World Opinions | China went up against a K-pop giant — and lost
Inside the Unrelenting Power of K-Pop: Your Guide to Everything From BTS and Beyond
K-pop is a global phenomenon that has transcended borders and language barriers—and it's time you got on board.A fan-voted category that once belonged to Justin Bieber, who won six years in a row, now seems to be firmly in the clutches of a septet out of South Korea who have been on the forefront of a global music revolution. We're talking, of course, about BTS.
Arthur Tam is a journalist and was formerly an editor at Time Out Hong Kong and Cedar Hong Kong.
Hell hath no fury like a legion of loyal K-pop fans scorned.
This month, K-pop group BTS accepted the Korea Society’s James A. Van Fleet Award, which recognizes the group’s role in developing goodwill between South Korea and the United States. By all accounts, it was a harmless event focusing on diplomacy. But then band leader Kim Nam-joon, better known as RM, made a comment about the tragedies of the Korean War,“we need to always remember the history of pain shared by the two nations, and sacrifices of many men and women.”
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This immediately triggered the paranoia of the Chinese propaganda machine, which bizarrely interpreted the remark as an insult because there was no mention of Chinese lives lost during the war. State media flooded, WeChat and Twitter with misinformation while denouncing BTS, causing brands such as FILA and Samsung to remove images of the group from their Chinese sites.
Yet as the dust settles on the spat, it has become increasingly clear that China picked a fight with an enemy it can’t beat.
China’s relationship with Seoul has been strained ever since the dispute over, a U.S. anti-missile system deployed in South Korea. In addition, Chinese authorities have made it clear that they do not approve of and fears its growing influence in the country. China’s own pop culture development in the past decade follows South Korean entertainment’s aesthetic formula in certain ways: Chinese television stations of popular Korean variety shows, and young Chinese performers flock to Seoul in hope of being signed under a Korean record label.
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By attacking, Beijing likely thought it could curb South Korean influence and reassert its own political importance in one shot. This was a grave misstep. BTS has become one of the most popular global acts with an extremely protective fan base. Its fan battalion, called the ARMY or Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth, has members across all races, genders, creeds, ages, sexualities and nationalities — at least several million of whom are likely Chinese, based on the group’s. And K-pop has continued to grow in China despite pressure from Beijing.
When the Chinese government put— including K-pop — because of THAAD, all of BTS’s music and promotional activities came to a halt in China. Nevertheless, its Chinese fan club was able to copies of BTS’s latest album through a surrogate shopper and bring them into the country, breaking the record for fan purchases. For group member Chinese fans raised $935,318 to not only support the band but also donate to charitable causes in the name of their idol.
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So, when the Van Fleet Award situation erupted, Chinese nationalists were met with opposition not only from fans but also from regular Chinese netizens who were confused as to why there was a controversy to begin with. This forced state newspaper Global Times toon BTS and the initial online furor quickly died out.
Being challenged was not what Chinese authorities and state media were expecting. Unlike in previous spats — for example, with theby the Houston Rockets general manager, or with over their inclusion of Taiwan and Tibet in some materials — BTS was largely unaffected. Its record label is . And in the past few years, the group’s global promotional efforts have made them less reliant on China.
The Chinese government underestimated K-pop and just how emotionally passionate fans are for their idols and what they represent — an inclusive safe space that provides a comforting escape, especially in these pandemic-ridden times. This sentiment is not something the government can strong-arm into submission, like its failed attempts to subvert and strong-arm religion.
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From a cultural standpoint, Beijing made a deeply unwise decision. As the demand for Korean pop culture increases around the world, China’s image continues to suffer. In the recentto the U.N. Human Rights Council, China received the fewest votes ever since joining. And when a high-level government official such as China’s foreign ministry spokesperson picks a fight with a boy band, the embarrassing spectacle goes against the image of invulnerability China likes to project.
If Beijing cares about its image, it could take a few notes from South Korea. Since the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the South Korean government has beenof the country’s creative industries. It understood the importance of art, fashion, music and culture for soft power. And now, big Korean music companies have harnessed their creativity for the perfect product: idol groups who are wholesome, affable and vulnerable, appealing to a global and massive audience.
When the old guard and red guard go up against a group of dazzling young men, it’s not difficult to see who the younger generation would choose to align with — if not now, than in the long run, as Korea’s cultural exports continue to find a larger audience. China can continue blocking BTS all it wants, but the band and the movement they represent are the best bet to win the culture wars in the end.
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