The Imperialist Roots of China’s Beef with BTS

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Korean boyband BTS recently drew flak from Chinese nationalists after Kim Nam-joon — stage name RM — thanked the sacrifice of South Korean soldiers who died during the Korean War in the 1950s.

RM made the following statement on October 8, 2020, when the Korean Society gave BTS the Van Fleet Award for promoting US-Korean relations: “We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women. After 70 years, the world we are living in is much closer than before. Boundaries in many aspects are getting more blurred. As members of the global community, we should build a deeper understanding and solidarity to be happier together.”

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Chinese fans and state media took offense when RM made no mention of China, which marched alongside North Korea in an attempt to overtake the whole Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, the US backed South Korea in the war that ended upon the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which divided Korea into two parts with the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Chinese nationalists took the speech as an insult to China and a praise for the US, which they insist to be the aggressor in the war.

China’s bullying tactics, however, are not limited to internationally influential people. As much as it is vehement in policing celebrities, the country is all the more aggressive in extending its power to states such as the Philippines and Taiwan, and in gradually erasing democracy and civil rights in the special administrative region of Hong Kong.

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China has continually ignored the arbitral ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, which declared in 2016 that China has no historical, sovereign, or jurisdictional rights over the maritime areas of the West Philippine Sea. Its so-called nine-dash line practically covering the whole West Philippine Sea and the islands therein have no basis under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the international agreement that sets the guidelines for maritime baselines of each country.

This notwithstanding, China hasn’t stopped building artificial islands along the West Philippine Sea, not to mention illegally fishing within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Since the ruling, they have stated on multiple occasions that the West Philippine Sea and its islands are part of their territory. Although Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has mentioned just last September 22 that The Hague ruling is final and binding, he has tolerated and even defended — throughout his tenure — China’s encroachment of Philippine territory.

Meanwhile, China has never acknowledged Taiwan as a state independent from the former. It has also tightened its hold on Hong Kong when it passed just this June 30 the security law, which criminalizes “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism,” and “colluding with foreign or external forces” — in an attempt to curtail basic freedoms such as speech and assembly. The law allows for people under suspicion all over the world to be surveilled and their communications wiretapped. Violations of the said law may be tried in mainland China, not in Hong Kong.

The law is eerily similar to the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 in the Philippines, which is currently being challenged for unconstitutionality by at least 30 petitions to the Philippine Supreme Court.

China has also maintained an economic stronghold on many countries such as the Philippines, where China-backed Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGOs) — online casinos catering to customers out of but with operations based in the Philippines, where gambling is legal, unlike in China. POGOs have become a major issue as many of these establishments illegally operate in the country, thus circumventing domestic taxation, as well as commercial and labor laws. The government has refused to take a firm legal hand on these POGOs because of the allegedly good business it brings to the Philippines and to appease the Chinese government — to which the Duterte administration has infamously been friendly and docile.

More importantly, China is the largest and most profitable market for many brands and, naturally, international artists such as BTS. The outrage has led many Chinese fans to retract their status as BTS fans — collectively known as “ARMY” — and call to boycott the band’s upcoming album in November. Major brands such as Samsung, Hyundai, and FILA have pulled out BTS promotional materials from their websites in China. It likewise poses a risk for Big Hit Entertainment, the band’s agency, which has started publicly selling stocks in the Korean stock exchange on October 15.

Joshua Wong, a prodemocracy organizer and activist from Hong Kong, says that underneath China’s row against BTS are “worrying signs of escalating Chinese nationalism and tensions between China and the world.”

“In [the] post-pandemic era, political uncertainty piles up as it becomes even more unpredictable to anticipate what issue will strike Chinese nationalists’ nerve,” Wong has said on Twitter. He also points out that the CCP is utilizing “punitive diplomacy” as characterized by China’s Unreliable Entity List that the Beijing regime seemingly uses as an economic counterattack against business entities who do not bend to its political principles.

This Unreliable Entity List, released by the China Commerce Ministry on September 19, 2020, has been the country’s response to the US ban on large Chinese tech companies Huawei, WeChat, and TikTok.

The Unreliable Entity List sanctions foreign entities — whether an individual, company, or organization — suspected to be a danger to “national sovereignty, security or development interests of China,” or if the foreign entity suspends “normal transactions” or takes “discriminatory measures” against a Chinese entity “which violates normal market transaction principles and causes serious damage to the legitimate rights and interests of the enterprise, other organization, or individual of China.”

Violations of the aforementioned provisions may result in the restriction or prohibition of the foreign entity from engaging in China-related import or export activities, investing, entering, working, staying, or residing in China, aside from possible fines and “other necessary measures.” The ambiguous Unreliable Entity List essentially puts companies at the mercy of China, known to retaliate against anyone — whether state or celebrity — that gets on their bad side.

The relentless bullying from this superpower evidently calls for countries and companies to refuse to back down and to develop good political and economic relations with other states — those that are not easily offended when their imperialist motives are revealed and attacked.

This article was written by our contributor, Atty. Gena Terre.

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