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Anti-China sentiment overshadows 30th anniversary of Korea-China ties

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80% of S. Koreans hold unfavorable opinions of neighboring country

By Kang Seung-woo

South Korea will mark three decades of diplomatic relations with China, Wednesday, and both countries have become important partners of each other, as evidenced by the fact that China is Korea's No. 1 trading partner and Seoul is Beijing's fourth-largest export destination.

However, despite these quantitative developments, negative views of China have been increasing sharply among South Koreans, with the country becoming the second-least popular among South Korea's neighboring countries that also include Japan, North Korea, Russia and the United States.

According to the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, South Koreans with negative views of China stand at 80 percent this year. The study was conducted from February to June of this year.

Based on its surveys conducted since 2002, anti-China sentiment has been growing steadily, from 31 percent in 2002 to 80 percent in 2022.

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies also issued a report about its poll on South Korea's neighbors in June, and China was ranked fourth most popular after the U.S., Japan and North Korea.

On a scale of zero to 10, China's favorability was 2.71, slightly ahead of Russia's 2.13 due to Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. had 6.8, followed by Japan's 3.67 and North Korea's 2.72. China's favorability had dropped significantly from 3.25 in December 2020.

When asked to rate the favorability of major leaders from neighboring countries, respondents gave Chinese President Xi Jinping a rating of 1.99, much lower than his average ratings in 2016 and 2017 that hovered between 3 and 4.

"China has carried out an economic retaliation campaign against South Korea due to the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system here, which we believe is absurd," said Song Young-rock, a 43-year-old office worker.

Claiming that the THAAD system's radar can spy on its military maneuvers and undermine its security interests, China has yet to fully end its economic retaliation against South Korea. In the wake of the THAAD deployment, the Chinese government decided to ban Chinese group tours to South Korea, while curbing cultural imports.

"In addition, the Chinese government is trying to influence the Korean government, treating it like its dependency," Song said.

According to Pew Research Center, South Korea's growing anti-China sentiment was heavily affected by China's economic retaliation following Seoul's approval of stationing a THAAD battery on its soil in 2016. The U.S. missile shield was brought to Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, the following year.

"South Korea was heavily affected by Chinese economic retribution following the country's 2017 decision to install an American missile interceptor (THAAD)," Pew Research Center said.

"Negative views of China went up substantially in 2017 alongside this turmoil; they increased again in 2020 when, in the wake of COVID-19, unfavorable opinion went up in nearly every country surveyed."

The researcher said views have continued to sour, and those holding unfavorable views of China are at a historic high of 80 percent today.

"Around three-quarters of Koreans think bilateral relations with China are in poor shape, and the country stands out for having the highest share of people (54 percent) who say that China's involvement in domestic politics is a very serious problem for the country. South Korea is also the only country surveyed where young people have more unfavorable views of China than older people," it said.

Kim Han-kwon, a visiting professor at the Center for Chinese Studies at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, attributed the increasing unfavorable views of China to its domestic politics and differences in values and systems.

"Since Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, the Chinese government has made efforts to stress patriotism and ideological education. Along the way, Sinocentrism has been taking center stage, causing cultural friction with neighboring countries," Kim said. Sinocentrism is the belief that China is literally the center of the world.

In that sense, there has been tension between the two countries over the origins of kimchi and hanbok, a traditional Korean outfit.

The professor also said the anti-China sentiment was also due to differences in the two countries' political and social systems.

"Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, South Korea and China have focused mainly on developing bilateral ties, while putting aside such potential problems. However, as the U.S.-China rivalry has been intensifying, they have come to the fore," Kim said.

Kang Seung-woo


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