Could China and Korea’s Political Tensions Shut Down the Chinese Kpop Market?

By: Hannah Waitt
moonROK Editor-in-Chief


Recently, political tensions between China and South Korea have rippled out of the political sphere and into entertainment.

Just two weeks ago, Chinese Kpop idols like f(x)‘s Victoria, FIESTAR‘s Cao Lu, miss A‘s Fei, and EXO‘s Lay were swept up in the South China Sea controversy, which has strained political relations in the Southeast Asian region for some time. Before that, TWICE member Tzuyu’s forced apology to China for having a Taiwanese flag in her dorm sent the entire Southeast Asian region into a frenzy, some even claiming that she had an effect on the outcome of Taiwan’s presidential elections. Chinese idols’ patriotism for their home country has led to a great deal of discussion and strife in the Kpop community, and now, the pressure is mounting.

The new frontpage issue? THAAD.

THAAD is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system which joint Korean and American forces announced would be deployed on South Korean territory in case of a nuclear missile attack from North Korea. It is arguably one of the most advanced weapons systems ever created, and China, who has a diplomatic relationship with North Korea, vehemently opposes the deployment of THAAD in Korea.

So what has all of this THAAD talk got to do with Kpop?

Following the announcement of THAAD’s deployment, reports began to appear that production for most Chinese dramas and TV shows featuring Kpop idols and Hallyu stars has been either halted or suspended completely.

A representative from a Korean content production company who frequently works with Chinese broadcasting stations revealed China has conveyed the probable delay of one of their programs. According to the Korean production company representative “We decided to collaborate on the creation of the program, and in order to solidify the production schedule we asked about specific times and a contract from the Chinese broadcasting side. We got the response that ‘Because of THAAD, it seems that the organization of the program will be delayed. It is hard for us to collaborate with Korea right now. We will need to check the atmosphere first.’”

The Korean representative went on to state, “It’s not just us; there are many other instances in which the contracts between Korean contents companies and Chinese broadcasting companies were either delayed or suspended. We are not sure that it was all because of THAAD, but it’s true that the overall atmosphere is not good right now.”

Another Korean broadcasting representative made a statement on the issue: “Chinese production companies are trying to follow the Chinese government stance (which objects to the installment of THAAD), explaining the overall dark atmosphere. Even though it does not mean a complete stop [of Chinese-Korean production and broadcasting collaborations], after the placement of THAAD, the Chinese side is simultaneously limiting different phases of signing and carrying out contracts [with Korean companies].”

According to Sina Entertainment, one of China’s biggest online media companies, these reports from Korea are not unfounded. An article published on the site yesterday claims that while they are not outright banning Korean content, China does intend to “limit” the amount of Kpop content coming into the country in any form, including film, television, music, performances, and endorsements. 

As of now, these reports are just speculation — there is currently nothing on China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (the department that is responsible for broadcasting policies) website that states any such ban on Korean content. However, the Chinese government has been trying to limit China’s dependence on foreign broadcast programs using other official measures. In fact on June 20 of this year, the Chinese government issued a guideline that limits the broadcasting of foreign programs during primetime, while simultaneously increasing the amount of domestically-produced programs. 

The Korean government is also taking steps to assure the public that officially, this Chinese ban on Korean content does not exist. Just today, Kim Jaehong, the Vice Chairman of the Korean Communications Commission told reporters, “It doesn’t seem that China’s central government is discontinuing cultural exchange because of THAAD. However, knowing the local government and private enterprises, looking at the situation it does feel that the exportation of Hallyu is rocky.” It seems that despite his assurance that there is no official barrier to the exportation of Korean content to China, the Vice Chairman does acknowledge that the relationship is tense. It is also important to consider that according to the Korean Communications Commission, content co-produced by Chinese and Korean companies is not considered “foreign” and is thus excluded from the limitation on foreign content broadcasts.

So while there is no official ban on Korean content in China, it doesn’t seem totally impossible that China will be cutting back on the importation of Kpop.

So who cares? 

Your favorite Korean celebrities and their entertainment companies do.

South Korea, though a global phenomenon when it comes to pop culture production, is a relatively small market. With just 50 million people, there’s only so much money you can make as a pop star in Korea.

Meanwhile, China has 1.4 billion people. Out of those 1.4 billion, about 56%, or 784 million, live in urban cities. Say you’re a Kpop star and you’ve got a new movie coming out in China. If you can get just 1% of those 784 million urban-dwelling Chinese people to pay approximately $8 to go see your movie, you’re looking at more than $62 million USD in box office revenue. For companies like SM Entertainment, who just had not one but two artists (Chanyeol and Seohyun) star in a Chinese movie, going after that kind of box office money is a no-brainer.

Then of course, there’s the JYP example. When China threatened to ban all JYP artists from promoting in China because of Tzuyu‘s Taiwanese flag, the company forced the poor girl into recording an apology video in which she meekly professes “There is only one China, China and Taiwan are one.” The video is more than a little pitiful, and it’s clear that Tzuyu is being helplessly forced to read a script written with the sole intention of appeasing Chinese anger. JYP made her do this because they were that scared of being cut off from the Chinese market.

Then you have your groups like EXO, Cosmic Girls, and JJCC that were assembled for the sole purpose of breaking into the Chinese market. Though the groups (especially EXO) have found success in Korea, they were formulaicly created to succeed in China via the inclusion of Chinese members, and should these political tensions continue to escalate, so could potentially the strain on the members’ relationships. Not to mention the fact that should the ban actually be enforced, the millions of dollars that these entertainment companies invested into breaking into the Chinese market go right down the drain.

Korean entertainment companies and their artists make a great deal of money promoting in China. The market opportunity is vastly larger than that in Korea — in China, Kpop events sell more tickets, Kpop albums sell more copies, and dramas and movies with Korean stars get more viewers — so much so that even groups who never were or no longer are popular in Korea can still achieve massive financial success there. 

While there is no official legal ban on Korean content yet, we will have to wait and see just how far the government will “limit” its importation and what effects it will have on the Korean music industry, which relies so heavily on China as a consistently profitable revenue stream. In this writer’s humble opinion, for China to completely ban the importation Korean pop culture would not be the death of the Kpop industry, but it would certainly wound it.



Source: Media Today, Sina Entertainment, Chosun Business, Korea Times, Dokseo Newspaper, KBS, The Wall Street Journal

Images courtesy of their respective owners
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