South Korean media are already abuzz with "imminent" Chinese retaliation to the Park Geun-hye government's announcement to host the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system. Has China suddenly become a vengeful hegemon? Even until January this year, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se characterized Seoul-Beijing ties as the "best ever." Media outlets often portrayed the relationship of the two leaders, Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping, as a "honeymoon."
The South Korean eruption of fear over Chinese retaliation also contrasts with China's portrayal of itself as a "responsible power" (fuzeren de daguo) that emits an aura of a benevolent and big-hearted global leader. As the issue of THAAD and the Korean panic is soaring, with various specific scenarios of how China will seek revenge, it is also quite relevant to muse on how South Korean images of China are playing their psychological roles in the narrative.
Befitting this topic, three young Chinese scholars ― Dong Xiangrong, Wang Xiaoling and Li Yongchun ― penned a book titled "South Korean Images of China." These researchers represent China's new generation of emerging scholars. Among the highlights of the book are the surveys they conducted on how South Koreans feel about China. And the results are quite eye-opening.
According to the Chinese survey, South Koreans have a "conflicted image" of China. China can be characterized as "developing," "full of uncertainty," "a country that we don't like," or "a socialist country that cannot be trusted." South Koreans also see China as an "economic partner" yet "a politically alien country," which therefore poses a "threat" to South Korea. China represents to South Koreans a country that is "rapidly developing," yet "backward," and "uncertain of its future trajectory."
The survey also shows two keywords South Koreans use when referring to China: "a security threat," and "poor quality products." For instance, 73 percent of South Korean respondents said China's military buildup posed a security threat to South Korea and thereby reminded them of China's "invasion and oppression" and reflected their fear of China's growing influence on the Korean Peninsula.
What is bafflingly interesting is that South Koreans also have favorable cultural orientations toward China as well; South Koreans feel a natural affinity to the Chinese culture, recognize China's spectacular economic expansion, and respect China's hosting the six-party talks. So, why the conflicting images?
The authors believe that the culprit is the United States. The Chinese scholars think South Korean perceptions of China have been modified and "reshaped" by the post–Cold War influence of the United States, to which South Korea has been a major military ally. Simply put, the Chinese bemoan that South Korea, a former tributary, looks at China through "the American prism" and thus has a growingly negative view toward today's China.
The Chinese authors use the concept of "da guo" (big country) as an example. Both the Chinese and South Korean people use the term. Namely, China is a "big country," which means that it is a country that has a large landmass and a huge population. In its extension, this term also means China's growing sphere of influence in terms of economic and international politics and the military realm. However, there is another term, "shang guo," which means "a country to look up to."
In the past, China was both "da guo" and "shang guo" to Koreans. China was a powerful and highly civilized nation that smaller neighboring countries admired. This involved a historical mentality of respect that Koreans attached in reverence to a big and powerful country. But not anymore. The Chinese authors conclude: "For South Koreans, today's ‘shang guo' is the United States, not China" (p. 179).
The authors call on China to reclaim its high position that commands respect from Koreans by establishing superiority.
"Therefore, until the time when China completely establishes its superiority to South Korea, the (negative) image South Koreans have about China will not likely have a fundamental shift." (p. 186–87).
Since the Chinese authors did not elaborate on it further, there is no way to know what they meant by "establishing superiority to South Korea." This could mean that China would need to upgrade its soft-power leverage toward South Korea. This could also indicate China's determination to outstrip South Korea in terms of economic, political and cultural prowess, a position that would make South Koreans feel overwhelmed, like in the old days. Or, it may refer to its willingness to use physical means to subjugate South Korea. The interpretation is open, debatable and includes uncertainty. This ambiguity is unhelpful as it generates uneasiness in the minds of South Koreans toward China's future power projections.
Overall, the book reads very much like a self-conscious image-journal of China, baffled by why South Korea, its former tributary, does not revere the Middle Kingdom emperor anymore. I think this is a loaded question that the Chinese already know the answer to. Just look at the widespread panic in South Korea regarding China's "imminent" retaliation over THAAD. While China may ponder on specific measures, a relevant question to consider is what kind of image China wants to impress upon South Koreans? China's choice will have far-reaching implications for China's soft-power strategy with its neighboring countries, beyond South Korea.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute.