It seemed a harmless remark from a wildly popular boy band, known more for their open involvement than for any outright provocation.
But when the leader of the Korean pop group BTS acknowledged the shared suffering of Americans and Koreans during a recent ceremony in honor of the Korean War, Internet users in China wasted no time in registering their crime.
Chinese social media is outraged that BTS leader Kim Nam Joon, who appears under the stage name RM (formerly Rap Monster), also did not acknowledge the victims of Chinese soldiers who fought on North Korea’s side.
First, a shiny special purple smartphone made for BTS disappeared on Monday from Samsung’s Chinese website and other e-commerce platforms in the country.
Hours later, posts mentioning BTS appeared to have been deleted from the official Weibo account of Phila, the sportswear company. BTS has been an ambassador of the Fila brand since 2019.
By Monday night, South Korean news agencies reported that Hyundai Motor Group, the South Korean automaker, had removed ads and links to BTS from its Chinese social media accounts. BTS released a song in August to promote the launch of Ioniq, Hyundai’s electric vehicle line, and has been a partner of the automaker since 2018. A video ad featuring the group still appeared on Hyundai’s Chinese website on Monday night.
The carmaker has previously faced problems in China due to various political tensions, when sales fell by more than 60 percent there in 2017 after South Korea stepped up its missile defense system in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests.
Their actions appear to have targeted the potential for the types of boycotts and other angry steps Chinese consumers have taken against brands believed to have encountered patriotic sentiment.
The events began during a virtual award ceremony on October 7, when the Korean Society, a non-profit New York organization, presented BTS with an award that recognizes progress in US-Korea relations.
During the ceremony, RM said on the occasion of the Korean War, which began 70 years ago: “We will always remember the story of the pain that our two nations shared together and the victims of countless men and women.”
While perhaps 200,000 or more South Korean soldiers and about 37,000 American soldiers died in the war, in addition to millions of civilians, 180,000 Chinese soldiers also died, according to Chinese accounts.
After a storm on social media over the gang’s perception, Zhao Lijiang, China’s deputy foreign director, weighed heavily.
“I noticed the related reports, as well as the reaction of the Chinese networks,” he said when asked by reporters about a news briefing on Monday. “We must learn from history and look to the future, keeping the peace and advancing in our friendship.”
The Global Times,, a fiercely nationalist Chinese state tabloid reported in detail on BTS’s reaction, saying the group’s members had to admit even the losses of an ally of their country’s longtime enemy. The group’s comments, the tabloid said, reflected “one-sidedness” and “denial of history”.
The hashtags “no idols come before my country” and “BTS humiliate China” were on trend in China.
Jolie Liu, a 21-year-old medical student in Guangzhou, said she was reconsidering her support for the group. In a telephone interview Monday, she said she was angry at his comments, which she learned after watching a real-time video of a BTS concert on Saturday.
“We can’t force them to have the same political views as us, but since you get our money and support here, then you have to take that into account and respect each country,” she said.
Others say they believe the group’s members, like South Koreans, have a right to their own views, although they may have had to keep quiet about it.
Wuhan Internet user Qin Xiaxing said in a telephone interview Monday that she was proud that her grandfather had been involved in the war against Americans and found BTS’s comments inappropriate, believing they should have avoided political problems.
“We are from two countries, so we will have differences when we face issues related to the sovereignty of our respective countries. That’s for sure, “she said. “Because there’s no man who doesn’t love his country, right?”
Some said they had trouble seeing what was so offensive. Charlene Liu, a 21-year-old student in Shanghai, wrote on Weibo that it would be unnatural to mention historical enemies during a military tribute.
“China and South Korea have fought on opposite sides. “There will certainly not be a single South Korean celebrating the war by thanking the Chinese,” she wrote on Sunday. “If the whole world has to take care of the feelings of the Chinese, couldn’t we try to understand how the Koreans feel?” (She added that she is not a BTS fan.)
Samsung’s representatives in China and South Korea did not immediately respond to requests for comment by email. Representatives of Fila and Hyundai did not respond immediately to requests for comment. Big Hit Entertainment, the agency that runs BTS, did not immediately respond to phone calls and emailed requests for comment.
The controversy comes just days before Big Hit went public in Seoul during an initial public offering that is expected to value the company at up to $ 4 billion.
BTS is just the latest in a long range of international celebrities and brands that have turned out to be on the wrong side of the Chinese government and consumers.
Chinese state operators have stopped showing NBA games for a year after a team leader posted support on Twitter for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.
After Dolce & Gabbana released an ad containing stereotypes, many found racist and offensive, Chinese social platforms were flooded with videos of consumers burning and destroying the brand’s products.
Companies are also withdrawing products after state news reported that they had hurt national pride. Luxury brands Coach, Givenchy and Versace apologized in 2019 for T-shirt designs that looked like Hong Kong as a separate territory, interpreted as undermining Chinese sovereignty.
Gap apologized in 2018 after a T-shirt with a map of China did not show Taiwan, parts of Tibet and islands in the South China Sea that Beijing says belong to China.
Coral Yang, Su-Hyun Lee and Claire Fu contributed to the research.