President Moon Jae-in gave the keynote speech, and the Van Fleet Award ― honoring those who made valuable contributions to the Republic of Korea-U.S. relationship ― to U.S. Korean War veterans Charles B. Rangel and Salvatore Scarlato, Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairman Park Yongmaan and K-pop group BTS.
In an acceptance speech, BTS's RM is quoted as mentioning "the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women" when referring to the Korean War. China wasn't mentioned, but this seemingly innocuous sentence triggered a fierce backlash in China's social media landscape that supposedly forced Samsung, Hyundai and other Korean companies to remove advertisements that featured BTS from Chinese websites and social media platforms. The Chinese dragon roared, and the Korean tiger trembled.
According to Bloomberg, "RM was accused of neglecting to highlight China's own part in one of the 20th century's deadliest clashes, which pitted American troops against the Chinese military. The article also noted that China's state-backed Global Times criticized the boy band. Talk about taking things out of context.
On the surface, the criticism doesn't hold water. It's a historical fact that the U.S. saved South Korea from being overrun by the communist North; further, it was the Chinese million-men volunteer army intervention that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and forced the stalemate that solidified the division that continues to define the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula to this day.
Asking a South Korean band ― speaking at an event that was honoring the ROK-U.S. alliance, hosted by a non-profit well known for promoting friendship between the two countries ― to also mention the sacrifices of the Chinese (who were the enemy during the war) in the same breath is more than unreasonable ― it's ridiculous.
Imagine if the situation was reversed. Say a North Korean celebrity is honored by a China-DPRK friendship organization as a cultural ambassador on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. Would South Koreans get mad at the North Korean celebrity if she paid homage to the Chinese dead (Mao's own son was killed during the Korean War) but not to the South Korean soldiers who also died? Of course not. But take this analogy a little further. Would your regular American internet user get angry at the North Korean celebrity for not mentioning the 30,000-plus Americans killed in action during the Korean War, most of them fighting against the Chinese? It would be preposterous.
However, the stated reason for the backlash is interesting in that it provides an insight into the prevailing identity narrative of the Chinese internet users. Look past the obviously faulty logic into the underlying public sentiment that fed this backlash and we find that there is almost a sense of betrayal over BTS mentioning the U.S sacrifice because of the unspoken but palpable underlying assumption that Korea should be on the Chinese side, regardless of the two countries' recent history.
The sense you get is that the Chinese Dragon rising from the humiliating ashes of Western subjugation and taking its rightful place as the great global power is not just about China vs. the U.S. It is East vs. West. It is about China leading a collective Asian resurgence against Western powers ― reversing the "Great Divergence" and winning the civilizational race. Too bad that China didn't ask other Asian countries whether they wanted to join the race. Maybe it didn't feel the need.
What the BTS incident shows us is that this sentiment is not just limited to politics and diplomacy, where you'd expect to see such a situation. It's as if the whole population has bought into this grand narrative and individually mobilized to ensure China's transcendence to its manifest destiny. The alignment to this message is scary to witness. China has de facto recreated the Cold War's "us vs. them" mentality in such a powerfully jingoistic way that it bursts through at the most unpredictable moments.
From a constructivist perspective, the evolving national identity of the Chinese people is both expected and worrisome. Constructivism says that nation states that conform to a certain identity are expected to comply with the norms that are associated with that identity. In other words, social norms of citizen behavior are defined by the prevailing identity narrative of the nation.
If this incident is any indication, China's citizens will demand more and more that the world explicitly take sides. "You're either with us or against us," could soon be a refrain that's attributed to a Chinese hashtag more than to President George Bush in the lead-up to the War on Terror.
Talking about geography as destiny. It looks like Korea will once again serve on the frontlines for another great power rivalry. It doesn't bode well for reunification.
Jason Lim (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture.