25.09.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

“Sensitive Issues” in PRC-ROK Relations: Issues of Sinophobia

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This topic has been raised many times by this author in his NEO articles, and its manifestations are manifold.

People’s dislike

On December 28, Yoon Suk-yeol stated that most South Koreans, especially young people, dislike China despite President Moon Jae-in’s administration’s pro-China policies, adding that most young Chinese also dislike South Korea.

These words were based on the results of a survey conducted in December 2021 by the Korea Institute for National Unification. According to the survey, 71.8% of respondents ranked China as the biggest threat to the nation, with the different political forces broadly united – 67.9% of democrats, 70.3% of moderates and 76.1% of conservatives said so.  As for the “what to do” question, 52.5% favored a balanced foreign policy, 31.1% called for a stronger alliance with Washington, 12.4% suggested an independent and autonomous policy, and 4% spoke for an alliance with China.

A different poll from January 2022 is interesting:   two thirds of political science students and graduates at Seoul National University said they did not like China. In addition, almost 100% of respondents said they felt that anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korean society was increasing and that Chinese language was declining in popularity.

According to a survey conducted by the conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo in February 2022, the PRC scored only 2.6 out of a possible 10, with about 30.5% of respondents giving China a 0.  However, supporters and opponents of the policy of balancing between Beijing and Washington are roughly evenly divided, with 40.4% in favor and 43.8% against.

According to a survey conducted by the US-based Pew Research Center and released in July 2022, Koreans’ negative attitude towards China reached 80%, with 54% of respondents believing that Beijing’s interference in domestic politics was a very serious problem for their country. Meanwhile, according to a 2002 survey conducted by the same center, Koreans’ negative attitude towards China was only 31 per cent. But then the figure rose steadily to 61% in 2017 after China imposed informal sanctions on the ROK in response to the THAAD missile defense deployment. In 2020, “in response” to the emergence of COVID-19, the figure rose to 75%.

A sociological study by the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper and the Institute of East Asian Studies dedicated to the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries gave slightly different statistics. 70.3% of the respondents indicated their rather negative attitude towards China, but 43.7% of the respondents felt that economic cooperation between Seoul and Beijing should be strengthened. At the same time, 30.2% insist on comprehensive cooperation and 16.6% – on strengthening security relations and crisis response. Only 6.6% suggest distancing from China.

Potential pressure on the Chinese diaspora in ROK

The author has previously mentioned the story of how Kolon Global liquidated the company set up to build the Korean-Chinese Cultural City in Gangwon Province in early 2021 as a result of strong public criticism, but this is not the only example.

While still a presidential candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol promised to apply stricter standards for vetting foreigners using national health insurance. The rationale was that, according to the National Health Insurance Service, Chinese citizens paid on average about 970,000 won ($808) per person for health insurance in 2020 and received just over 1 million won in compensation.

On June 23, 2022, the Ministry of Land, the Ministry of Justice and other agencies said they would start investigating foreigners’ speculative investments in real estate.

The authorities also plan to identify regions where foreigners’ real estate transactions will be restricted and to collect statistics on foreign ownership of real estate here in order to better combat speculative investments. About 10,000 cases suspected of being speculative in nature will be investigated out of the 20,000 real estate transactions carried out by foreigners between 2020 and May 2022.

Once again, “when we say foreigners we mean Chinese”: in 2021, the Chinese bought 6,640 buildings in South Korea, with more than half of the properties located in the Greater Seoul area.

It should be noted that here Yoon continues Moon’s line. On December 22, 2021, ROK Minister of Economy and Finance Hong Nam-gi reported that the ROK will strengthen controls on real estate transactions by foreigners to prevent them from making excessive profits. According to him, the Bank of Korea and the Customs Service would set up a data-sharing system to track illicit money flows by March 2022. The bank would collect information on real estate purchases by foreigners and pass it on to customs authorities. In addition, there would be a ban on real estate transactions for foreigners who are in the ROK on study and short-term visas.

Then, the defeated Kim Eun-hye, the ruling People Power Party candidate for governor of Gyeonggi-do Province, proposed denying Chinese permanent residents the right to vote in Korea, saying it was unfair to Koreans who do not enjoy the same right in China. It should be recalled that, unlike in presidential and parliamentary elections, foreigners permanently resident in the ROK are allowed to vote in local government elections if three years have passed since they took up permanent residence in Korea. In 2022, 126,000 people had this right, of whom 78.9% were Chinese nationals. However, Lee Jae-myung also declared a zero-tolerance policy for illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in South Korean waters, calling not only for seizing and confiscating the poachers’ ships, but also for sinking them.

 Criminal chronicle

Individual cases of crime involving Chinese nationals are often reported in the media, but it is problematic to draw conclusions about the systemic nature of crime from them.

What stands out is a potential case of industrial espionage in China of innovative semiconductor technology that was transferred to the Chinese by former researchers at SEMES, a subsidiary of Samsung Electronics. The Suwon District Prosecutor’s Office has detained and charged 4 ROK nationals (2 former employees of SEMES and 2 employees of a component supplier company) with violating the law against unfair competition and the protection of trade secrets. According to investigators, they received about 1.8 billion won from a Chinese research institute in 2018 for transferring the technology to create this equipment. It is possible that a finished industrial product was also transferred.

Time will tell whether and how much mass negative attitudes towards China will change, and to what extent the authorities will actually start putting pressure on the diaspora, but all these developments cannot be ignored when analyzing relations between the two countries.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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