China’s Ban on Korean Media: The Influence of ‘Soft Power’

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 Anyone who has followed 1Up Culture over the years, or really knows me at all, will know that I’m rather partial to Korean entertainment. So it’s a good thing that I don’t currently live in China, because in the past few months the Chinese government has placed a ban on Korean made movies, music, TV programs and celebrities from appearing on television. China has been a big market for Korean entertainment in recent years, and many companies in China have invested in Korean brands in order to gain priority access and distribution. The ban is a military based one, claimed to be because of the South Korean government’s decision to acquire defense missiles from America. The interesting aspect in all this is the decision to ban a cultural import because of military issues, but it is just another example of the kind of influence soft power can have, which is what I want to look into with this article.

We saw the first signs of this ban in August, when several Korean celebrities who were appearing on Chinese television had their faces blurred out of the broadcast. Other stars, like Korean actor Song Joong Ki, have lost lucrative sponsorship deals – Joong Ki being replaced as the face of Chinese smartphone brand Vivo by Chinese actor Eddie Peng. Korean stars can apply for permits to work in China, but so far nobody have either tried or succeeded in doing so.

Officially, the move to block the Hallyu product (Hallyu meaning ‘Korean Cultural Wave’) has been made because of South Korea and the U.S.A’s agreement on deploying Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense systems within South Korea. While America and South Korea are claiming THAAD has been deployed to protect against any action North Korea might take, China believes the defense system is in place to restrict China. They also believe the actions by the U.S were intentionally done in order to drive a wedge between the (then) improving relationship between China and South Korea.

So, why would a military and defense problem leak into popular culture? That’s where the term ‘Soft Power’ comes into play. There are essentially two ways for one nation to influence another. Hard power refers to influence by coercion achieved through military or economic means – for example through war or through economic sanctions. Soft power on the other hand, tends to refer to influence through diplomacy and in this case, culture.

The United States is an easy case study for both actions. We see their use of hard power through their Middle Eastern conflicts with states like Iraq and Afghanistan, while at the same time influencing many countries (including Australia) through their strong media presence in cinema, television and music. Their soft power influence is considered the strongest of any country according to the 2014 Monacle Soft Power Survey, and it’s easy to see why when you also factor in American brands like Starbucks and McDonalds. American culture has seeped into and influenced many countries over the decades.

Japan is a great example of a country who found a means to flourish and improve their global standing despite military limitations. After the harsh restrictions after World War 2, Japan wasn’t able to build up an army that could be effectively used to assert their national values. This forced them to do so by other means, and now they have an immense cultural presence in the West, with Japanese popular culture industries like anime and gaming being heavy influences on Western consumers. One just has to look at juggernauts like Pokemon, Hello Kitty, Mario and Dragonball Z to see how effective the strategy has been.

South Korean popular culture has been rapidly rising in prominence and influence in recent years. Korean dramas are big business, particularly throughout Asia, and K-pop has been something of a global success from a soft power format (Psy’s Gangnam style was a global cultural touchstone if nothing else). Hallyu is a government supported industry, and they recognise how the increasing global interest in their media is aiding their prominence on the international market. And a big consumer of both of these forms, as well as Korean celebrities, has been China.

China enforcing a blockade on the Korean media industry impacts on multiple fronts. The most obvious one is that it takes money out of the pockets of Korea and their people. Chinese markets have been very lucrative for both the products and their celebrities. K-pop groups like EXO have formed sub-units that sing in Mandarin, while some groups like T-ARA have become more popular in China than they are in Korea. Losing such a big market will hurt, plain and simple.

The second impact, and in many ways the more important one, is that it reduces the influence that South Korea can have over the Chinese people. People gain an interest and a passion for countries that develop their cultural entertainment touchstones. It’s why media tourism is a thing, and it’s why I have a lot of friends who’s main interest in travelling to a country is because of media. I myself can attest to this allure with South Korea specifically. Media influences – just as American television can present an ideal life and values that people in other countries aspire to, so can Korean dramas.

As South Korean culture is accepted and enjoyed by the Chinese public, their opinions on the country will grow, which limits the influence their own country can have. These Korean products and celebrities will now be replaced by home grown Chinese versions, which can also build up their internal cultural power. Instead of consuming and being influenced by Korean media, viewers will tune into Chinese ones instead, which can impart preferential values and ideals. For a government that is already rather restrictive of what outside media is allowed in the country, this is far more beneficial.

China isn’t the first country to do it. Japan started placing small restrictions on Korean media (and all foreign media in general) several years ago. Korean, English speaking and European music had started dominating Japanese radio at the expense of local music, so laws were passed requiring that a certain percentage of music played on air had to be Japanese. The difference between the situation Japan faced and what China currently faces is that these decisions have been made as a political manoeuvre, rather than one of cultural preservation.

What will be interesting to see is how long the ban lasts for, and how effective it is. While the internet in China has far more restrictions placed on it than Western countries like Australia, there are still ways around the bans thanks to things like VPNs. If Chinese consumers still want to gain access to this material it will still be possible, even if it will turn it into an online black market of sorts.

The government may also only enforce this ban for long enough to make a point, and with South Korea still being friendly to both the U.S and China, they may not wish to risk too much alienation, especially given how strategically important an ally South Korea would be for America with its proximity to China, North Korea and parts of Russia. The ban isn’t believed to be a blanket ban either. Some Chinese artists who are involved with the Korean scene, like F(x)’s Victoria, are likely to still be allowed to operate because of the amount of work she does in China as well as Korea.

What this whole situation has provided is a fascinating case study on the importance and influence of soft power and popular culture. The fact that entertainment restrictions have been placed primarily because of military concerns speaks volume to the impact one nation’s soft power can have over another. The Chinese government recognises this, and as the march of globalisation continues this kind of soft power could become instrumental in deciding which cultures flourish and which ones don’t.

The South Korean Hallyu industry won’t fall because of these sanctions, there is still a growing and passionate fanbase in South-East Asian countries, and their soft power continues to build in influence through Western countries. But China was a massive market, and while the industry as a whole won’t fall, there may be certain idols and celebrities who get hit hard by these sanctions. But let this be a lesson to never underestimate the power and value of culture and entertainment.

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