Lee JH didn’t have to think twice before signing a petition objecting to the construction of a tourist-focused “Chinatown” in South Korea ’s eastern Gangwon province. The 29-year-old illustrator in Bucheon, about 20km outside Seoul, distrusts China following repeated controversies involving Chinese claims of ownership to Korean culture, and fears that the so-called Korea-China Culture Town, which is being developed with the support of Beijing mouthpiece People’s Daily , will lead to an influx of Chinese capital. Lee, who asked to be identified by her initials, is among some 500,000 South Koreans who have signed the online petition calling on the government to cancel the tourist attraction, which has been planned since 2017 and aims to showcase Chinese culture, including traditional Chinese gardens. Under an online petition system operated by the presidential Blue House, the government is required to issue a response to any petition that attracts at least 200,000 supporters. Japan, South Korea take different approaches to China relations “We have already faced China’s Northeast Project that attempted to take away our ancient history, and more recently, distorted historical facts about our history have been featured on Chinese search engines,” said Lee, referring to a controversial initiative by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that has been accused of rewriting history to include ancient Korean kingdoms as part of China. Amid a growing backlash, the Gangwon provincial government has stressed that the project is a tourist attraction, not a residential development for Chinese, and has not been supported with public funds. Authorities have also dismissed claims that the project would be built on top of a historical site, noting the actual site of the development is more than 20km away. “We decided to join the project in hopes that it would bring benefits to our tourism and agricultural economy,” said a spokeswoman for the provincial government. “We want to emphasise that we were not investors in this project.” Views like Lee’s are on the rise in South Korea, where public perceptions of China are increasingly at odds with the foreign policy of the centre-left Moon Jae-in administration, which has strived to foster friendly relations with Beijing even as it relies on Washington for its security within an alliance forged in the aftermath of the Korean war. “If [Chinese President] Xi Jinping thought that he would have the opportunity to pull South Korea away from the US with its aggressive actions, he is gravely mistaken,” said Yang Uk, an adviser to South Korea’s Ministry of Defence who lectures at Hannam University. Yang predicted South Koreans would become increasingly less tolerant of China if it continued being “arrogant to neighbouring countries”. Last Korean war criminal to serve in Japan’s army dies at 96, without securing apology Nearly six out of 10 South Koreans see South Korea and China, the country’s largest trading partner, as mostly rivals, according to a survey released last week by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In the same poll, South Koreans’ perception of China had an average rating of 3.1, on a 0-10 scale where 10 is most favourable, compared to 4.8 in 2019 – putting it in similar company to North Korea (2.8) and Japan (3.2), the country’s main security challenge and former colonial ruler, respectively. Other recent polling has pointed to the spike in anti-China sentiment being especially dramatic among the young. According to data released by the Pew Research Centre in October last year, 82 per cent of South Koreans aged 30-49 held a negative view of China, followed by 80 per cent of those aged 18-29. Among South Koreans aged 50 and above, the figure was 68 per cent. For months, South Koreans have vented online about Chinese search engine Baidu’s listing of a number of Korean foods – including kimchi and samgyetang , a soup made with chicken and ginseng – as dishes that originated in China. The furore erupted in November after China’s state-run Global Times newspaper described regulations announced by the Swiss-based International Organisation for Standardisation for making pao cai , a pickled vegetable dish from Sichuan, as “an international standard for the kimchi industry led by China”. Amid heated exchanges over Baidu’s encyclopaedia entries, which can be edited by ordinary internet users, Chinese ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming in February insisted the controversy did not represent mainstream public opinion and the sides should “enhance the friendship between China and South Korea”. Last month, broadcaster SBS cancelled the stylised period horror series Joseon Exorcist after just two episodes amid a backlash over “historical inaccuracies”, including the use of Chinese-style outfits and props . Revelations that the series’ screenwriter Park Gye-ok had recently signed a contract with a production based in Hangzhou fuelled unsubstantiated claims that the series had set out to distort history for China’s benefit. Why China’s growing