Is K-pop an unwelcome guest for China?

Is K-pop an unwelcome guest for China?

K-pop titan EXO / Courtesy of SM Entertainment

By Dong Sun-hwa

Back in the early 2010s, China was deemed an untapped market for the K-pop industry.

A plethora of singers racked up staggering profits thanks to their fan bases there, with hotshots like EXO ― which included four Chinese members in the beginning ― playing its concerts in multiple cities and appearing on popular TV programs along with prominent local celebrities. Even budding K-pop stars could easily foray into the market.

All of this, however, faded into history quickly in 2016, after Seoul deployed a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery system on its soil despite Beijing’s objection. Since then, Korean singers have been practically banned from performing there and major K-pop labels lost one of their most lucrative markets that accounted for up to 20 percent of total sales in 2016, according to Kiwoom Securities.

Recently, these companies have faced another challenge: Chinese authorities bolstering regulations on the entertainment sector, with K-pop stars being among the main targets.

Earlier this month, Chinese social media platform Weibo imposed a 60-day suspension on a fan account dedicated to Jimin, a member of K-pop juggernaut BTS, after his fans reportedly raised about 490 million won ($350,000) to celebrate his upcoming birthday (Oct. 13) by paying to have an airplane covered with his images. After images of the plane went viral, Weibo banned the account for being involved in “illicit fundraising” and put a one-month suspension on about 20 other K-pop fan accounts for their “irrational star worshipping behaviors.”

Is K-pop an unwelcome guest for China?

This photo shows a customized airplane from Jeju Air with images of BTS member Jimin, which was seen at Gimpo International Airport in Seoul, Sept. 3. AP-Yonhap

The ban came a few days after the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) issued a statement on Aug. 27, saying it would begin taking resolute measures to handle “mobbish fandoms.” According to the statement, the Chinese government not only prohibits the fandoms from collecting money to support their stars, but also bans all fans from arguing or cursing online.

Beijing’s hidden motive

Some speculate that the latest brouhahas involving the celebrities have prompted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to “purify” its entertainment industry. Last month, Kris Wu, a Chinese Canadian former member of EXO, was arrested in China on multiple charges of raping underage girls. In May, some Chinese fans came under fire for ditching 270,000 milk bottles after using the QR codes on the bottles to vote for their favorite contenders in an audition program. Several local stars have also been caught “evading taxes.”

Is K-pop an unwelcome guest for China?

Former EXO member Kris Wu / Yonhap

But the CCP has a hidden motive, according to experts.

“Beijing’s regulation is more likely a part of the CCP’s effort to buttress its political system,” Lim Dae-geun, a professor of Ingenium College of Convergence Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) and an expert of Chinese cultural studies, told The Korea Times.

“After Xi Jinping took office in 2013, he first tightened his grip on the political sector, eliminating his archrival Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing Municipality. Bo was later sentenced to life in prison on charges of corruption and power abuse. Xi then turned his attention to businesspeople like Jack Ma, the former executive chairman of the Chinese technology behemoth Alibaba Group, and now it seems the time has come for the culture and entertainment realms.”

Lim says China’s recent regulation is a deja vu of the Yan’an Rectification Movement in 1942, an ideological purge that took place in Yan’an city in Shaanxi province. The movement, which was led by Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong (1893-1976), is known to have helped him consolidate power and further spread communism among the Chinese.

“In 1942, the CCP’s first target was people in the fields of art and literature, who were free-spirited and willing to utilize their creativity… The government thought their distinctive attributes were hampering it from controlling the country and disseminating its ideology.”

For Beijing, which is seeking to recapture its “past glory,” K-pop is an unwelcome guest.

“K-pop is essentially a fruit of capitalism,” Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University Korea said in a recent Korea Times interview. “It appreciates the ideas like freedom of thought and expression that go against the CCP’s socialist values, leading the country to impose restrictions on the genre.”

Impact of Beijing’s regulation on K-pop industry

What would be the impact of China’s regulation on the K-pop industry?

Given that the country is even banning fans from purchasing more than one copy of a physical album online, K-pop album sales will inevitably see a decline.

But many industry insiders believe this will not deal a fatal blow to K-pop, which is in great demand in many other countries including the U.S. and Japan, the two biggest recorded music markets. In fact, according to Korean album sales tracker Gaon, some 50 million K-pop CDs are expected to be sold around the world this year, even if sales in China fall by 1 million to 2 million due to the restriction.

On top of that, following the THAAD conflict, Korean labels have already been lowering their reliance on the Chinese market and attempting to diversify their portfolios.

Is K-pop an unwelcome guest for China?

On Aug. 31, Thai K-pop star Lisa’s Chinese fan club said on Twitter that it would not be able to order many copies of the singer’s new album, “LALISA,” due to tightened restrictions. Courtesy of YG Entertainment

But Lim and Lee pointed out that the regulation will have “non-negligible long-term effects” that should not be overlooked.

“An album is more than just a compilation of songs,” Lee noted. “It is a crucial tool to promote a singer in China, where popular social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook cannot be used freely. So we have to keep our eyes on China’s political situation, but that does not mean we have to transform ourselves to suit the tastes of that country. Instead, we need to focus on targeting different markets in Southeast Asia, the U.S. and Europe, among others.”

Lim said the restrictions will likely fuel Koreans’ antipathy toward China, possibly undermining the relations between the two countries on the civilian level.

“Unfortunately, there is nothing much Korea and the K-pop industry can do right now,” he said. “As of now, it seems we need more platforms where the two countries can discuss cultural issues together and seek ways to be mutually beneficial. Honestly, spreading K-pop in China is advantageous to Korea only in terms of culture and economy, so Seoul has to contemplate what it can bring to the table for Beijing.”

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