Under Fire, China Denies Blocking Boy Band BTS Products over Pro-U.S. Comments

South Korean boy band BTS attends the 2019 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 1, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Bridget BENNETT / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRIDGET BENNETT/AFP via Getty Images)
BRIDGET BENNETT/AFP via Getty Images

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied that the Communist Party issued any directive to block merchandise related to South Korean pop (K-pop) group BTS from entering the country on Wednesday after multiple Chinese logistics companies said they would do so.

BTS, or Bangtan Sonyeondan, is one of the world’s most successful boy bands, with a vibrant global fanbase that catapulted them in September to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the first Korean act to do so in history. The band currently boasts both the top and second-place spots on the chart. Big Hit Entertainment, the band’s record label, became the highest valued entertainment company in South Korea last week after its initial public offering resulted in the company being valued at $7.5 billion.

In mid-October, BTS received the Korea Society’s James A. Van Fleet Award, an accolade given to those considered to have made extraordinary contributions to improving the relationship between South Korea and America. During its acceptance speech, the group’s lead vocalist RM praised America’s contributions in the Korean War.

“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.”

America aided South Korea after communist North Korea attacked it. China took North Korea’s side and remains one of Pyongyang’s closest allies. The positive aspects of the relationship between Beijing and Seoul are largely couched in not addressing this adversarial relationship and instead bonding over issues of mutual interest, such as condemning Japan for forcing Chinese and Korean women into sex slavery (“comfort women”) during World War II.

This week, Chinese dictator Xi Jinping attended an event to celebrate the 70th anniversary of China’s involvement in the Korean War against South Korea, claiming “victory” in a war that no one has won yet. China has branded the Korean War the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.”

In this context, BTS’s acceptance speech triggered the outrage of the Communist Party of China, which used its state propaganda outlets to claim that “netizens” — users on strictly regulated Chinese media outlets — were calling for a full boycott of the band. China’s Global Times also claimed that Korean company Samsung had stopped selling BTS products on its Chinese website, but Samsung later clarified that the products were simply sold out.

RM, his band, and his record label have at press time not responded publicly to the controversy or apologized for praising the U.S. military in its support of South Korea during the war, which remains technically ongoing today.

On Tuesday, multiple Chinese shipping companies joined the fray, announcing they would no longer ship BTS-branded products into China.

Yunda Express, a Chinese logistics company, announced on Chinese social media outlet Weibo on Tuesday that it would stop shipping any product tied to BTS.

“All BTS courier deliveries have been temporarily suspended … The reasons are what we all know,” the company’s statement reportedly read.

YTO Express and ZTO Express, two other Chinese shipping companies, announced they would follow on Wednesday. Unlike Yunda, ZTO Express indicated that the Communist Party was forcing the company to boycott the band, according to UPI.

“Each box that is suspicious [of carrying BTS products] can be opened as the regulations have become strict. Other Korean products will be affected as well,” a ZTO statement indicated. ZTO notably deleted the statement from its social media within 24 hours.

China’s attempts to censor popular celebrities and cultural institutions typically result in immediate, effusive apologies from companies fearing the demise of their profits should the second-largest economy in the world close itself off to them. Fashion companies have been particularly vulnerable to Communist Party bullying; Coach, Versace, Givenchy, GAP, Dolce & Gabbana, and Christian Dior have all apologized to the “Chinese people” after the Communist Party threatened their businesses over minor oversights regarding Beijing’s political views, most involving the use of a map of China on clothing that did not include parts of the world that are not part of China, such as Taiwan.

Other major international companies have apologized for even smaller alleged infractions. Marriott International, a hotel chain, apologized to the Communist Party after a social media manager used a Marriott account on Twitter to like a post by a “Friends of Tibet” account. Tibetans consider their land occupied by Han Chinese outsiders, who have imposed repressive communist policies to erase Tibetan Buddhism and local language and culture.

In the case of BTS, however, no one affiliated with the band has apologized and international public sentiment has turned against Beijing. South Korean fans of the band were especially outraged by the initial uproar against RM’s innocuous comments, even raising a recurring issue in the country regarding calls to allow boy bands to defer mandatory military service, which has led to the demise of some of the most popular musical acts in the country. The backlash to China’s attempts to silence BTS was so severe that the Global Times published a story last week claiming that South Korea was violating the free speech of Chinese people — which does not exist under communist rule — by objecting to comments on Party-controlled social media.

South Korea’s government has also vocally objected to Communist Party bullying of its most successful export. South Korean Ambassador to China Jang Ha-sung told lawmakers Wednesday that he had immediately addressed the issue of an alleged BTS product boycott with Chinese diplomats, expressing the disapproval of his government.

“We have been seriously responding to this matter as this is a very sensitive issue and could hurt the sentiment of the people in both countries,” Jang said, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap. “As there was a related news report again today, we had a phone call with the Chinese customs office, and they said that the news about BTS was a wild rumor.”

The Communist Party appears to be, for now, losing public sentiment, and is vocally denying any involvement in the alleged shipping bans.

“The Chinese customs and other government departments have never rolled out any policy that you mentioned. China’s position on supporting and promoting China-ROK [South Korea] friendly exchange and win-win cooperation hasn’t changed,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters Wednesday. “We don’t want to see irresponsible reports and comments like these to further impact the atmosphere of bilateral relations.”

Zhao did not identify any “irresponsible reports” on the matter and did not deny that the shipping companies in question had published the notes circulating online. He added that his counterpart at the South Korean Foreign Ministry and he “share similar views” and that both countries should attempt to look forward “cherishing peace and promoting friendship.”

The Global Times specified that the “irresponsible” reports in question were those repeating the official statements by Chinese companies online.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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