The triumph of Parasite first at Cannes and then at the Oscars represents not just an incredible success for its director Bong Joon-ho. It is also a potent symbol of how consumption of South Korean culture has become a vast global phenomenon combining commercial success and critical acclaim.
In music South Korea’s BTS is now undeniably the world’s biggest boyband drawing comparisons to The Beatles, and accounting for $4.65 billion of South Korea’s GDP. Its economic importance to the country is in the same league as Hyundai and Samsung. On TV South Korean soaps are also devoured across Asia. A hit in the West is now surely only a matter of time. In literature Han Kang’s The Vegetarian snagged the International Man Booker Prize in 2016. The upcoming translation of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo also looks set to make an international splash.
This cultural explosion has been collectively referred to as hallyu, the Korean wave. The fact that this term is thought to have originated in China exposes with sharp irony the fact that South Korea, with a population of 51 million and GDP of $1.5 trillion, is somehow outpunching China, which has a population of over 1 billion and a GDP of over $12 trillion, on the global cultural stage. How?
Since the 19th century Korea has been called a shrimp among whales – a small country caught between rival empires, liable to be crushed. Before that it was firmly in the orbit of China, which projected power not just through military force but also by spreading a potent high culture across East and Southeast Asia and sending luxury goods across the world.
Contemporary Chinese culture can also be breath-taking. Director Jia Zhangke’s most recent film, Ash is Purest White, which follows the life of a small-town gangster’s girlfriend, is one of the most stunning artistic pieces I have ever experienced. So why are we talking about the (also very talented) Boon Jong-ho and not him? Why are we not listening to a C-Pop band instead of BTS?
The answers lie in the origins of hallyu in the late 1990s/early 2000s. It was then that South Korea affirmed its status as a high-income country and began to get rid of the vestiges of its military dictatorship. Domestic wealth provided a strong base for creative industries to develop before they went international. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis further spurred this development as the South Korean government encouraged the development of cultural exports as an economic strategy. Today the Popular Culture Industry division of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture has a budget that runs into the hundreds of millions.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Equally important was South Korea’s political liberalisation. A key part of this culturally was the landmark 1996 Constitutional Court ruling that declared censorship unconstitutional. While South Korea still struggles with free expression at times – as attested to by the previous government unofficially blacklisting artists and ongoing concerns about internet censorship – the country is a long way from the days when the government vetted culture and tortured dissidents.
This story is suggestive of the challenge China will face in building an international cultural brand. In many ways China is in a stronger position than South Korea in the 1990s to do so. Not only is it hovering on the verge of becoming a high-income nation, average income has recently broken $10,000, the vast size of its domestic markets allows its companies to grow to huge size before they even try to break out internationally. There is also pre-existing international familiarity with some elements of Chinese culture abroad thanks to the Chinese diaspora, the Hong Kong and Taiwan film industries, and the well-established academic study of it.
However, China’s totalitarian system will likely hobble its ability to build a global cultural brand. Censorship is the most obvious issue. In an age where social media presence is vital China blocks Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. Korea’s BTS has assiduously cultivated a huge and vocal social media following, nicknamed the ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth) which played a huge role in promoting the band internationally. For Chinese musicians and other celebrities this avenue is, to say the least, extremely difficult to pursue.
Equally while the Chinese government, like South Korea, is willing to pour funding into certain aspects of the arts, for example funding propaganda films, censorship means the government is also often Chinese artists’ biggest obstacle.
Jia Zhangke was able to release Ash is Purest White in China, perhaps thanks to not explicitly depicting government wrongdoing. However, his 2013 work A Touch of Sin, four bloody vignettes inspired by real stories of modern China, was banned from release in China even as it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won Best Screenplay at Cannes.
Similarly, the efforts by the great documentary filmmaker Zhao Liang to curry favour with the government by cooperating with them to create a documentary on HIV-positive people in China seem to have profited him little. His most recent film, Behemoth, which explored the brutal costs of China’s coal industry was not released in China – and according to Zhao mention of it was scrubbed from the Chinese internet when it was chosen for the Venice Film Festival.
Censorship seems to have only grown tighter in recent years with the government’s propaganda department taking over regulation of film and TV in 2018. The romantic coming of age drama Better Days, which became a huge hit domestically, was almost not released probably because it dealt with issues of bullying, suicide, petty criminality, and, worst of all, the pressure put on students by the state gaokao exams. Still, despite success in China it flopped abroad – likely not helped by it being abruptly pulled from the Berlin Film Festival, the sort of milieu where non-English language films looking to make a splash can generate buzz.
Nor is censorship the only issue. In 2018 a tax evasion scandal engulfed the Chinese film industry and resulted in Chinese super-star Fan Bingbing ominously disappearing for four months. Like with the ongoing campaign against corrupt officials this incident is widely seen as serving a dual purpose. It not only attracts public approval by punishing high-profile lawbreakers, it also destroys any potential political rivals.
For the Chinese Communist party, bent on ensuring the pre-eminence of “core socialist values”, the entertainment industry can seem dangerous. Over the past few years it has been attacked for “distorting social values” and “misleading young people to blindly chase celebrities”. Outside the film industry there has been a general crackdown on anything that seems to signal social non-conformity in the arts. Hip-hop seems a particular cause of concern for the pearl-clutching government. The TV show Rap of China saw its already fairly conservative content reduced to the anodyne in the second season. Two of last year’s winners PG One and GAI have faced government criticism which resulted in the former issuing a public apology, and the latter being suddenly booted from another popular TV show.
In this atmosphere even successful artists willing to compromise with the Chinese government can face censorship, blacklisting, and harassment if they fail to toe the line. Exile awaits prominent figures who prove too rebellious. In exile, with better access to the Western press and cultural industries, these artists become the face of Chinese culture abroad as dissidents to the regime. It is no coincidence that Ai Wei Wei is now the most famous Chinese artists internationally or that Ma Jian’s hallucinogenic depiction of Xi Jingping’s China, China Dream, can be found on Waterstones display tables. Hardly, the image the Chinese communist party wants to project – nor on their own enough to build a global Chinese cultural brand.