite encouraging.” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus also issued a public statement of gratitude for the band.

“Thank you BTS for your ongoing work supporting positive U.S.-ROK [South Korea] relations. You’re very deserving of The Korea Society’s General James A. Van Fleet Award,” she wrote on Twitter. “Music can bring the world together. Folks can learn more about the U.S.-ROK partnership by following U.S. Embassy Seoul.”

Rather than join the band’s alleged Chinese fans, Korean fans protested that the Chinese were going “overboard” and condemned the companies that China claimed had already pulled BTS sponsorships, potentially compromising their business outside of China. The Korea Times, in an editorial, called the uproar from Beijing “incomprehensible.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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