Failing to Cancel BTS, China Announces Plan to Build Rival Boy Band

A commercial poster showing K-pop group BTS members is reflected in a mirror at a duty free shop in Seoul on October 15, 2020. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

China’s Global Times propaganda outlet revealed Wednesday that the Chinese conglomerate Tencent will invest in the creation of “an international boy band” to promote Communist Party-approved cultural exchanges.

The creation of the band will form the basis of CHUANG 2021, a talent program streamed through Tencent Video.

The announcement follows a spectacularly failed attempt on the part of the Chinese government to smear the globally renowned South Korean pop supergroup BTS after a member of the group praised the U.S. military for their sacrifices during the active hostilities of the Korean War. Chinese outlets such as the Global Times condemned the praise as a direct insult to Chinese fans, given that the Chinese also fought in the Korean War, without noting the Chinese fought against the South Koreans. Numerous government reports that “netizens” — the Chinese social media users that the government does not censor — had begun boycotting the group prompted a backlash in South Korea, where BTS fans struggled to understand what Beijing was offended by and expressed frustration with the smear campaign.

Following the attacks on the group, BTS broke multiple records, including becoming the first Korean musical act to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the first group in general to top the Artist 100, Hot 100, and Billboard 200 charts simultaneously, and the first Korean pop group to be nominated for a Grammy Award. The Chinese government campaign also failed to keep BTS singles off of Chinese radio or diminish their popularity within the country.

Big Hit Entertainment, BTS’s record label, debuted on the Korean stock market in October as the country’s largest entertainment company.

According to the Global TimesCHUANG 2021 will serve as an allegedly much-needed cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world, as well as providing Chinese pop music fans an option that the Communist Party would nearly directly control. Tencent is one of China’s largest companies and has close ties to the regime; under a communist system, no company is fully private. Tencent owns one of China’s most popular social media outlets, WeChat, which the regime regularly censors and uses to track inconvenient speech.

“Regardless of whether Tencent is a reluctant or an eager accomplice to the Chinese government’s repressive policies, the reality is that Tencent employees can be expected to censor, monitor, and report private communications and personal data, in many cases leading to innocent people’s arrest and torture,” Freedom House warned in 2019.

Tencent Video will control the search for China’s next great boy band, the Global Times noted.

“The band will be picked from 90 trainees from China, Japan, Russia, and Thailand who will spend months living and training together under the guidance of a team of tutors led by Chinese actor Deng Chao,” the propaganda newspaper detailed. “According to Zhao Jing from Tencent Video, the highlights for the show will be how these trainees from different cultural backgrounds interact with each other and communicate and what the 20 or so overseas trainees will think about Chinese culture.”

The report did not detail when the band’s career would launch, but emphasized that it was meant as a means of connecting viewers to government-approved Chinese culture in the aftermath of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, which began in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

China has proven a hospitable entertainment climate for musical talent discovery programs, in the past alarming the government. In 2017, the Chinese streaming site iQiyi debuted The Rap of China, a talent competition professing to showcase the most popular street rappers in the country. While the show is currently in its fourth season, it barely survived the first. The rappers on the program — sharing lyrics about social frustrations and concerns with authority that mirrored those of American hip-hop culture — proved to be much more popular than years of attempts by the Communist Party to produce and disseminate rap songs about the greatness of communism, with titles such as “Marx Is a Millennial,” “The Four Comprehensives Rap,” and  “The Reform Group Is Two Years Old.”

The Communist Party eventually stepped in, banning “unpatriotic” rap and hip-hop culture from television and forcing some of The Rap of China‘s biggest stars to apologize for their lyrics. One of those stars, season 1 co-winner PG One, apologized for being “deeply influenced by African-American music,” which prompted accusations of racism.

Since the rocky end of the first season, many of The Rap of China‘s most prominent faces have become mouthpieces for Communist Party talking points.

CHUANG 2021 is likely to endure the same fate but, as a Tencent product, will likely toe the Party line from the state. Its arrival, shortly after Beijing tried to manufacture a controversy with BTS, suggests that the show’s resulting band will directly compete with the South Korean group for fans.

BTS incurred the wrath of the Chinese state, government outlets claimed, because of remarks by band member RM thanking American Korean War veterans. RM made the remarks while accepting the Korea Society’s James A. Van Fleet Award, given to those with outstanding achievements in bridging the gap between America and South Korea.

“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.”

The Global Times declared netizens were “enraged” by the innocuous sentiment, claiming it reflected a “one-sided attitude” and that “many Chinese fans decide[d] to quit the band’s fan club.” Several Chinese shipping companies declared they would no longer carry and BTS branded products. The Chinese Foreign Ministry also condemned the remark.

South Korea responded aggressively, condemning China and publicly praising the pro-U.S. sentiments expressed in the Korea Society award speech. The head of South Korea’s Military Manpower Administration, Mo Jong-hwa, called the speech “quite encouraging.” In a little over a month, the South Korean government voted to exempt BTS from the mandatory military service all young men must perform due to their outstanding cultural impact and elevation of South Korea’s reputation abroad, a historic first for Korean pop (K-pop).

China eventually backed down and accused Seoul of overreacting to the fabricated backlash. Chinese officials also denied blocking BTS products from entering the country.

Neither RM nor the group ever apologized for acknowledging the sacrifices of U.S. military veterans.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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