K-pop supergroup BTS has risen to become one of the world’s most popular musical acts, but just three days before its company Big Hit Entertainment’s big IPO, it was hit with an unexpected stumbling block in the Chinese market: a single sentence about world history that has sent brands fleeing.
In a speech to accept a prize earlier this week from the Korea Society, a New York-headquartered non-profit that seeks to build mutual understanding between the U.S. and South Korea, band member RM said: “We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together, and the sacrifices of countless men and women.”
He added that it was especially meaningful to accept the General James A. Van Fleet Award, which is awarded for those who have made “outstanding contributions” to promoting U.S.-Korea relations this year, the 70th anniversary of the Korean War.
Although he made no mention at all of China, Chinese internet users and state-run media were quick to slam the comment for not acknowledging the sacrifices of Chinese soldiers who fought with North Korea against the U.S. and the South.
Hashtags claiming that “BTS humiliated China” were trending in China Monday, with one user writing, “If you want to make money in China you should consider the feelings of Chinese fans.” The tabloid-esque Global Times trumpeted that “the band’s totally one-sided attitude to the Korean War hurst the feelings [of Chinese netizens] and negates history.”
Major companies Samsung, Hyundai and Fila appear to already be distancing themselves from BTS in China, appearing to pull ads and products affiliated with the group in what are likely attempts to avoid boycotts from passionately nationalistic Chinese consumers.
On Monday, a BTS collaboration special-edition purple smartphone disappeared from Samsung’s Chinese website and other Chinese online sales platforms. Though BTS has been Fila’s brand ambassador since 2019 and worked with Hyundai since 2018, both companies pulled mentions of the band from their official Chinese social media accounts.
Even China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian chimed in on the matter Monday. Asked whether the ministry felt that RM’s comment was a “matter of national dignity,” he said: “We all should learn lessons from history and look forward to the future, hold dear peace and strengthen friendship.”
Big Hit Entertainment will go public in Seoul on Oct. 15 with an initial public offering that is expected to value the firm at $4.1 billion, making it South Korea’s largest in three years. Last year, the firm made 97% of its revenue from BTS.
China still unofficially bans the import of South Korean cultural products, an action that has lingered since 2017. It came about due to Beijing’s anger at the country’s deployment of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile defense system. Imports of Korean films are still not possible.
Although some K-pop artists have signed endorsement deals with Chinese companies earlier this year in what was seen as a potential sign of a thaw, a lift of the ban in the near future remains unlikely.
“There are signs of optimism compared with four years ago when K-pop stars were removed from advertisements. But it’s too early to interpret it as anything more than what it actually is,” Lim Dae-geun, a professor of Chinese interpretation and translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, told the Korean Herald back in May, noting that “despite the ban being a top-down order, there’s always been demand for Korean content in China.”
With the rise of nationalist sentiment among young consumers stoked by major war films including “Jingang Chuan,” a Korean War-set blockbuster helmed by Guan Hu (“The Eight Hundred”) and Frant Gwo (“The Wandering Earth”) set to release Oct. 25, that could change.
While the Chinese internet was busy bemoaning BTS’ supposed politics, the rest of its fandom on Twitter, a platform blocked in China, was collectively celebrating its new chart records.
On Monday, BTS became the first Asian artist in history to simultaneously hold a song at No. 1 and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, with “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” by Jawsh 685, Jason Derulo and BTS and the K-poppers’ first English-language single “Dynamite,” respectively.
They’re now one of just five groups to have ever done so, alongside The Beatles, The BeeGees, Outkast and the Black Eyed Peas, and the first to do so globally since the Black Eyed Peas in 2009.
“What I’ve learned from touring across the world is that our thoughts are not so different even if we are in different places. The feeling of sadness, anger, and being touched is similar everywhere I go,” said band member Jung Kook in the same Korea Society acceptance speech for which China is criticizing him.
“I hope that our music plays a role as a link that allows people from all around the world to understand and respect on another.”