The South Korean public opinion has become increasingly wary of China and the supposed “Olympic spirit” of the Beijing Winter Games has not in any way softened the criticism. Two specific episodes tossed a lit match on Korea’s bourgeoning anti-Chinese sentiments. During the opening ceremony, the depiction of a woman in hanbok (Korea's traditional clothing) as representing one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities was viewed in South Korea as the Chinese latest attempt at claiming provenance for Korean culture staples. Then, the disqualification of two short-track Korean speed skaters was seen as a way to facilitate Chinese athletes’ achievement of a medal in the race. Unsurprisingly, online comments turned into something other than discussions over the merits of the ruling. Prior to that, we saw controversies surrounding the use of Chinese-style props in the South Korean historical drama “Joseon Exorcist” that led to its sudden cancellation and public outcry caused by a plan to build a “Chinese cultural town” in Gangwon province, resulting in the project’s withdrawal. But these are just two items in a list of incidents that keeps getting longer.
Although anti-Chinese sentiments are a rather recent development in South Korea, they have quickly spread beyond a bunch of jingoistic netizens. In May 2021, a joint survey from the Hankook Research and South Korean online newspaper SisaIn reported this major shift, as China scored more negative views than Japan among Koreans. Compared to anti-Americanism and anti-Japanese sentiments, that have long been the subject of scholarly attention and have inspired extensive literature, growing anti-Chinese attitudes in Korea present some interesting peculiarities. As Professor Gi-Wook Shin notes, in the 1980s and early 2000s, the target of anti-Americanism was the US policy in support of the then-Korean dictatorship, however, American culture remained largely uncontested. Similarly, in spite of low levels of trust between Seoul and Tokyo, whose bilateral tensions are cyclically ignited by the historical memory of colonial rule and nationalism, Shin stresses that “Korean young people are still fond of Japanese culture, food and fashion”. Yet, when it comes to public sentiments towards China, is it precisely Koreans in their 20s and 30s who are the most vocal. They harshly criticize the Chinese leadership for its illiberalism, being outraged by the suppression of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, the handling of the pandemic, and perceived attempts at cultural appropriation.
The causes and implications of Koreans’ mounting criticism towards China are multilayered and they encompass the cultural, political and economic spheres. In the past three decades following diplomatic normalization, Seoul and Beijing have experienced blossoming bilateral trade coupled with a 100-fold rise in people-to-people exchanges. Nevertheless, as Beijing started to adopt a more assertive foreign policy over Xi Jinping’s consolidation years, South Korean attitudes worsened dramatically. Albeit a brief period of improved ties under Park Geun-hye, bilateral relations plunged following the Chinese response to the deployment of the US anti-missile system THAAD on Korean soil. This development exacerbated rampant resentment towards China. Indeed, the THAAD dispute can be considered as a critical juncture in the two countries’ relations. In fact, it represented South Koreans’ first-hand experience of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s willingness to weaponize economic ties to influence others’ strategic options. For the Korean public, Beijing came after them based on a decision that pertained specifically to Korean sovereignty. However, it was during the COVID-19 pandemic that lingering anti-Chinese sentiments detonated. Data from the Pew Research Center survey show that in 2014, unfavourability towards Xi Jinping was 37%, rising sharply to 84% in 2021. As for attitudes towards China, while back in 2002, only 37% of South Koreans had “negative feelings”, resentment with Beijing skyrocketed to 75% eight years later. It should be noted that currently this negative trend is shared by many different countries that are reassessing their ties with Beijing while unfavorable views towards China are reaching historic highs.
As South Korea approaches presidential elections, one may wonder about the implications that the general public’s tattered image of China might carry for the country’s overall foreign policy direction – especially if conservatives regain power. As for the outgoing liberal administration, Moon’s approach to China has not been spared from criticism. Following the THAAD controversy, Seoul carefully avoided provoking Beijing again and, as a result, it has stayed largely quiet on sensitive issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea. This appeasing policy, however, was deemed as too deferential. The following U.S.-ROK Joint Statement signed with President Biden last May, signaled a shift. Indeed, it explicitly mentioned, for the first time, Taiwan and the commitment to “preserve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. Therefore, the South Korean government is faced with the conundrum of reconciling public sentiments with the inevitability of China being Korea’s largest trading partner. Yet, while broadly recognizing this economic reality, Koreans also perceive China more as “an economic threat” rather than an “economic partner”. On the other hand, the alliance with the US continues to enjoy widespread public support in South Korea. This trend has been identified as an important similarity in policy positions between the two camps during the recent campaign trail.
By now, the limits of Seoul’s long-held foreign policy paradigm that pictured the US only in military terms and China only in trade-related concerns have been fully exposed. As the lines between security and economy have blurred, this is no longer a sustainable way to shield Korea from the collateral effects of great power competition. As much as the two camps might differ in foreign policy positions, few pundits expect major changes to South Korea’s stance towards China. The next administration is unlikely to push the envelope and antagonise China. Seoul knows way too well, and much more than Japan or Australia, the risks of fueling Beijing’s perception of encirclement and containment. South Korea’s next president will largely follow Moon’s footsteps in cooperating with China from a “cautious distance”, as recently put it by Ramon Pacheco Pardo and Saeme Kim.
With the above in mind, whoever enters the Blue House on May 10, will be challenged to test the viability of Moon’s legacy of compartmentalising policy problems and addressing security issues with far less fanfare than that of those US allies, which enjoy much more room for flexible manoeuvre than Seoul. Following Russia's assault on the international rules-based order, it will become increasingly hard for the next South Korean government to justify, both domestically and to like-minded partners, its wariness to align more publicly in defence of liberal internationalism. Any ambivalence on this front might very well lead to South Korea’s role as a credible player in regional and global affairs being discredited.