The missile drama – how the THAAD missile defense system provoked a Chinese ban of Hallyu

Introduction 

In the military and economic conflicts between the United States and China, South Korea is often caught in the middle. As the two countries are South Korea’s two biggest trading partners the conflicts between the United States and China have a notable negative impact on the country’s export market when sanctions or bans are enacted as a means to put pressure on the South Korea. One reason for tensions between the three countries has been the installment of the US Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in South Korea in 2016. The Chinese government views this system as a threat to the nation’s security, while South Korea argues that it is an important tool for protection from North Korean missile attacks. As South Korea did not adhere to China’s demands for a halt in installment of the system, this sparked an economic retaliation from China towards South Korea with sanctions and bans of South Korean electronic products, components and natural resources. As a somewhat unexpected part of these sanctions, China banned all Korean popular culture, bringing about a Hallyu ban in the country. (Ryall, 2020; Textiera, 2019)

But the Chinese government’s negative attitude towards Hallyu goes beyond the THAAD-crisis and it existed before this conflict. What at first glance might seem far fetched, banning culture due to a military conflict, might not be as inconceivable as it seems in light of China’s history of their own cultural industries in relation to those of South Korea. 

Hallyu – The Korean Wave

The Korean Wave, or Hallyu as it is also called (which is the term I will use henceforth), refers to the rapid growth of export and consumption of South Korean popular culture outside of South Korea. The word has been used since the late 90s and originally mainly referring to South Korean film and television dramas, but has now expanded to include popular music and video games, and in some cases smartphones and digital platforms. To make a distinction between the two Dal-Jong Jin (2016) uses the terms Hallyu 1.0 and Hallyu 2.0. He identifies Hallyu 1.0 as the period between 1997 and 2007, and Hallyu 2.0 beginning around 2008 and onwards (p. 4). (Flew, 2011 p. 54-55; Jin, 2016; Jin, Yoon, 2017) For this essay I will use the term Hallyu when referring to the contemporary Korean Wave, and if needed Hallyu 1.0 when referring to the earlier wave that took place between the late 90s and late 2000s or Hallyu 2.0 when a distinction between the two is needed. 

A frequently used example of the success of Hallyu has been the song Gangnam Style by the artist Psy that was released in 2012, broke several records and held the record of the record of the most seen video on YouTube for several years. (Jin, 2016; Jin, Yoon, 2017) In later years the movie Parasite, with its commercial and critical success in 2019 might be a better example when it comes to audio visual media. However, the best and most recent example of the success of the Korean Wave is the pop band BTS that has soared to the top of charts such as the Billboard Hot 100 and broken world records as the most viewed videos and streamed songs on digital platforms such as YouTube, Spotify and iTunes. (Carras, 2020; Tanús, 2020)

Culture industries in China

In the book The Creative Industries: Culture and Policy by Terry Flew (2011) the author outlines the emergence of the term creative industries and the government policies and strategies behind the term by using the UK DCMS Task Force as the basis of his work. When writing about the case of creative industries in Asia he concludes that there have emerged a diverse range of strategies. But one can note one common denominator between China and South Korea, and that is the role of nationalism in the policies and strategies.

The Chinese government gradually realized the economic potential of the culture industries and has since the mid 2000s and onward introduced a variety of policies to encourage the development and financial support of the industry. It was established that the development of the culture industry could drive the country’s economy as well as give it a chance for international influence. The Chinese state saw the culture industries as a tool to promote a positive image of China internationally and domestically. The culture industry was promoted and supported by the Chinese government as officials saw culture as a way to strengthen the nationalistic views. (Flew, 2011, p. 57-59, Hesmondhalgh, 2018, p. 192-196) Hesmondhalgh notes that the Chinese government intention with the export of popular culture is, among other things, to gain influence by exerting soft power, which he describes as the opposite of military and economic threats and tactics and that it has been a part of official Chinese policy since 2007. (Hesmondhalgh, 2018, p. 404-408)

