Caught between THAAD and North Korea, China’s Northeasterners ponder patriotism and safety concerns

By Zhang Yiqian in Yanji Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/20 19:00:46

As THAAD is deployed in South Korea, protests and anti-South Korea sentiment inside China, especially in the Northeast, are reaching a peak

At the same time, because China's Northeast is geographically close to North Korea, many in that region expressed fear that if the nuclear or missile tests go wrong, this region is affected first

A tourist takes a photo at the China-North Korea border in Hunchun, Jilin Province on March 18. Photo: Li Hao/GT

A video blogger from Northeast China slowly crushed, crumbled and then melted in a pot his girlfriend's collection of South Korean makeup to express his anger at Seoul's deployment of the THAAD missile defense system along the country's northern border.

In a video that went viral online last week, the man from Shenyang, Northeast China's Liaoning Province, destroyed all of his girlfriend's makeup while shouting slogans condemning Seoul and the South Korean retailer Lotte which provided land for THAAD, and encouraging his girlfriend, who can be heard off camera, to do the same. The man in the video, named Lü Riyang, has more than 360,000 followers on Weibo.

He wrote on his Weibo account, "The important thing is not that we destroyed this makeup. The important thing is our attitude. We follow laws and policies and do not go around smashing any cars … destroying what we once bought in Lotte can vent our anger!"

More than 2,000 people "liked" his comment. Some echoed his view, saying, "You're a true northeastern man!"

Lü and many others have been stirred by news reports stating that THAAD harms the regional strategic balance and harms peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese government has protested that the anti-missile system monitors territory deep inside China. This idea was repeated by Lü , who said there are now "spies in our house."

Not everyone is going along with the patriotic zeal expressed by people like Lü. Some experts warn boycotting South Korean goods could hurt China's foreign relations.

Jia Qingguo, an international relations professor from Peking University, said during the recent legislative and political advisory sessions in Beijing that an economic boycott brings harm to China as well. He also warned against tapping into China's nationalist sentiment, because it's a double bladed sword that could easily get out of hand and cause political instability.

Even though many people support this kind of nationalist action, others in the Northeast feel it's irrational, given that they live on the border and feel threatened by North Korea. 

An ethnic Korean woman sells rice cakes at a supermarket in Yanji, Jilin Province on March 18. Photo: Zhang Yiqian/GT

Love your country

Korean influence is everywhere in the northeastern city of Yanji, Jilin Province. Yanji is the capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and is located 10 kilometers from the border. The prefecture has a large population of ethnic Koreans. About 70 percent of the entire province's 1 million ethnic Korean population live there. It is also a gathering place for students and businessmen from South Korea. On the streets, all the stores have signs in both Korean and Chinese, kimchi is everywhere, and passersby often speak Korean.

In such city, it is easy to find an outlet to vent anti-Korean anger.

"How dare they deploy THAAD! I have been refusing to take Korean customers!" a taxi driver said angrily. "I can tell the difference between Korean nationals and the local ethnic Koreans." He said that in the past few days there have been angry protests on the streets against Korean stores.

When asked whether he's afraid of North Korea, he waved his hand dismissively and said China and North Korea have long been "brothers."

In the past 100 years, China faced a long history of invasion and occupation, often originating in the Northeast. Local governments in these regions often organize trips for elementary and middle school students to visit museums of martyrs during the anti-Japanese invasion war and teach young people about the harm Japan did to China. Such trips are officially named "patriotic trips." The people of the area, raised with fervent patriotic education, are sensitive to infringements on China's sovereignty.

For this reason, after THAAD was deployed on land owned by Lotte, a giant conglomerate, many felt they had to choose a side to stand with.

Online rage against South Korea is vehement. First came declaration from businessmen that they will not import Korean products. Netizens followed their lead.

A search on QQ with the keywords "anti-THAAD" yields hundreds of results, including groups organized by locals to discuss boycotting Lotte and South Korean stores and products.

