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Cultural Diplomacy: Korea’s Soft-power Lures China?

South Korea has become Asia’s coolest brand – and their biggest fans are right next door. At the heart of the Chinese obsession with everything Korean is the sparkle of Kpop, romantic television dramas, attractive celebrities, innovative cosmetics, forward fashion, fried chicken and the glamour of the Gangnam lifestyle.

Popular culture has become Korea’s largest export. The largest importers of which are the Chinese - such that the term Hallyu, the Korean Wave, is claimed to have been coined by Chinese journalists in the late 1990s to refer to the fast growing popularity of Korean culture and entertainment in China. This Korean Wave of pop-culture diplomacy has seen the country become the number one travel destination for Chinese tourists - numbering over 6 million in 2014, and representing almost half of Korea’s annual tourist portfolio. Placed in perspective, Australia’s total tourist intake in 2014 across all nationalities amounted to just over 6.4 million.

Cosmetic surgery, entertainment and high-quality goods characterise the Chinese fascination with Korea and supply their demand for luxury products and the growing consumerism evident in their middle-class. The Korean entertainment industry - ranging from Kpop music, television dramas, to variety shows - accounts for the largest share of cultural exports, with the Chinese representing their largest global fan base. However, in part this can also be attributed to the sheer number and capacity of the Chinese population.

The Hallyu wave is hurting China’s “cultural self esteem”

Reactions have been mixed within China concerning the Hallyu wave. Discussion about the threat of the Hallyu wave to Chinese culture resurfaced after unprecedented fanaticism over a Korean television drama "My Love From Another Star". The drama became a national phenomenon, and was watched more than one billion times. It led to obsessions with fried chicken, near-death fan experiences and entire workplace holidays in honour of the season finale. Korean drama and variety shows have triumphed over domestic and Western counterparts for Chinese audiences.

At the forefront of the concern about the Hallyu wave was Xu Qinsong, a Guandong delegate of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. He argued that the obsession with Korean dramas demonstrated China’s lack of “cultural self esteem”, as well as serving as a blow to its cultural dignity. However, the phenomenon has not unnerved all party members, with prominent figures such as the First Lady of China, Peng Liyuan, even admitting to being swept up in the Korean fever.

Xu was correct in asserting that the Chinese entertainment industry is failing to keep up with its Korean counterparts and has been criticised by the China Daily for its poor quality, unoriginal ideas and distortion of history. The original, creative and high-quality productions emerging from Korea present a far more favourable alternative. In response to the immense popularity of Korean variety shows, China has begun to copy the more prominent programs and develop their own versions with ‘Chinese characteristics’ in an attempt to appeal to domestic audiences.

However, this cultural tug-of-war does not end there. While initially struggling to tap into the Chinese market due to heavy restrictions on the broadcasting of foreign cultural content, Korean entertainment labels have been implementing an effective strategy of localisation. By engaging in ventures with large Chinese information technology firms, debuting Korean idol groups featuring Chinese members and promoting albums in both Korean and Chinese, they are serving to bridge cultural barriers.

A reflection of changing times?

While the Korean government and commentators in the international relations sphere have linked the Hallyu wave with notions of ‘soft power’, it is difficult to label it as such. Although the popularity of Korean culture and entertainment has indeed made waves in Asia in recent decades, it has not reached Western shores to the same capacity. However, Korean brands like Samsung and LG have achieved global dominance and the tremendous scale of the Korean Wave does reflect an important Japanese-Korean shift in popular culture and changing concepts of modernity.

Perhaps the most important question is why the Chinese in particular are so hungry to consume Korean cultural exports. Despite some concerns emerging from within the echelons of the Party - arguing that the obsession with everything Hallyu somewhat eclipses modern Chinese cultural identity - it is also a testament to the warming of relations between the two powers on the cultural front. Former PRC President Hu Jintao notably praised intensifying Chinese national interest in Korea as important in strengthening bilateral cultural relations.

For the Chinese riding the wave of Hallyu, South Korea strikes the balance between Asian content and Western modernity. Against the backdrop of a growing middle class with a lust for high-quality, trendy goods South Korea presents the environment, proximity and modern lifestyle that can supply these growing demands. As the hub of modern Asian culture, Korea’s reflections of Confucianism and cultural affinities tie it to China, but the creative expression, freedom and perceived Western luxuries tie it explicitly to ‘modernity’. The Chinese fascination with Korea represents a shift away from the West as the typical reflection of desirable modern culture and society, for one that is closer to home and has distinctly Asian characteristics.

Luisa Cools is the China Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Republic of Korea (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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