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 Weibo, WeChat and Twitter with misinformation and incited Chinese-nationalist sentiments 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 THAAD, a U.S. anti-missile system deployed in South Korea. In addition, Chinese authorities have made it clear that they do not approve of K-pop’s representation of men 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 remake their own versions of popular Korean variety shows, and young Chinese performers flock to Seoul in hope of being signed under a Korean record label.
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 Weibo account. And K-pop has continued to grow in China despite pressure from Beijing.
When the Chinese government put an embargo on South Korean commodities in 2016 — 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 buy 220,000 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 V’s birthday, Chinese fans raised $935,318 to not only support the band but also donate to charitable causes in the name of their idol.
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 to remove some of its smear pieces on 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 the National Basketball Association over comments by the Houston Rockets general manager, or with brands such as Marriott over their inclusion of Taiwan and Tibet in some materials — BTS was largely unaffected. Its record label Big Hit Entertainment is still sitting above its initial public offering price. 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.
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 recent election to 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 Zhao Lijian 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 been generally supportive of 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.