It is important to note when discussing Chinese cultural industries that the media is controlled by the Chinese government in several ways; via regulations such as an allotted quota of foregin media products and through outright censorship in media, on digital platforms and in some cases a ban of the platforms themselves. (Hesmondhalgh, 2018, p. 392-397, p. 392-397, Jin, 2015, Won 2017, p. 28) 

South Korean culture industries and Hallyu

In the realm of popular culture South Korea is an emerging force that has successfully developed and exported their own popular culture to several other countries, particularly in East Asia. Hallyu, and in recent years most notably K-pop (Korean pop music) challenges the notion of Western dominance over pop culture. The Korean pop music market was estimated to be worth approximately US$30 million in 2009 and the South Korean government estimated that it would be doubled the following year. (Flew 2011 p. 54-55, Hesmondhalgh, 2011 p. 409-412, Jin, 2015, p. 29-33) By 2019 it had grown considerably, into a market worth US$564,2 million. (Waldeck, 2020) 

Jin (2017) identifies the factors of success for culture media in Korea, and the growth of Hallyu in particular, as the economic growth in the Asian region, advanced ICT and social media, the South Korean government’s policies regarding cultural industries and the cultural affinities of the East Asian region. Although Jin argues that the most important factor is the cultural industries, for this specific topic the two interesting factors are the government policies and connection between the East Asian countries. (Jin, 2017, p. 43) 

Flew (2011, p. 54) states that the Korean Wave was not a planned strategy but came about by accident of combined factors; the South Korean government’s move towards more liberal media policies, political pressures for Korean cinema to focus on mass audiences to remove the US influence on the medium and political aspirations for South Korea to become an information society and knowledge economy.  Other scholars such as Yong-jin Won (2017) and Dal Yong Jin (2016, 2017) paint another picture where the South Korean government has been very active in the advancement of the Korean Wave by creating policies, allocating funds and advocating for the export of Korean pop culture. 

In the late 1990s South Korea’s culture industry and ICT policies started to shift towards a neo-liberal market oriented approach with the intent to boost the country’s economy. This shift and the deregulation of the cultural industries continued in the succeeding years and with the succeeding administrations. As a way to promote the industry, initially in East Asia, the government created support policies, tax relief and gave large amounts of funding to various projects and organizations under the enactment of the Basic Law for Cultural Industry Promotion. The involvement of the South Korean government in promoting the cultural industry goes as far as embassies and consulates helping with the planning and organizing of k-pop concerts overseas. (Hesmondhalgh, 2018, p. 409-412; Jin, 2017 p. 47-50; Won, 2017, p. 28-37)

Although there was a shift towards a commercial approach, a part of the reason that Hallyu was heavily supported and promoted by the government was to promote the national brand, particularly in the East Asian region. Won (2017, p. 29-33) explains that comments made on the phenomenon by members of the public focused on the recognition and attention that South Korea enjoyed from the rest of the world. The success of K-pop overseas was seen as evidence of the excellence of Korean culture over other East Asian countries. In the wake of the financial crisis in 1997 the Korean Wave became a symbol of hope and national pride and Hallyu stars were celebrated as role models and patriotic heroes. In the mid 90s, with the emergence of cable broadcasting, Hallyu and it’s stars gained popularity in China. 

An important factor in the rising popularity, particularly in the era of Hallyu 2.0, are digital platforms. With streaming services and social media Hallyu-fans can access drama shows, listen to music and watch live performances and join communities and connect with other fans. This plays an important role in the spread of Hallyu outside of Asia, as the access to Hallyu before the internet era was confined to cable channels of Chinese-speaking countries. As Won states, it is crucial to recognize digital/social media as the key to understanding the Korean Wave. (Yoon, Kang, 2017, p. 15-17) 

The threat of Hallyu 

As Yoon and Kang state (2017, p 15) the Korean Wave should not be brushed off as a cultural phenomenon as it has a political dimension due to the fact that it is a symbol of Korean success and is an important economy for South Korea. These factors can in some cases cause conflicts and power struggles between countries in Asia. 

With the growing popularity of Hallyu grew, several Asian countries expressed worries about losing their nation’s cultural identity and weakening their own culture industries. In Taiwan television actors protested against Hallyu, stating that it lessened job opportunities and impacted working conditions in a negative way. In Japan protests against the broadcasting of Korean dramas were held and in Vietnam Korean dramas were condemned for corrupting youth. In some cases adaptations of the same work have been produced in several countries and later on caused conflict and power struggles over intellectual property. Hesmondhalgh tells the story of the tv adaptations of the Japanese manga Hana Yori Dango, that were made in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and after his book’s publication also in China. The first version that was made in Taiwan in 2001 also launched a boy band named F4 after a group of youth in the show. This later became a copyright conflict and the band was forced to change their name in 2007 when the owners of the copyright of the Japanese comic withdrew their permission to use the name F4. (Won, 2017 p. 28; Hesmondhalgh 2011 p. 409-412)

But the biggest conflict to date concerning Hallyu must be the Chinese ban on South Korean pop culture. As tension grew between China and South Korea due to China’s dissatisfaction with the collaboration between South Korea and USA over the deployment of US Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in 2016 in South Korea, China retaliated with means of soft power tactics and issued a ban on Korean popular culture. Immediately after the announcement k-pop stars that had scheduled events in China were forced to cancel these after being denied visas. Since the ban was issued no major k-pop group has held performances or other appearances such as fanmeets in the country. (Fanmeets are a popular phenomenon within hallyu-culture, where a group, artist, actor or actress holds an event with autograph signings, performances, Q&A and the likes to interact with their fans.) The Korean drama-industry has also suffered as South Korean content is banned from airing on Chinese TV and online streaming. Some Chinese-Korean co-productions have been halted, productions that are completed have not been allowed to be distributed and Korean actors and actresses have not been invited to act in Chinese productions. (CBS News, 2017; Frater, 2016; Maizland, 2017; Textiera, 2019; Zhang, Fung 2017 p. 133) There have been reports and speculations about the ban being lifted over the years, but these have been related to minor events and exceptions from the ban. As he THAAD-conflict has not been resolved and reignited a complete lift of the ban is highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. (Hong, 2020; Reuters, 2020; Yim, 2020).

However the Chinese concerns with Hallyu do not begin or end with the retaliation over military issues. Even before the ban Chinese officials have lashed out at Korean pop culture in different ways. Before the Hallyu-ban a quota was in effect that limited the number of Korean dramas allowed to air by the country’s broadcasters. The Chinese government has also lashed out at individual productions and artists. Such was the case of the Korean drama show Descendants of the Sun that prompted China’s Ministry of Public Security to warn against the dangers of watching Korean dramas claiming that Korean dramas might cause divorce, disease and/or legal problems. (The Strait Times, 2016; Tan, 2016) As recently as mid October Chinese officials launched a propaganda campaign aimed at the pop group BTS, calling for a ban and publishing smear pieces about the group. (Tam, 2020) In both these examples government officials have used social media as a tool, in particular the Chinese social media platform Weibo, one of the leading popular social media platforms. Due to the Chinese government’s involvement and censorship, articles in favor of the state can be published and content can be featured, fabricated or deleted. (Hesmondhalgh, 2018, p. 392-397; Jin, 2015, p. 49-66, p. 174) 

The success of Korean television dramas in Asia has long been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government. Korean dramas are considered a harmful influence in regards to morals and values on the Chinese society, and as Korean dramas enjoy greater success than the Chinese it damages the national image of the superiority of Chines culture. Chinese officials have expressed dissatisfaction over it’s culture industries inability to keep up and produce Chinese dramas with the same quality and popularity as those of South Korea. Where Chinese aspirations to gain international success as a means for international influence and strengthening the national brand have been marginally successful, Korea has triumphed. While Hallyu is a source of national pride and seen as a symbol of South Korea’s superiority, the Chinese popular culture has not spread beyond East Asia and it’s popular cultural products are seen as of lesser quality in comparison to Korean. (Won, 2017, p.24-28) 

Another aspect of how Hallyu is seen as damaging to the Chinese national interests is the fear of deterioration of Chinese masculinity caused by portrayals of men in dramas and images of male k-pop artists. Officials and citizens express fear over the influx of k-pop artists who often wear makeup, jewelry and extravagant outfits, as they fear that this will bring about a feminization of Chinese young men making them weak. The Chinese state-run media has gone as far as calling k-pop stars “sissy pants” and warning that the “sick” and “decadent” k-pop is a threat to China’s future generations of men.  (Livny, 2019; South China Morning Post, 2019)

In an interview with South China Morning Post (2019) the cultural studies scholar Dr. Song Geng explains the underlying reasons of this fear:  

They’re worrying that if Chinese men are so effeminate … then we will become a weak country in future and we cannot compete with our rivals. […] There’s anxiety about the virility of the nation being harmed by those effeminate male images.

End notes

A very simple summary of the Chinese approach to Hallyu would be; a) The Chinese government sees Hallyu as a threat to the nation in regards to production, where South Korea is the superior in quality. b) The Chinese government sees Hallyu as a threat in regards to distribution, as Korean pop culture is more successful. c) The Chinese government sees Hallyu as a threat to the nation in regards to content, as the spread of Korean culture is seen as a negative influence on the Chinese people’s morale and identity. 

In light of this it can be argued that the Hallyu ban might have been prompted by the THAAD conflict, but it might not have been a difficult decision to make by the Chinese government as it reaped additional benefits by closing off Korean popular culture influence in China. With a complete ban of Hallyu, the Chinese government no longer needs to try to curb what it perceives as the threat to society, meaning what they considered the deplorable values and portrayals spread by Korean pop culture.

As seen in the cases where the government has issued warnings, critical statements or censorship the Chinese government can and often will stir up nationalist sentiment among its people, and use that as a weapon against things such as foregin popular culture or products, which in turn can lead to the population boycotting certain commodities. And so by claiming national interests and the dissatisfaction with South Korea’s alliance with the United States, the Chinese government can legitimize a ban of Hallyu that is supported by a large amount of the Chinese population and seen as a reasonable measure rather than state censorship. The decisions and policies of the Chinese government are often difficult to decipher and the sentiments of the Chinese population are hard to examine because of the state control over social media, which means that these are mere speculations as to the different reasons to why China enacted a ban of a country’s popular culture and the populations actual opinions on the subject. Indications on social media often show a full support of the government’s actions, as well as in this case, but because of the influence of the Chinese government over social media content it is hard to say if this is actually the case. 

Although the economical impact of the Hallyu ban has been prominent on the South Korean culture industries, Hallyu is sweeping across the rest of the world. The k-pop sensation has created a growing interest in Korean popular culture and Korean dramas are gaining popularity among new audiences with the help of streaming services such as Netflix. This growing market might soon make up for the economical losses. (South China Morning Post, 2020)

Hallyu Studies

The emergent field of Hallyu studies is relatively new and has mainly focused on East Asia and North America or made sweeping research on Europe as a whole without considering the different aspects of each country and factors such as socioeconomic status, ICT structure, diaspora and much more. But since the Hallyu wave is ever growing, there is reason to consider studies focused on the Scandinavian countries. There are a multitude of studies that can be made within cultural studies by looking at Hallyu and youth culture. A very interesting phenomenon that I have not brought up in this essay is the way in which k-pop fans use social media not only for their interest in the music, but are also very capable in mobilizing big activist campaigns for social justice issues. (Romano, 2020)

References

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