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BTS Face China Backlash Over Korean War Comments

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Fervent Chinese nationalism has a new, slightly unlikely target this week: BTS. The internationally-adored K-pop heroes have had Chinese fan groups denouncing their behavior, seen some of their big brand endorsers distance themselves, and even been on the wrong end of a rebuke from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

So what on earth is going on?

A week ago, BTS were given the Van Fleet Award, an award bestowed annually by the New York-based non-profit the Korea Society and aimed at celebrating individuals or groups who have helped build US-Korean relations. The award is named after a US commander who fought in the Korean War (1950-1953) and in a virtual acceptance speech, BTS’s RM referenced that conflict and this year’s 70th anniversary of it.

“We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women,” he said. That may not seem like a controversial statement, but to some in China — a country that backed the northern side of the Korean peninsula against the US and the south — it was taken as a slight, and it’s already having some major ramifications.

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The group — who are often referred to as “Bulletproof” in Chinese, due to BTS standing for “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” in Korean — have been under fire from a flurry of tweets and articles by Party propaganda tabloid The Global Times, with the paper claiming that BTS’s “attitude partial to the US enrages Chinese netizens as many Chinese fans decide to quit the fan club.”

The GT also quoted Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian as saying people should “learn the lessons of history, look into the future, cherish peace and promote friendliness,” in response to the furore.

Meanwhile the hashtag “BTS humiliate China” has picked up more than 400 million views on social media site Weibo, with some BTS fans who rushed to the group’s defence by calling for calm and clarifying the context being labelled as “brainwashed.”

Of course, it’s never hard to find extreme attitudes and responses on social media, but the incident has also crossed over into brand endorsements. Korean electronics brand Samsung seemingly removed BTS-endorsed smartphones from its China website, while carmaker Hyundai and apparel brand Fila also appeared to remove commercials featuring the idols from their Chinese-facing campaigns.

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The controversy is the latest twist in the tale of K-pop in China. While K-pop groups continue to enjoy huge followings in China (Chinese BTS fan groups even helped the group break sales record last year), live shows have been few and far between and the authorities have appeared uneasy about promoting associated acts in China due to geopolitical tensions.

Those tensions are compounded this year by the anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, something China is marking with — among other things — a series of TV shows and movies promoting a “patriotic” take on the conflict. Jingang Shan (Kumgang Chon), one of the main titles, stars Wolf Warrior actor Wu Jing and is directed by Hu Guan and Frant Gwo (of The Wandering Earth fame).

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.