Lonely Leader: How Is China Perceived by Its Eastern Neighbors?

There are few doubts that Eastern Asia’s future will largely depend on how its countries will build their relations with China, the new regional leader. Of course, in practice, as is often the case, these relations will largely be determined by specific and unpredictable political and economic circumstances. However, what kind of attitude minor Eastern Asian countries have towards the rising leader will play a major role in this process. Therefore, without exaggerating the importance of public sentiments, they should be taken into account, in particular when it comes to the states of the Korean Peninsula.

In order to understand how China’s eastern neighbors, the people of the two Korean states, perceive China, we should dig deep into the past, probably way back to centuries long gone, even before the advent of the Christian era. That is when the Korean statehood was born.

The emergence and development of the Korean statehood was eclipsed by the Chinese statehood. The Korean elite culture was not merely influenced by the Chinese elite culture but was actually part of it. For Korea and other minor Eastern Asian countries, China played the same role as the Roman Empire did in medieval Europe, with the important difference that the Roman Empire perished long before the rule of the Carolingians and Capetians, whereas China was not only a model of culture and the homeland of the official national language but also a fairly vibrant regional superpower.

For almost two millennia the ancient Chinese language (that is, Chinese of the mid first millennium B.C.) was the only language used by the government administration in Korea and actually the only language of high culture – the Korean elite reserved the Korean language only for writing poetic lines and even that was rather rare. During the greater part of this time the Chinese legislation was the foundation of the Korean legal system, while Chinese children from the nobility studied Chinese history and philosophy for centuries. If Korean history was studied at all, it was in the form of local history. The study and even simple use of the Korean language in educational institutions for the Korean elite was simply out of the question up until the end of the 19th century.

Incidentally, this does not mean that even way back during those times Korea unconditionally followed in the wake of China. Although its respect for Chinese culture was considered indisputable (in effect, only Chinese culture was viewed as actual culture), the attitude to real China as a state formation was far more complicated: while preserving their orientation towards China and regarding it as an ally, Korean statesmen were conducting diplomatic games with China to the extent that they possibly could.

However, in the late 19th century the situation changed drastically and this change occurred in a very short span of time – two or three decades. The invasion of Western imperialist powers as well as the brilliant success of Japan that cast away traditional Confucian culture and embarked on the road of radical modernization and westernization after the 1868 revolution, came as a shock to the Korean elites, especially the young educated elite. Interestingly, Confucian fundamentalism did not really develop in Korea: virtually nobody argued that the revival of ancient Confucian piety would help in the struggle against the armor-clad enemy equipped with machineguns.

Korea embarked on a road of modernization and China rapidly turned from being a cultural model into a symbol of a retrograde and backward society. China embodied everything for which there would be no room in the future of wonderful Korea. Not that the Korean youth of the early 20th century hated China. It rather began to look down on China, despising it for its chronic poverty and inability to build a modern state. Korea even felt a bit sorry for China. Incidentally, as is often the case, certain cultural inertia was still there: the study of the ABCs of the classic Chinese language remained an important part of education and the ancient Chinese culture (the more ancient the better) evoked quite a piety.

The situation in China in those years was conducive to such attitude which was both arrogant and skeptical. Its attempts to carry out modernization produced at best partial success, and after the 1911 Xinhai Revolution China sunk into the quagmire of disunity, civil wars and anarchy and started getting out of this situation only after 1949. The Koreans read about chaos in the neighboring country and sometimes dealt with Chinese guest workers that came to work in Korea on the worst possible terms.

Up until this moment Korea has largely retained this arrogant attitude towards China. Despite all economic achievements of the last decades, the South Koreans still consider China a poor country: per capita GDP (with the account of the purchasing power) in South Korea is about 150% higher than that of China. This is the same gap in per capita GDP as between Romania and Switzerland.

That said, after 1945 and up until the 1990s China was practically non-existent for the public awareness of South Korea. China and South Korea did not even have diplomatic relations from 1949 to 1992 and bilateral contacts were minimal. It would be true to say that China took part in the Korean War by supporting the North with its troops but even this fact did little to influence South Korea’s attitude to it. Korea continued treating old China and its high culture with respect but was neither particularly interested in nor hostile toward new China. The Cultural Revolution and other experiments of the Great Helmsman merely confirmed the stereotypes established by that time: China was viewed as a large country but barbarian and somewhat incongruous, with a superb past but pitiful present.

The situation started changing though in the 1990s when China in the process of reforming first established diplomatic relations with Seoul and then started turning into an important and later on leading foreign trade partner of South Korea.

At present, China accounts for about a quarter of South Korea’s foreign trade. About half a million South Koreans live and work in China, while over a million Chinese citizens (mostly guest workers) live in South Korea. Mixed marriages have become fairly common, especially in rural areas. South Korean villages are badly in need of females and this is compensated by bringing in girls from China’s backwaters.

Since China’s economic importance for South Korea has sharply increased, the latter’s interest in Chinese society and politics began to grow (this cannot be said with regard to modern Chinese culture that is almost fully ignored in South Korea). A regular plenary meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee in Beijing, which will most probably be just mentioned in a short report in Russian newspapers, will be first page news in South Korea. Its analysis may occupy more room than all international news put together.

However, despite the booming trade, investment and economic cooperation in general, until recently South Korea’s attitude towards China remained somewhat condescending. China was viewed as a major market, as well as a source of inexpensive consumer goods, cheap labor and rather irritating but on the whole useful, tourists. It was not considered to be a geopolitical player or a source of threat. In this respect, South Korea’s attitude towards China was different from that of most of its other neighbors that were looking at the ever growing giant quite suspiciously.

