In early March, when American officials announced that they had begun to install a missile-defense system in South Korea that China said could be used to spy on its territory, the Lotte Mart in Beijing’s Wangjing district became an easy target for Chinese nationalists looking to vent their anger.
Urged on by editorials in the state-run new media, banner-waving protesters soon filled the sidewalk in front of the supermarket. They heckled would-be customers to boycott the store because it was owned by Lotte, a South Korean conglomerate that had agreed to provide land for the antimissile system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense).
The store was soon closed, along with about 90 other branches across China, as anti-South Korean sentiments quickly spread. With implicit support from the government, Chinese consumers boycotted everything from K-pop to Hyundai in their campaign to punish South Korea and test its relationship with the United States.
“We don't have to make the country bleed, but we'd better make it hurt,” the Global Times, a nationalist Chinese tabloid, said in an editorial published on March 1. “Chinese consumers should become the main force in teaching Seoul a lesson, punishing the nation through the power of the market.”
But for now, at least, China appears to have concluded that the strategy isn’t working. Late last month, it agreed to end the dispute, even though South Korea is keeping the system in place, arguing that it’s needed to defend against North Korea. As tensions begin to thaw, China has reportedly relaxed a ban on group tours to South Korea, and allowed South Korean celebrities to appear again in marketing campaigns.
Yet Beijing's decision to soften its stance renews a domestic challenge: how to appease the nationalists it riled up but no longer needs. It last faced such a conundrum in 2012, when authorities were careful to contain nationalist sentiments over a territorial dispute with Japan that had led to street demonstrations.
“The Chinese government has the wherewithal to put the genie of popular nationalism back in the bottle,” says Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor of government at Cornell University and the author of a book about nationalist protests in China. “But it pays a price each time it squelches anti-foreign nationalism.”
Adjusting the volume
Dr. Weiss says in an email that some Chinese will likely feel used and betrayed by the about-face, while others will grow more cynical about how the government only encourages patriotic fervor when it suits its foreign policy goals. In the long run, such policy reversals could discourage Chinese citizens from responding to the government’s anti-foreign rallying cries, depriving Beijing of what has become a reliable and punishing tool in international disputes.
To be sure, many analysts agree that a dramatic shift won’t happen anytime soon, if ever. Beijing has turned the volume up and down on nationalistic sentiments for decades without facing any major backlash. If anything, Chinese nationalism is only intensifying under President Xi Jinping, who has established himself as China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s.
Moreover, the growing personality cult around Mr. Xi only enhances his power of persuasion on almost any issue, including foreign policy, says Pal Nyiri, a professor at Free University Amsterdam who studies Chinese nationalism.
“If he says South Koreans are now forgiven, then they're forgiven,” Dr. Nyiri says, suggesting one possible reaction: “ ‘We can go back to watching our Korean soap operas.’ ”
But critics point out that unlike in the Mao era, the last time one figure so dominated Chinese life, the availability of the internet undermines the Communist Party’s efforts to inspire unwavering devotion and control the storyline. So while China’s state-run press has tried to claim victory over South Korea by repeating, for example, that South Korean President Moon Jae-in has promised not to accept any more THAAD deployments – which he’d already vowed to do – many Chinese nationalists aren’t convinced. Some have even accused the government of deceiving them.
“No longer believe in any patriotic feelings, no longer play any boycott games,” writes one user on Sina Weibo, a Chinese site similar to Twitter. “People like us are just pawns. We now feel that patriotism is so naive.”
South Korea and China agreed to end their dispute over the missile defense system and to restore their economic and other ties on Oct. 31. The announcement came after months of Chinese customers boycotting South Korean cars, movies, and television dramas, in addition to South Korean supermarkets.
In May, the Hyundai Research Institute estimated that the THAAD dispute could cost South Korea $7.8 billion this year, a 0.5 percent decrease in the country’s gross domestic product. The institute estimated China faced a loss of $1 billion, a mere 0.01 percent drop of its GDP. Nyiri says this proves, if nothing else, that China can squeeze other countries when it wants, given its outsized economic influence.
“It sends a signal to foreign countries that says, ‘Look, people in China are strongly nationalistic and you need us, the government, to hold them under control,’ ” Nyiri says.
Yet in spite of the hit taken by South Korean industries like consumer products and tourism, overall trade between the two countries has steadily increased. South Korea’s exports to China rose 13.4 percent to $114 billion in the January-October period from a year ago, according to the Korea International Trade Association. In October, China imported $10.2 billion worth of semiconductors and other electronic equipment, an all-time high.
Mr. Moon is scheduled to visit Beijing in December to meet with Xi. The two leaders met on the sidelines of a regional economic summit earlier this month in Vietnam, where they agreed to work to resolve the North Korean crisis peacefully and strengthen bilateral cooperation. On Tuesday, a senior Chinese official was scheduled to arrive in South Korea for a four-day visit to discuss ways to further improve relations.
Meanwhile, in the Wangjing district, South Korean shop owners are simply happy to see customers returning. Oh Sug-bong, the owner of a small stationery store, says after sales dropped as low as 40 percent this spring, they’ve started to pick up again.
“I think the situation is finally getting better,” he says.