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K-pop star Hwang Chi-yeul has ignited an escalating war of words between the Chinese online community and South Korean media after appearing to criticise air and water quality in China. Photo: Alamy

K-pop star Hwang Chi-yeul sparks online pollution storm between China and South Korea

  • Comments on air and water quality cause offence in Chinese online community
  • South Korean television programme hits back with charge of cyberbullying
K-pop idols

A K-pop star has ignited a rapidly escalating online war of words between his country’s media and Chinese offended by his criticism of China’s air and water quality.

Hwang Chi-yeul was discussing his recent trip to Changsha, in the central Chinese province of Hunan, during an appearance on the South Korean talk show Radio Star last Wednesday when he said his managers had warned him about China’s bad water and air quality beforehand.

“When I arrived at the airport [in China], I couldn’t see what was in front of me. The air quality was really that bad,” Hwang said.

“I took a sip of water, and even the taste wasn’t the same. But it did not matter overall … The environment doesn’t really affect me.”

The 38-year-old’s social media accounts were flooded with abusive comments from China’s online community, such as “Don’t come to China to earn money” and “You are not welcome in China”.

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Hwang, who gained widespread popularity in China after appearing on a reality singing contest produced by Hunan Television in 2016, published an official apology in Korean and Chinese on Friday for the “misunderstanding” his comments caused.

“What I really wanted to express on the programme was, despite the difference in air quality between South Korea and China, that did not affect my enthusiasm to participate in shows [in China] and the results,” he wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

“Will he apologise to China’s water and air too?” one sarcastic response read.

The apology also triggered a backlash in South Korea, with a current affairs programme broadcast on the channel MBN on Tuesday questioning why Hwang had to apologise at all to China.

The programme blamed a “translation error” in the Chinese subtitles and accused China’s online community of cyberbullying the pop star.

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“I’m not insulting him, I just don’t want to see him making money in China ever again. Does that count as cyberbullying? For the sake of his health he shouldn’t come to China again, I’m showing such care yet they still accuse me of internet abuse,” read one top-rated comment on Weibo, which attracted more than 120,000 likes.

“If you insult the place where I was born and grew up, am I not allowed to insult you back? Would it be OK for one of our celebrities to call Seoul a fourth-tier city?” wrote another Weibo user.

This is not the first time that offhand remarks by K-pop stars have angered the Chinese internet.

Singer Jang Na-ra kicked off a similar storm in 2009 when she said on a Korean talk show: “I will perform in China whenever I am short of money”, prompting offended Chinese online commenters to accuse her of insulting China.

South Korea and China relations warming but chilly restrictions remain

Relations between South Korea and China have remained frosty, despite a thaw in diplomatic ties, since a row in 2017 over Seoul’s deployment of a US-backed anti-missile system.

China hit back with a ban on group tours, dealing the South Korean economy a hard knock. In addition, South Korean television shows, pop stars and celebrities were banned or blocked from Chinese television and advertisements, although Beijing never officially announced these bans.

Some restrictions have been gradually lifted but relations are far from normalised.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: K-p op star sets o ff storm wi th sm og c o m ment