Boycotting Korean firms, products over THAAD triggers ideological conflict online in China

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/8 18:38:36

After South Korea's Lotte Group agreed to give land to Korean government to host the THAAD missile defense system, some Chinese people started organizing boycotts and protests against the nation

At the same time, the reoccurrence of these kinds of reactions any time the Chinese government has a spat with another country has begun to frustrate some in society. These two sides and the nation more generally are split along ideological lines

A supermarket notifies its customers that all the products of South Korea's Lotte Group have been removed from its shelves in Qionghai, South China's Hainan Province on March 7, after Lotte agreed to hand over land to the nation's government so it can be used to deploy the THAAD missile defense system. Photo: CFP

The first elements of the THAAD system arrive at Osan Air Base, an airfield operated by the US in Pyeongtaek, South Korea on March 6. Photo: CFP

"I'm usually a calm person … I've never boycotted anything since I opened a Weibo account eight years ago. This is the first time," Ayawawa told the Global Times a few days after she told her millions of followers that she's removing all the South Korean products from her online shop and will not sell them ever again.

"I can only influence 2.7 million people, but if each one of you can influence 10 more, that's 27 million," she wrote. "I don't want THAAD to be installed, I won't go to Lotte, I will cancel my trips to South Korea and stop cooperating with Korean companies … every penny we spend is a vote on our future world!"

Ayawawa is a popular love life and beauty blogger. On Weibo, she has more than 2.7 million fans. Her Weibo photo is a zoomed-in headshot of her smiling, with slick, wavy black hair and peachy lipstick. On the front page, her articles are listed, with titles like "Happily in Love," "Secret to a Perfect Relationship," and "Love Methods."

Ayawawa said she found out about THAAD from the Chinese media in February, and admits at first she didn't know what it was, but after reading more online, she felt it was a serious threat, telling the Global Times that she thinks South Korea's actions are a serious provocation. She thought calling for a boycott on her Weibo might have an impact because many of her female fans buy Korean cosmetics - which are highly popular in China - and travel to South Korea.

Despite such efforts and wishes, the first elements of the THAAD system arrived in South Korea on Monday. Sources say it will be completely put in use as early as April, deployed on land South Korea's Lotte Group agreed to hand over to the government after receiving a request from the country's military.


Gather your forces

When the recent news about THAAD broke, ripples hit the business world in China first. Besides Ayawawa, Chen Ou, the CEO of cosmetics website Jumei Youpin, made a statement online declaring he will not continue importing Korean makeup.

"We have taken all the Korean products off our shelves and we'll only sell them over my dead body, I'm not happy to sell them, they're rubbish," he wrote.

Weilong Latiao, a company that sells spicy snacks, said its stores around the country will start to remove Lotte products.

At the same time some Lotte outlet stores and even a multi-billion-dollar real estate project began receiving inspections from local fire safety departments, several being forced to shut - including the building site - after the authorities said they found "safety hazards." This was applauded by many on the Internet, who read it as a sign of local governments taking action against the firm in subtle ways.

On forums and social media, the conflict has naturally seized the attention of the "Internet volunteer militia," with posts calling on "all patriots to unite and show South Korea what we can do."

The "Internet volunteer militia" was established in 2013 after Dai Xu, air force colonel and military commentator, called for netizens to treat online ideological debates as a serious "war" and be especially aware of foreign infiltration.

Since then, many accounts using the name of the militia or Dai started appearing on Weibo and WeChat. A simple search found more than 80 such accounts on Weibo, sometimes going by the name of a numbered "division." They comment on social issues they feel are related to the national interest, express their fiery views, sometimes call for boycotts, sometimes scold those who disagree with them and sometimes report these dissenters to the authorities.

Despite their love of speaking out, no militia member accepted any of the Global Times' many interview requests as of press time.

These kinds of ideological conflicts have broken out again and again, sometimes crossing over into action in real life. Users of Diba, China's largest online forum with more than 20 million registered fans - mostly young people - have made several attempts to "conquer" public opinion by organizing efforts on the platform.

The most recent one happened in January 2016. Millions of Diba users flooded comment sections across the Internet, posting photos of Chinese scenery and food to block out all other voices and promote their own vision of patriotism after what started out as a boycott of pro-Taiwan independence pop star Chou Tzu-yu.

The Diba-led conquest was received well by some people, who claimed the campaign was organized in an orderly fashion and both sides communicated reasonably. Diba-based organizers also said they were particular careful to have open minds and respect relevant laws and policies. To others, the raids gave a voice to immature, nationalist Internet trolls and reminded them of real life riots.

The most famous time this kind of furor spilled over into the streets was in 2012. During a wave of anti-Japan protests that followed Tokyo's "nationalization" of the Diaoyu Islands, angry crowds started smashing Japanese-brand cars in Xi'an and one person brutally struck one car owner's head with a car lock. He was quickly arrested by police and sentenced to 10 years in prison. 

A torn society

Whenever such conflicts errupt, people feel they are forced to choose a side. A netizen who often buys Korean makeup told the Global Times that what has happened between the two countries doesn't affect her personally and she will continue buying from South Korea.

"Where else am I supposed to get makeup? Korean makeup really suits my skin and is fairly priced. If these people wanted to get back at South Korea, they should urge Chinese companies to develop cosmetics better suited to Chinese people's needs, instead of boycotting Korean products," she said. "If they want to protest, target the government, rather than companies and the public."

In fact, according to a Vice News report, some Chinese agents who buy Korean products have not felt any pressure at all. One agent told Vice that orders are still coming in, and in a recent trip, he went through customs with bags stuffed with Korean goods with no problems at all.

At the same time, anti-nationalists have reacted just as strongly. These people sneer at people they see as flamboyantly patriotic, calling them irrational and using the newly-coined phrase "patriotic thief," which implies these people love their country more than their countrymen, and should be called "nationalists" rather than "patriots."

Wang Wusi, a blogger, has just written an article on WeChat ridiculing the anti-South Korea protests. He called Ayawawa a cheat, writing "If you want to boycott Korean products, you should burn all of yours!"

"They only have one gesture all the time. They always say, 'get out of China, boycott something,'" he wrote. "Whenever you love your country, you don't let us eat KFC or Japanese food … but has any country's economy flopped because of your boycotts?"

He thinks many who joined the boycott this time don't even have a full understanding of the issues around THAAD.

Jokes about this also appeared online, in the form of a dialogue. "Why are we boycotting Lotte?" "Because Lotte gave South Korean government land to deploy THAAD, a weapon the US will use to spy on China." "Then why aren't we boycotting the US?"

Zhao Lingmin, former executive editor of South Reviews, wrote an article for the Financial Times' Chinese edition on this point.

"North Korea is the one behind all this, and US is the one who used South Korea to achieve its goals," she wrote. "China can boycott Lotte, but shouldn't pour all the anger and discontent towards the weakest one in this, and avoid talking about North Korea and the US' responsibilities."

The Chinese government has repeatedly declared that any unlawful activities related to these protests will be punished and any boycotts or actions are purely voluntary moves by the Chinese public.

In a February 28 press briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spokesperson Geng Shuang told the Global Times that the Chinese government welcomes foreign companies and protects their legal rights, but at the same time, it's up to the Chinese market and consumers to decide whether the companies are successful.

But at the same time, the Weibo account of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League has been closely following the THAAD affair and calling for boycotts against Korea. This has been read by many as proof these protests will not face an official backlash.

Newspaper headline: Snubbing Seoul


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