Failing to Cancel BTS, China Attacks Korean Girl Band BlackPink for Poor Panda Handling

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 23: Girl group BlackPink performs on stage during the 8th Gaon Chart K-Pop Awards on January 23, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

Chinese “netizens,” social media users allowed to express only opinions pre-approved by the Chinese Communist Party, launched a campaign against the Korean pop (K-pop) girl band BlackPink this week following the publication of a video of members cuddling with a panda.

According to a Reuters report published Wednesday, the “netizens” condemned BlackPink, one of South Korea’s most popular musical acts, because the group members held and cuddled a baby panda without wearing gloves, potentially exposing it to disease.

China strictly regulates the consumption of foreign cultural products and censors internet content that it considers does not “reflect core socialist values.” Following South Korea’s decision to join with the United States in purchasing and installing a missile defense system to protect from North Korean attack, the Communist Party began systematically blurring out K-pop stars and Korean actors from entertainment available in China. Beijing has largely failed to combat the overwhelming global popularity of K-pop, however, so it has instead reverted to attempting to force Korean acts to apologize to the Party for minor infractions. On one occasion last year it succeeded: Choi Siwon, a member of the band Super Junior, apologized to the Chinese people for liking a post on Twitter that featured an interview with a member of the anti-communist Hong Kong movement.

A similar attempt to force a member of South Korea’s – and arguably the world’s – most popular boy band, BTS, to apologize for thanking American veterans of the Korean War last month failed.

The effort against BlackPink appears to have partially succeeded. BlackPink’s record label, YG Entertainment, published a teaser video last week for a variety show which would have featured the group’s visit to a South Korean zoo where the first panda to be born in the country in captivity, Fu Bao, resides. The video showed the group members petting Fu Bao; at least one member appeared not to be wearing gloves.

“Some Chinese local media and online commentators denounced the girl group for touching Fu Bao with bare hands and while wearing too much make-up, saying it threatened the health of the young cub. The comments set off a storm on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter,” Reuters reported. “As of Tuesday, there were millions of views and 55,000 posts on hashtag ‘Blackpink touched panda cub wrongly’ on Weibo.”
Weibo is a Chinese social media platform strictly regulated by the state. China does not allow its citizens to use platforms not controlled by the Communist Party directly, such as Facebook or Twitter. China does allow senior members of the Party to maintain accounts on Facebook and Twitter to publish state propaganda and demand the banning of opinions the Party disapproves of.

The Global Times, China’s most belligerent English-language propaganda outlet, quoted a zoologist arguing that BlackPink’s behavior was “dangerous.”

“Especially those who keep a dog at home, they are dangerous for pandas. There is a risk of spreading canine distemper,” Diao Kunpeng, the alleged “expert,” said. Some BlackPink members are known to own dogs.

The Global Times quoted one alleged BlackPink fan demanding punishment for the band, zookeepers, and producers.

“All the people in this incident have a responsibility, including BlackPink, producers of the show and keepers of Huani and Fubao,” the Chinese “fan” allegedly said. “Fubao is so small that it just has weak immunity. Even if members of Black Pink have no awareness of matters needing attention, why do others not inform them?”

The Global Times reported that Weibo users viewed the hashtag “South Korean entertainers touched giant pandas in wrong ways” over 550 million times. Weibo users can only access content approved by the Party. Reuters noted that similar interest in the incident occurred in South Korea. Increasingly irritated Korean fans of their domestic pop industry reportedly suggested South Korea should return the pandas to China, as they were not worth the trouble.

YG Entertainment issued a statement Saturday regarding the panda incident, announcing it would postpone airing the program in the teaser yet insisting experienced zookeepers helped the band properly handle the panda cub.

“All BLACKPINK members wore sanitary gloves, masks, and protective clothing when they were in contact with the baby panda, and they also sanitized their hands and shoes during every transition between takes,” the statement read, according to the Korea Herald. “Nevertheless, in respect of international cooperation practices and recommendations from panda experts (who say) that nonprofessionals having close contact with the baby panda can cause misunderstandings, we decided to withhold the release of the related video.”

BlackPink is YG Entertainment’s saving grace act following catastrophic publicity in 2019, partly due to the implosion of its highest-profile act, the boy group BigBang. YG CEO CEO Yang Hyun-suk resigned last year in the wake of a scandal tying Yang and Seungri, a member of BigBang, to an underground prostitution ring, allegedly run out of Burning Sun, a nightclub that Seungri partially owned. Seungri resigned from BigBang and the entertainment industry generally, leaving the future of the band, whose other members were largely disconnected from the celebrity world due to mandatory military service, in limbo.

Seungri hosted a Netflix original program titled YG Future Strategy Office, a sitcom in which he ran a fictional damage-control public relations unit in the record label’s offices.

Prior to the panda incident, some industry observers suggested that BlackPink could be the group to finally break through China’s artificial barriers against K-pop erected in response to Seoul’s cooperation with Washington.

“Given the popularity of the group and the hype surrounding their return, such a sales record might not seem too surprising on the face of it, but given China’s recent rocky relationship with K-Pop, the achievement comes with extra significance,” Radii China, an entertainment outlet founded by a former Alibaba executive, reported in June. “Some attribute this to China’s soft K-Pop ban in place since 2016 after Seoul allowed the deployment of a US missile defense system in Korea. Since then, no strictly Korean acts have performed in China. Still, this year another YG Entertainment artist G-Dragon scored a high-profile brand deal with drinks brand Nongfu Water.”

G-Dragon is a member of BigBang, one of those completing mandatory military service when the Burning Sun scandal broke.

Since then, however, BlackPink is the second major K-pop act that Chinese government-controlled “netizens” have declared war against. In October, Chinese propaganda outlets condemned BTS after a member of the group, rapper RM, thanked the United States for its aid to his country during the active era of the Korean War.

“We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women,” RM said during remarks thanking the Korea Society for granting the group its James A. Van Fleet Award, which honors exceptional efforts to bring America and South Korea together.

“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 protested. China was engaged in active hostilities against South Korea at the time, but the Global Times suggested BTS should have also praised Chinese soldiers for invading and killing fellow Koreans. The Global Times also claimed that Samsung, among other companies, had stopped selling BTS merchandise in China, but Samsung clarified that BTS is so popular in China that its products had merely sold out.

Beijing eventually caved in its struggle against the boy band. The Foreign Ministry claimed the Communist Party had nothing to do with angry “netizens” or shipping companies banning BTS gear and the Global Times condemned South Korean fans for being outraged at China’s attempts at censorship.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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