"I'm a Northeasterner, of course I understand if something goes wrong with North Korean nuclear tests, we'll be affected. How can I not worry?" one of the netizens wrote to explain his anger. "However, we have to think about what problem to solve first. North Korea didn't really want to have nuclear tests but was under US and South Korean pressure. One of the reasons we oppose THAAD is we hope to not put too much pressure on NK and slow down the nuclear issue." 

Despite anti-Korean sentiment, many locals still visit this supermarket. Photo: Zhang Yiqian/GT

Threatened border residents

A number of people also wondered whether residents in that area feel conflicted. Someone asked online, "Who are they more afraid of? THAAD or North Korea's shenanigans?"

The fact is, many in the border region really feel like they live in peril, not only because of North Korea's missile and nuclear tests, but also because of incidents of raids and murder from across the border.

The most recent case happened two years ago, when a North Korean soldier sneaked into the house of a border resident to steal food and ended up killing the entire household.

Wang Hao, a resident from the city of Jilin, said he has seen chaotic riots against Korean stores, including a Lotte Mart next to his house, causing him inconvenience.

He thinks it is unnecessary and fears North Korea more than THAAD.

"I feel like we don't really know North Korea's nuclear capabilities and there isn't any way we can contain them, that's what worries me," he said. "Besides, anything that goes on in their country affects us."

Last September, when North Korea conducted a nuclear bomb test, several cities in China along the border felt an earthquake. Chinese local media reported that citizens in Yanji, Jilin Province, felt furniture shake in their houses. The sensation was so strong that teachers in Xinxing Elementary School evacuated their students from buildings and sought shelter out in a field.

China's Environmental Protection Administration also launched an emergency response protocol only five minutes after government officially announced the earthquake, monitoring border cities for radiation. 

Friend or foe?

Wang feels many Northeasterners have a blind optimism that they are friendly with North Korea, but the fact is no one really knows what that country will do next. He thinks it is rather scary that what people first believed to be an earthquake turned out to be a nuclear explosion.

The concern is even more apparent among residents living along the border. Anything that goes on in North Korea will affect their lives.

It's hard for people outside the region to imagine just how close residents on the border are living to North Korea. These towns often hug the Tumen River, which serves as border. The river gets as narrow as a few meters, and when the river freezes over in winter, it's extremely easy to cross.

Border residents can see North Koreans on the other side with their naked eye, including farmers pushing bicycles along the roads and people working in the fields. Sentry posts are visible on the North Korean side every few hundred meters.

Security is also tight in these Chinese border towns. A border patrol stopped the car this Global Times reporter rode in and asked for IDs to register.

This reporter was also stopped several times while walking in border towns by patrols and asked for detailed information about the purpose of the visit. Border patrol agents also checked cameras to make sure no photos were taken of North Korea.

During interviews at Sanhe, a town located by the Tumen River across from a North Korean port city, one of the residents expressed antipathy toward North Korea out of safety concerns, saying, "North Korea is so troublesome."

For example, villagers believe a recent flood was caused by North Korea opening a dam, even though it was officially declared the result of a typhoon and heavy rain. Even though this rumor cannot be confirmed, it shows a certain sentiment that exists among the border residents.

Local people are worried about the results of any instability on the Korean Peninsula. A Hunchun-based travel agency guide surnamed Qu said he read about US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying the US might take a "preemptive strike" if the North Korean threat gets too large, and he is worried.

"If anything happens, refugees will flood our cities along the border," he said. 

A woman puts out teloscopes near Quanhe Port for tourists to rent and gawk at the North Korean side. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Guards stand in front of the Quanhe Port, which connects China and North Korea's Rason Special Economic Zone. Photo: Li Hao/GT

A train station is situated inside a North Korean border town, with Korean banners and photos of former leaders. The photo is taken from the Chinese side. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Through the fence, one can easily see the North Korean side from Chinese border towns. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Across the Tumen River, a few North Koreans walk in the field with their bicycles. The photo is taken from the Chinese side. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Rows of North Korean houses can ben seen from the Chinese side. Photo: Li Hao/GT 

Newspaper headline: Stuck between rage and fear


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