This situation changed only partially in 2017 when China introduced informal but rather painful sanctions against South Korea, punishing Seoul for its decision to host elements of US missile defense system targeted against new North Korean missiles. The South Korean public reacted painfully at these sanctions and its attitude towards China worsened. South Korea began to perceive China as a threat in some respect.

The poll conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies during the summer of 2019 showed what is obvious to any person that lives in Korea, reads the local press and socializes with Koreans: South Korea’s attitude towards China remains chilly albeit not hostile. In accordance with this poll, China’s popularity ranking (on a 10-point scale) amounts to 3.76, which is higher than the figure for politically close but chronically unpopular Japan (3.06) but much lower than the figure for the United States (5.99).

Moreover, the attitude towards China has been recently included on the domestic political agenda. The South Korean right-wing opposition that by tradition occupies what can be described as radically pro-US positions, has begun to accuse the ruling left-wing nationalist Government of Moon Jae-in of not being tough enough towards China and readiness to bow to it. In particular, this was reflected in connection with the coronavirus epidemic. The opposition press is full of commonplace assertions that being worried about Beijing’s negative response, the current Government delayed the imposition of restrictions on the entry of Chinese residents to South Korea, thereby creating conditions for an outbreak of the epidemic in the county.

However, the role of this trend should not be overrated. Although the ruling left-wing-center forces are a bit better disposed towards China than the right-wing opposition (largely because of the willingness of the opposition to blindly follow in the wake of Washington), there are no radical differences when it comes to the attitude towards China. South Korea does not want to get involved in the US-Chinese conflict and is not particularly hostile to China. On the whole its attitude to China is a mixture of curiosity, wariness and slight arrogance as well as a clear understanding of close links between the economic interests of South Korea and China.

As for North Korea, its attitude to China is completely different – largely because as distinct from South Korea, China played a very tangible and ambiguous role in Pyongyang’s policy and history after 1945 as well.

Historically, as the majority of the Korean communists in the 1920s-1930s, the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il-sung, was closely linked with China and the Communist Party of China (CPC). Many, if not most of the revolutionaries and guerrilla fighters that headed the young North Korean state in 1945-1950, much to their surprise, were formally CPC members in different periods of their lives. Kim Il-sung was one of them. He joined the CPC in 1932 and remained a member until 1945. This fact was removed from all official North Korean history texts in the mid-1950s when North Korea began to write its own, national-patriotic version of its revolutionary history. This version was almost completely divorced from reality. Thus, according to it, Kim Il-sung and a small group of guerrilla fighters under his command turned into a powerful army that played a decisive role in the rout of militarist Japan. Most important of all, it was ostensibly absolutely independent of China and the USSR. In reality, Kim Il-sung served in Chinese Communist guerrilla units from 1932 to 1941 and was a Soviet Army officer from 1941 to 1945.

In addition, China actually saved the North Korean regime from complete destruction in the fall of 1950 when contrary to Kim Il-sung’s optimistic expectations, a surprise attack on the South in the summer of 1950 did not lead to a large-scale uprising against the Syngman Rhee regime. On the contrary, it provoked US intervention in support of that regime. By late October 1950, US-South Korean troops controlled about 90 percent of the country’s territory. If China had not decided (after some hesitations) to send its own troops to the Korean Peninsula, the DPRK would have remained just a ludicrous five-year-long episode in the postwar history of Eastern Asia.

Finally, Chinese aid began to play a decisive role in preserving domestic political stability in the DPRK in the early 21st century. In fact, over a period of the past 20 years China has been one of the main suppliers of humanitarian relief (primarily food products) to North Korea. It is China’s food and fuel supplies and a flow of Chinese tourists that is actively supported by Beijing that allow the North Korean economy to keep afloat despite the extremely tough sanctions of the UN Security Council.

It would seem that the North Korean elite should consider itself China’s life-long debtor. However, gratitude is not a political emotion. Therefore, this moral and political debt sooner had a negative influence on the attitude of the North Korean elite, that is, Kim Il-sung and his entourage, to their eastern neighbor.

Caution as regards China was visible from the very start but it sharply increased after a group of top officials linked with China and the USSR attempted to oust Kim Il-sung from power and replace him with a more moderate (and more acceptable for China and the USSR) candidate in 1956. This incident was not forgotten in North Korea.

This does not mean that Kim Il-sung and the North Korean elite did not try to use China for their own purposes. On the contrary, since the late 1950s and up to the end of the 1980s, the diplomatic history of the DPRK witnessed complicated and generally successful maneuvering between Moscow and Beijing. Nonetheless, periodically addressing China with requests for aid and assuring Beijing of its solidarity, the North Korean leadership did everything to shut down potential channels of China’s political influence inside the country. The overwhelming majority of the functionaries that were too closely linked with China in the early stages of their careers lost their positions in the 1960s and were often subjected to repression. Starting at that time all unofficial contacts with China were restricted, thoroughly monitored and even curbed in many cases.

This caution of the elite largely reflects North Korea’s attitude towards China on a large scale. Paradoxically, North Koreans tend to treat China with a bit of disdain, just like their southern neighbors. This is the effect of the inertia of the past historical memories – up to the 1980s China was seen in North Korea as a poor country, “large but wayward.”

Strange as it may seem, up to the mid-1980s, the living standards in North Korea were tangibly higher than those of the neighboring Chinese provinces and local North Koreans, many of which had relatives there, were well aware of this fact. Of course, China’s “economic miracle” has largely changed the situation and now the income gap between China and North Korea is almost six-fold, to believe official statistics. None the less, a somewhat haughty and even scornful attitude towards the Chinese has weakened but not disappeared completely.

Thus, the attitude of Koreans to China can hardly be described as positive. But it is not entirely negative, either, as distinct from that of other important “small regional countries” like Japan and Vietnam that are markedly Sinophobic.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.