On May 30, 1925, thirteen Chinese workers in British-controlled Shanghai were shot dead. Shortly afterwards, Guangzhou and Hong Kong were paralysed by a 16-month-long strike and boycott of British goods by Chinese workers in both cities, protesting at the deaths of their countrymen. The British authorities had to provide a multimillion-dollar payment to prevent the local economy from collapsing. At a time when China was horribly oppressed by Western powers, the boycott was one of the few effective ways in which a weaker power could show its strength against a stronger one.
In the past few days, there has been an echo of 1925; Chinese authorities have encouraged a boycott of South Korean goods and shops in China. The overall effect is very different from that in 1925, however, because this time, it looks like a big, powerful country taking out its resentment on a smaller power that refuses to do what it is told.
The immediate cause of China’s anger is South Korea’s decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD), designed to guard against incoming North Korean missiles, but which China fears is aimed at spying on Beijing’s defensive capacity. In response, China’s authorities have made an increasingly wide range of gestures against South Korea, first banning Korean soap opera and pop stars from Chinese airwaves, then making it harder for Chinese tourists to visit Seoul. By making such gestures, Beijing is of course tacitly admitting that Korea has what China lacks, but desperately wants: genuine soft power.
Now, Chinese consumers are being encouraged to boycott Korean goods and shops in China itself. Already, there are reports of supermarkets owned by the Korean company Lotte being deserted by their customers.
China’s actions come at a time of huge weakness in South Korea. The fall of President Park Geun-hye in a corruption scandal has meant that a victory for the leftist Democratic Party, which seemed unfeasible just a year ago, is now the most likely result in May’s presidential election. Moon Jae-in, now heading towards the top job, would probably have taken a more conciliatory line towards China anyway, which makes this a puzzling time for China to pressure its politicians over THAAD.
In 1996, Beijing’s threats to attack Taiwan if the self-governing island re-elected then-president Lee Teng-hui backfired – he was returned with a greater majority. Likewise, South Koreans may be disgusted with the Park regime, but threats from China are unlikely to make an anti-THAAD candidate any more appealing to them.
The boycott is particularly puzzling because it does greatest harm in the long term not to South Korea’s economy, but to China’s careful diplomatic attempts to portray itself as a cooperative and valued neighbour.
In the past few years, China and South Korea had created a relationship that showed a country could have a meaningful economic and cultural relationship with China as well as a security relationship with the United States. China’s friendship with Seoul was reciprocated; Park even appeared alongside President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) at the 2015 military parade in Beijing. However, the two countries eventually parted ways when it came to the ever-more urgent problem of North Korea, which has South Korea and Japan in its sights.
China has tried to maintain the position that it has little influence on the maverick nation, even though active involvement in de-nuclearising the Pyongyang regime would do wonders for China’s image as a peacemaker as well as killing the justification for THAAD stone-dead. Although it has imposed mild sanctions on North Korea’s economy, Beijing seems to have reserved its real anger for the South.
WATCH: Why is China so angry about South Korea?
China has a right to a leading role in Asia. But that role must be earned through persuasion and cooperation, and not asserted by the use of economic force by a stronger power against a weaker one. Many observers were deeply impressed by the commitment made by Xi at Davos just two months ago to oppose protectionism and encourage free and open trade at a time when the US seems to be turning against the idea. But boycotting goods from another country for political reasons is not free trade.
History should also give Beijing pause for thought. In the short term, the 1925 boycott faded away. But the resentment lasted and simmered. Anger at the treatment of China’s workers by Western powers created the conditions for the rise of the Nationalist party, or Kuomintang, and then the Communists under Mao Zedong (毛澤東). In the short term, the boycott of Korean goods may achieve policy gains for China. But Beijing may find that in the longer term, it is in danger of severely damaging its attempts to portray itself as a cool-headed, trusted power in the region. ■
Rana Mitter is director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford