K-pop band BTS faces boycott calls in China, but do they care?

Society & Culture

BTS, the chart-topping South Korean boy band that’s currently among the most popular music acts in the world, has fallen on the wrong side of China’s political correctness and fervent nationalism — because of an award acceptance speech that had no mentions of the country.

bts faces boycott calls in china

BTS, the chart-topping South Korean boy band that’s currently among the most popular music acts in the world, has fallen on the wrong side of China’s political correctness and fervent nationalism — because of an award acceptance speech that had no mentions of the country.

The controversy broke out over the weekend when videos and images spread on the Chinese internet of the group commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean War in their acceptance speech for the General James A. Van Fleet Award, an honor given out annually by the Korea Society, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, to individuals and organizations who have contributed to the development of U.S.-Korean relations.

In the virtual ceremony on October 7, the BTS leader Kim Nam-joon, who is professionally known as RM (formerly Rap Monster), expressed his gratitude for the recognition, saying that the award was “especially meaningful” to the group in light of the anniversary.

“We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women,” he said. “As members of the global community, we should build a deeper understanding and solidarity to be happier together.”

At face value, RM’s remarks were innocuous and appropriate for the occasion, which was all about improving diplomatic ties between the U.S. and South Korea. But when the speech was shared on the Chinese internet, it immediately raised eyebrows and ignited a flurry of criticism from people who took offense at BTS not acknowledging the losses China suffered in the Korean War while showing appreciation for American soldiers, who they saw as aggressors in the context.

“China had no business in the Korean War when it was just a conflict between South Korea and North Korea. But since the U.S. took part in it and made it a threat to China’s sovereignty, I saw no problem in us fighting back and defending ourselves. Why did they picture themselves as victims? No wonder they are so popular in Western countries,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).

Widely seen as a critical event that set the tone for Soviet-American rivalry during the Cold War, the Korean War started in the summer of 1950 when the north led a surprise attack on the south. As the battle progressed, it evolved from a civil war into an international conflict, which pitted the North Korean government, supported by the Soviet Union and China, against the American-backed, anti-communist southern administration.

The war ended in 1953 when a truce was established. By that time, over 200,000 South Korean soldiers and almost 40,000 Americans had died in action. Although the North Korean government never released official figures about casualties on its side, the common belief in China is that the battle caused about 180,000 deaths of Chinese soldiers.

As anger mounted over the weekend on Chinese social media, the matter caught the attention of a string of Chinese news outlets. Fanning the flames of nationalistic sentiment, state-owned tabloid the Global Times reported on the controversy in several articles. In a piece published on October 12, the jingoistic rag explained that the backlash was mostly aimed at the group’s insensitivity toward China’s sacrifices and its “one-sided attitude” that negated history.

The controversy has also split the group’s Chinese fanbase. According to those who leapt to the band’s defense, BTS members are entitled to their opinions as long as they are respectful of those who come from a different side of the argument. “I’m drawn to their music talent, not their political views. They love their country. I love my country. I don’t see a problem here,” a Weibo user commented. But this point of view didn’t find favor with a lot of BTS fans in China, who publicly announced the end of their BTS love in the wake of the backlash.

While BTS and its management agency, Big Hit Entertainment, have yet to address the controversy, a growing number of brands have already taken action to distance themselves from the group. Soon after the controversy erupted, the South Korean conglomerate Samsung pulled a BTS-branded smartphone from its Chinese website and other ecommerce platforms in the country. Sports brand Fila and car manufacturer Hyundai removed ads featuring BTS from their social media accounts. Meanwhile, Owhat, a Chinese site mainly used by Kpop fans to purchase albums and merchandise, has taken off all BTS-related products on its platform.

On Monday, the dispute officially progressed to the diplomatic stage as Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, commented on the issue at a news briefing. “We should learn from history and look toward the future by cherishing peace and promoting our friendship. This should be the common goal that we strive for,” Zhao said.

Despite its immense popularity in China, K-pop has a well-documented tense relationship with Chinese authorities. In 2016, in retaliation to the U.S.’s deployment of two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense launchers (THAAD) in South Korea, China introduced an “unofficial” ban on South Korean entertainers performing in the country. A year later, as the THAAD conflict intensified, China blocked music and video streaming sites featuring K-pop stars.

This year, as a host of K-pop stars landed major endorsement and advertising deals with Chinese brands, rumors emerged that China had softened restrictions on Korean artists’ access to the Chinese market. But as the Korea Herald noted, there’s still plenty of uncertainty surrounding where K-pop artists will be allowed to promote and perform in China freely.

In fact, in fear of potential regulatory obstacles caused by political tensions, more and more K-pop artists have opted to look beyond China and focus on their reach to Western countries. And BTS is arguably the most successful example among them. BTS have not set their feet in mainland China since 2016, although they have performed in Taiwan and Hong Kong.