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[Hwang’s China and the World] Seeking new Korea-China relations: Evaluating social and cultural fields

Sept. 8, 2022 - 15:22 By Korea Herald
Min Kwi-sik (left) and Dong Xiangrong.

Now is the time for Korea and China to look back on the past, face the present and talk about the future. Over the past 30 years, Korea-China relations have developed to the point that we may call it explosive in respective fields. The establishment of Korea-China diplomatic relations was an important turning point in advancing the new era of prosperity in Northeast Asia. And now both Korea and China have grown into the core countries in the international community. China, along with the United States, has grown into a major powerhouse in the international community, and Korea has become a globally charming country. Nevertheless, it is also true that there are some friction and conflicts due to the rapid growth and compressed development of the relationship. However, the two countries should endeavor to overcome the current growing pains and build a more mature partnership. Korea and China are neighbors that cannot move away from one another. This geographic condition makes us take an approach in a longer-term perspective, with a longer breath. Meeting the 30th anniversary of Korea-China diplomatic relations this year, we should take it as an opportunity to further strengthen the infrastructure of the relationship and establish a new type of Korea-China relationship that enables strategic communication.

In this regard, we prepared a series on seeking new Korea-China relations for three weeks including today, from the perspectives of social culture, economic trade and diplomatic and security. This week’s interview invites two representative experts on social culture, the first theme of our series. First, we have Dong Xiangrong, the senior research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and professor Min Kwi-sik from the Graduate School of International Studies in Hanyang University who also serves as the director of the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Hwang: What is the scale of interpersonal communication between the two countries? Please analyze it from the perspective of quantity and quality.

Dong: In terms of numbers, the number of people-to-people exchange is particularly valuable considering that South Korea has a population of only 52 million and the two countries are not connected by land, only by sea and air routes. However, as neighboring countries, although there have been over 100 million exchanges between China and South Korea in the past 30 years, the percentage of people who have visited each other’s country is not high. It is estimated that no more than 3 percent of China’s 1.4 billion population have visited South Korea, while a large proportion of South Korean visitors are business travelers who frequently travel between China and South Korea. What is the percentage of South Koreans who have direct experience of China? 30 percent? “Seeing is believing.” I hope more South Korean people come to China to experience the profound Chinese culture.

Min: The people exchanges between Korea and China have grown rapidly. The peak was in 2016, with 8.26 million Chinese visitors to Korea and 4.76 million Koreans visiting China, exceeding 13 million in total. Since then, the number has decreased sharply due to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system and COVID-19, however, it will recover to a considerable level after a while. The number of long-term residents from each country is the criteria to identify the qualitative exchanges. Today we have 1 Chinese for every 50 Koreans living in Korea, and 1 Korean for every 80 Chinese in China, which shows that the two countries are deeply linked and engaged to each other.

Hwang: What is the situation for South Koreans in China?

Dong: According to statistics from South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, there were 256,875 South Koreans in China in 2021. The total number of South Koreans in China has stabilized at 250,000 in the past decade, and the number of South Korean students in China has fallen by nearly half compared with the number five years ago. Currently, the number of Chinese in South Korea is about 800,000, and there are about 60,000 Chinese students in South Korea. Sizable Korean-populated areas have been formed in Wangjing in Beijing, Chengyang in Qingdao, Gubei in Shanghai, and these places have become attractive sites for Chinese people to experience Korean culture.

Hwang: How would you describe the current circumstances of Chinese people in Korea and what challenges are there?

Min: The long-stay Chinese in Korea are actually the major resource that supports the basic areas of the Korean economy, but the evaluation on these people is quite low. Technically they are the reliable speakers in terms of delivering Korean images to China. In this sense, it is problematic to portray Chinatown in a negative angle in films. In particular, the attitude toward Korean countrypeople living as second-class citizens in both China and Korea should be changed. Prior to improving the immigration policy, social and legal support for ethnic Koreans in China should be strengthened.

Hwang: What are the achievements of the Korean Wave in China?

Min: The Korean Wave first started with dramas and expanded into music, films and culture. But the thing is that Hallyu fans are limited to only certain generations. We must understand that the Korean Wave can only be maintained when it is supported by steady economic growth and democratic politics. Since the true Korean Wave can bear fruit by having people relish ‘Korea’ itself beyond just a few cultural genres, a comprehensive perspective and approach are essential to enhance Korea's soft power.

Dong: The Korean Wave is an important channel for Chinese people to learn about South Korea. It has prevailed in China since the 1990s. In the beginning, some TV drama series with the theme of family life attracted a large number of middle-aged and elderly women viewers. The common identity in a Confucian cultural sphere made Chinese audiences regard South Korean culture as “an old friend.” South Korean romance dramas have captivated many young Chinese. It is jokingly said that the popularity of the Korean Wave has greatly increased women’s requirements for their partners, which indirectly had an impact on the decline of their desire for marriage. In recent years, Chinese teenagers have become enamored with K-pop and other popular culture. Regardless of China’s security concerns, the deployment of the US THAAD system greatly dampened the enthusiasm for the Korean Wave fans in China. The Korean Wave’s fever has been reduced. Even so, the Chinese public’s appreciation for Korean pop culture is still palpable. I personally run a social media blog with more than 80,000 followers in China. I once asked which South Korean movie was their favorite and received thousands of comments. It had far more clout than similar questions related to other countries.

