It felt like a harmless remark from a very popular boy band known more for their open-armed inclusiveness than any open provocation.
But when the leader of Korean pop group BTS acknowledged the shared suffering of Americans and Koreans during a recent Korean War commemoration ceremony, internet users in China wasted no time in recording their crime.
Chinese social media has been filled with indignation that BTS leader Kim Nam-joon, who performs under the stage name RM (formerly Rap Monster), also failed to acknowledge the sacrifices of Chinese soldiers who have fought on the side of North Korea.
First, a special edition glossy purple smartphone made for BTS disappeared from Samsung’s Chinese website and other e-commerce platforms in the country on Monday.
Hours later, posts mentioning BTS appeared to have been deleted from the official Weibo account of Fila, the sportswear company. BTS has been a brand ambassador for Fila since 2019.
On Monday evening, South Korean news reports reported that Hyundai Motor Group, the South Korean automaker, had removed advertisements and references to BTS from its Chinese social media accounts. BTS released a file song in August to promote the launch of Ioniq, Hyundai’s electric vehicle line, and had been a partner of the automaker since 2018. An advertising video with the group still appeared on Hyundai’s Chinese website starting Monday night.
The automaker had already encountered problems in China due to various political tensions, when sales fell by more than 60% in 2017 after South Korea strengthened its missile defense system in response to nuclear tests in Korea. North.
Their moves seemed intended to avert the potential for the types of boycotts and other angry steps Chinese consumers have taken against brands deemed to conflict with patriotic sentiment.
The events began during a virtual awards ceremony on October 7, when the Korea Society, a non-profit organization from New York, presented at BTS an award that recognizes progress in US-Korean relations.
During the ceremony, RM said in reference to the Korean War, which began 70 years ago: “We will always remember the story of the pain our two nations shared together, and the sacrifices of countless men and women.”
While perhaps 200,000 or more South Korean soldiers and about 37,000 American soldiers died in the war, as well as millions of civilians, 180,000 Chinese soldiers also died, according to Chinese accounts.
After the social media storm over the band’s mild perception, Zhao Lijian, China’s Deputy Director of Foreign Affairs, took the floor.
“I have noticed related reports, and also the reaction of Chinese netizens,” he said when reporters asked him about the issue at a press conference on Monday. “We must learn from history and look to the future by cultivating peace and promoting our friendship”.
The Global Times, A fiercely nationalist Chinese state tabloid reported extensively on the BTS backlash, saying group members should also acknowledge the losses suffered by a longtime enemy ally of their native country. The band’s comments, the tabloid said, reflected a “one-sided attitude” and a “history denied”.
The hashtags “there are no idols that come before my country” and “BTS humiliated China” were trending in China.
Jolly Liu, a 21-year-old medical student in Guangzhou, said she was reconsidering her support for the band. In a phone interview on Monday, she said she was angry at her comments, which she learned about after watching a live streaming video of a BTS concert on Saturday.
“We can’t force them to have the same political views as us, but since you get our money and support here, you should acknowledge and respect every country,” he said.
Others said they believed the band members, as South Koreans, were entitled to their own opinions, although perhaps they should have been silent.
Qin Xiaxin, an internet user in Wuhan, said in a telephone interview on Monday that she felt proud that her grandfather fought in the war against the Americans and that she found BTS ‘comments inappropriate, believing they should avoid political issues.
“We are from two countries, so we will have our differences when we encounter problems involving the sovereignty of our respective countries. That’s for sure, “he said.” Because there’s no one who doesn’t love their country, right? “
Some said they had trouble seeing what was so offensive. Charlene Liu, a 21-year-old student in Shanghai, wrote on Weibo that it would be unnatural to mention historical enemies during a war tribute.
“China and South Korea fought on opposite sides. Surely there wouldn’t be a single South Korean who would commemorate the war by thanking the Chinese, “he wrote on Sunday.” If the whole world has to worry about the feelings of the Chinese, couldn’t we also try to understand how Koreans feel? ” she was a BTS fan.)
Samsung’s representatives in China and South Korea did not immediately respond to requests for comment via email. Representatives of Fila and Hyundai did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Big Hit Entertainment, the agency that runs BTS, did not immediately respond to phone calls and requests for comments via email.
The controversy comes just days before Big Hit goes public in Seoul in an initial public offering that is expected to estimate the company up to $ 4 billion.
BTS is just the latest in a long line of international celebrities and brands who have found themselves on the wrong side of the Chinese government and consumers.
After Dolce & Gabbana ran an ad containing stereotypes that many considered to be racist and offensive, Chinese social platforms were flooded with videos of consumers burning and destroying the fashion brand’s products.
The companies also withdrew the products after state news reports reported hurting national pride. Luxury brands Coach, Givenchy and Versace apologized in 2019 for t-shirt designs that appeared to show Hong Kong as a separate territory, interpreted as a weakening of Chinese sovereignty.
Coral Yang, Su-Hyun Lee and Claire Fu contributed to the research.