presence in K-dramas is upsetting Koreans Choo Jae-woo, a professor of Chinese foreign policy at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, said younger South Koreans had grown up around controversies involving China, including “yellow dust” and other pollution originating from the country; violence by Chinese students against human rights activists during the 2008 Olympic torch relay in Seoul; and Beijing’s refusal to condemn North Korea after international investigators held its isolated ally responsible for the sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship in 2010. Those memories were being compounded by recent cultural controversies and mistrust of Beijing’s handling of matters of international concern such as the Covid-19 pandemic , Choo said. “They grew up in an environment and surroundings that are not friendly or amicable to China at all,” Choo said. “They themselves have also experienced more negatives than positives with China, such as microdust, since they were born.” “People perceive China as a bully,” he said. Lim Jin-hee, a professor at the Korean Chinese Relations Institute at Wonkwang University in Iksan, about 180km southwest of Seoul, said sensational media reporting had played a role in the deteriorating perceptions of China. “Sensational news stories with one-sided and distorted narratives have brought on unnecessary rage and contempt towards China,” Lim said. The souring public mood raises questions about the long-term sustainability of Seoul’s efforts to forge closer ties with Beijing, following a major chill that followed its decision to deploy the US missile defence system THAAD on its soil in 2016. The divide was brought into further sharp relief last week after Moon’s Democratic Party received a drubbing in key mayoral races in Seoul and Busan, the country’s second-biggest city, at the hands of the conservative opposition, which has accused Moon of kowtowing to Beijing. The election results have boosted the conservatives’ prospects less than a year ahead of the next presidential election, which Moon cannot contest due to a constitutional rule that limits South Korean leaders to a single five-year term. In an opinion poll carried out for the conservative Donga Ilbo newspaper last month, nearly 53 per cent of South Koreans said they supported the country joining the Biden administration’s efforts to counter Beijing, rising to 66 per cent among those in their 20s. But Yang, the Defence Ministry adviser, said Washington could not take it for granted that Seoul would embrace an even closer security alliance or join its efforts to check Beijing. He pointed out that South Korea had received little support from its ally when China led an unofficial boycott of the country’s tourism industry in apparent retaliation for the deployment of THAAD. “The US needs to gain that confidence from our people,” he said. Seoul’s military ties with Beijing hit snag as it needs Washington on its side While other US allies that depend on China for trade have also sought to balance ties between the competing superpowers, Moon’s administration has been especially careful to avoid touching on issues considered sensitive by Beijing. Unlike Japan, South Korea has not joined international criticism of Beijing’s increasing control of Hong Kong or its controversial treatment of ethnic minority Uygurs in Xinjiang . Seoul has also not joined Tokyo and other US allies such as Australia and Britain in banning Huawei Technologies Co from its 5G networks, leaving the decision to use the tech giant’s equipment in the hands of telecoms firms, and has offered signals of support for Beijing’s signature Belt and Road Initiative , a massive infrastructure drive billed as a revival of historic cross-continental trade routes. After a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi earlier this month in Xiamen, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong reiterated Seoul’s hope for Chinese President Xi to visit South Korea “as early as possible”, once the coronavirus had subsided. Jae-Hung Chung, a research fellow at the Seoul-based Sejong Institute, said South Korea’s ruling party elites, many of whom got their start in politics resisting US-backed dictatorships during the 1980s, had a fundamentally different world view than the next generations. “They still have socialist minds, anti-American tendencies, and progressive world views,” Chung said, adding that next year’s presidential election would be “an opportunity for substantial change in public policy”. China and South Korea plan security talks as efforts to rebuild relations continue Lim, the Wonkwang University professor, said South Korea-China relations would inevitably be affected “as the public is what sways politics and economics”. For South Koreans such as Lee, the illustrator, China’s tightly-controlled model of governance simply makes it difficult to trust. “Its motto of ‘One China’ has shown imperialistic tendencies, and its citizens seem to be forced to align with the state or collapse under it due to the state’s suppression,” she said.