Hwang: What are the achievements of Korean-language promotion in China?

Dong: From a worldwide perspective, the place where Korean education has developed most rapidly in terms of either speed or scale over the past 30 years in the world is China. Before the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and South Korea, only five universities in China had a Korean language major, such as Peking University and Yanbian University. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, there has been a boost in the number of universities offering Korean language as a major. At present, more than 200 universities in China offer Korean language as a major, which is unimaginable in any other country. The demand for Korean language talents from Korean enterprises in China, Chinese enterprises in Korea, universities, academic institutions and foreign affairs agencies in governments at all levels has promoted the widespread development of Korean language education in China. In recent years, as the expansion of market demand has dropped, the number of students majoring in Korean language has also declined. Nevertheless, some Chinese learn Korean simply to better understand Korean culture and listen to Korean songs.

Hwang: Is there any particular stories on achievements or challenges of the Chinese language fever in Korea?

Min: As can be seen from the fact that many private Chinese academies closed down, the current Chinese fever has cooled considerably. It may be in a sense of growing pain, however, actually not many people necessarily need to learn Chinese. With the advent of interpretation apps, those who are willing to travel or appreciate Chinese culture can easily and technically find the solution. In addition, as China's cultural capacity grows, the number of people who naturally learn Chinese will increase. Therefore, what we should do now is make more efforts to raise the level of graduates from related departments which are specializing in Chinese.

Hwang: What is the scale of Koreans among international students in China?

Dong: Before the pandemic, China was the top destination for overseas study in Asia. The biggest group of international students in China is South Korean students. According to statistics from China’s Ministry of Education, there were 492,200 international students in China in 2018, 50,600 students of whom were from South Korea. After the outbreak of the pandemic, the number of international students in China dropped. Statistics from South Korea’s Foreign Ministry show that 34,000 South Korean students studied in China in 2021. The number is significantly lower than the number of Chinese students in South Korea. When it comes to Korean students studying in China, it reminds me of Choe Chi-won from the Silla Dynasty (57 BC-AD 935), who came to study in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and spread Chinese culture far and wide. The large group of overseas students has made an important contribution to enhancing exchanges between China and South Korea. Many of them have become leading figures in South Korea.

Hwang: How many Chinese students are in Korea? What kind of achievements have they made or what are the challenges are they facing?

Min: Last year, about 67,000 students out of 152,000 international students were Chinese students and that makes up 44.2 percent. Although the ratio has decreased compared to 10 years ago, since the number of international students has been increasing slightly, we can say the number of Chinese students was not largely affected by the THAAD issue. However, the fact that Chinese students mostly choose to study liberal arts in Korea might mean that our level of science and engineering should grow further. On the other hand, the percentage of students who came to Korea because they liked Korea, but return to their country as an anti-Korean after studying here is recording a pretty high rate. This is a problematic phenomenon. Only when the academic management of international students become more active and cautious, Korea’s competitiveness of studying in Korea will be maintained.

Hwang: What is the situation of Korea-related majors at Chinese universities?

Dong: There are roughly over 100 research institutions related to the Korean Peninsula in China. Korean institutions such as the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies, the Academy of Korean Studies, and the Korea Foundation have provided various support to Chinese Korean Peninsula research institutes. In the past 30 years, Chinese scholars have applied for more than 300 projects related to the Korean Peninsula supported by the National Social Science Fund of China, which has greatly promoted Chinese scholars’ all-round research on the Korean Peninsula in terms of politics, economy, society, history and culture.

Hwang: There are a few Korean universities that have China studies departments. What are the current situations there and what challenges are they facing?

Min: First of all, many of the Chinese departments in local universities have closed down, and overall admissions are falling. This is due to the result that reflects people’s perception toward China, however, the abolishment of the department mustn’t be a hasty decision. Chinese studies that aims to teach its social science should be remained, even if the department changes into East Asian studies. Looking at these changes from a distance, we need human resources who major in Chinese-related studies and have capacities that exceed what a university can teach them. Considering China's growth, its size and importance, we cannot say that the current number of majors in Chinese studies is excessive.

Hwang: What is the status of media and public opinion exchanges between the two countries?

Min: The media is usually a window to understand other countries, but the two countries' media have failed their roles in the sense of making the other countries understand objectively. This is due to the sensational reporting based on the commercial nature of media. In addition, the emergence of online media outlets is mostly focused on making certain targets unappealing, rather than extending the positive aspect of exchanging information. In particular, as the government cannot control such information, conflicts between the two countries’ private sectors are amplified. In the end, when it comes to the solution, we have no other choice but to count on improvement in civic awareness although it must take some time.

Dong: The mainstream media of China and South Korea have correspondents stationed in each other’s countries. They send back a large amount of information to the people of the two countries for reference. A relatively stable exchange mechanism has been established between major media of the two countries, such as the China-ROK Media High-level Dialogue. The main problem is that the image of each other’s country in mainstream media is not symmetrical. The coverage of China in South Korean media is generally negative. It has to do with South Korea’s news predilection for grabbing attention and focusing on negative events. The coverage of South Korea in mainstream Chinese media is generally positive. However, a new phenomenon has emerged in recent years with social media flourishing. In pursuit of clout, some bloggers not only tend to report negative news about other countries, but also would like to hype up negative news about their country debated in other countries. Some harsh, extreme views end up rapidly spreading on the internet, which exerts a negative impact on China and South Korea’s public opinion field and heavily affects people’s mutual understanding between the two countries.

Hwang: What are the social and cultural conflicts between Korea and China?

Dong: China and South Korea are culturally homologous, geographically similar and historically intertwined. It is regrettable that the historical experience, which should have increased mutual recognition, has triggered conflicts in today’s international political context. The social and cultural contradictions between China and South Korea mainly focus on two areas. The first is about the perception and collective memory of the past, including the nature of the relationship between the two countries in history, the Korean War and other issues. The second is the attribution of traditional culture. Basic principles need to be noted here, that is, the concept of the modern nation-state should not be used to analyze international relations in ancient times, nor can the concept of intellectual property in the contemporary world be used to define the ownership of ancient cultural products.

Min: The core causes of the conflict between Korea and China are the issues that are highly abstract, such as the matters of historical and cultural sovereignty. As these matters are directly connected to the national identity, it is terribly difficult to make any kind of concessions or resolutions. This is why these problems usually stay under the ground but detonate once conflict arises. The basis of this sentiment comes from the reality that that historical superiority and inferiority are contradictory to the current national income level. Each has this psychological aspect to compensate their inferiority with a sense of superiority, therefore, even a small conflict tends to be greatly amplified.

Hwang: What is the reason for the spread of anti-Korea sentiment?

Min: As Korea and China built a functionalist approach that emphasizes reciprocal economic necessity, their emotional trust is relatively weak compared to the volume of trade. The root of the public's anti-Chinese sentiment is quite specific, for instance the fine dust problem. This anti-Chinese sentiment has been strengthened as it has caused inconveniences for people in life and such feelings tend to accumulate. Moreover, fear of China's rise has prompted resistance against the Chinese political system, and the continued ideological offensive by the conservatives has also played a major role. On top of that, the individualistic characteristics of the young generation might have overlapped, so the anti-Chinese sentiment spread to a degree that far exceeded economic benefits.

Dong: Personally, I do not agree with the term “anti-Korean sentiment in China.” It is not so much opposing Korea as disliking Korea, which is a negative perception and sentiment toward Korea. Two time points were vital in the spread of the sentiment of disliking Korea. The first was the deployment of THAAD, which made many Chinese people very disappointed in South Korea. Therefore, the sentiment of disliking South Korea rose in China. During the Moon Jae-in administration, after China and South Korea reached a basic consensus on the THAAD issue and properly handled it, bilateral relations saw a turnaround at a critical phase. In fact, negative sentiment toward South Korea in the Chinese public has eased somewhat in recent years. However, it is a pity that the Beijing Winter Olympics this year has brought about some controversies on hanbok, referee’s decisions, etc. South Korea’s arguments were shocks to the Chinese people. From the Chinese public’s perspective, as one of the 56 ethnic groups in China, there is no reason why the Korean minority should not be allowed to sing and dance in their traditional costume at the Winter Olympics. Besides, any dispute over a referee’s decision in sports should be settled through established procedures, and an important basis for participating in sports competition is to accept the referee’s decision. And, it was rare to see responsible Korean politicians, scholars and sports figures make a rational and objective analysis on these issues. Some of them would rather add to the disputes than calm them.

Hwang: What is the best way to carry out social and cultural exchanges between the two countries for the next five years? What advice do you have for the two governments?

Dong: We need to let history be history, and let culture be culture and sport be sport. The stable development of the relationship between China and South Korea should not be interfered or even hijacked by other factors. History, culture and sports should become an important bond for enhancing bilateral relations. Politicians and the people of both countries need to realize that developing bilateral relations is in the fundamental interests of the two countries and their peoples. The social and cultural exchanges between the two countries are not too much, but too little and too inadequate. The people of the two countries do not know each other well enough. Anyone who hypes up the so-called dispute between China and South Korea to pursue their own selfish interests will eventually be abandoned by history. As the theme song of the 1988 Seoul Olympics goes, “Hand in hand, we can start to understand, breaking down the walls that come between us for all time.”

Min: First of all, we must acknowledge the serious emotional conflict between the peoples from the respective countries and share the necessity for countermeasures. Since the two countries' national sentiments are sensitive to political and diplomatic issues, the most important thing is to reduce strategic conflicts and to increase political trust. China should be aware that its soft power has greatly weakened and readjust its public diplomacy toward neighboring countries. South Korean officials should reduce unnecessary misstatements that provoke China. Lastly, it is necessary to jointly start global citizenship education activities to get rid of excessive nationalist sentiment and to operate them as a 1.5 track that involves private organizations.

By Hwang Jae-ho

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation. This discussion was assisted by researcher Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.