As I suspected, the China’s censorship-by-thug on the streets of Seoul is not proving popular among Koreans. The Chinese government seems to be coming to grips with the P.R. disaster it has made for itself. Its diplomats, though not quite in a full kowtow position, are offering either an apology or whatever it is that Asian diplomats offer when national pride prevents one:
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry expressed regret Monday to China’s ambassador to Seoul, Ning Fukui, over the incident, which led to the arrests of four people including one Chinese student. Ning said he regretted the “extreme behavior” of the Chinese protesters and expressed sympathy to South Koreans injured during the rallies. [AP, via IHT]
“What I want to stress is that Chinese people, especially Chinese students here, have good feelings for South Koreans,” the Chinese ambassador told reporters. When asked if the Chinese embassy will cooperate with the police investigation, however, Ning avoided a direct answer. “I don’t know in detail,” he said. [Yonhap]
A Foreign Ministry official said the envoy [Chinese] apologized and expressed his sympathy with Korean police officers and reporters who were injured in the violence. The violence against police officers “should not have happened,” he said. [Chosun Ilbo]
Today, however, the Chosun Ilbo constradicts itself and says the Chinese government not only “stopp[ed] short of an apology” by merely “express[ing] sympathy” to the people its mobs attacked on the streets of Seoul, but is also telling the home folks a slightly different story:
In a briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, “It was an action for justice by well-meaning Chinese students who tried to prevent Tibetan secessionists from obstructing the Olympic torch relay for the Beijing Olympics. Their motive was well meant, but their action became violent. The Chinese government expresses sympathy with the victims of the violence.”
When reporters asked if the Chinese government had no intention to apologize to the Korean people, Jiang merely said, “Chinese people on the scene were well-meaning “¦. But their action for justice became violent when they tried to deter Tibetan secessionists from obstructing the Olympic torch relay.” [Chosun Ilbo]
It seems semantic to Westerners, but in Asia, the nuance of apology and regret overshadows the character of relations between nations. Lee Myung Bak is now forced to express “strong regret” for the incident (read: the actions of the Chinese) and seek arrests, prosecutions, deportations, and other “stern measures.” This is entirely appropriate when a regional hegemon looses its mobs on the streets of a neighbor’s capital city to control what views can be expressed there.
South Korea’s Foreign Minister is going to raise the issue in Beijing this week. If this were just a diplomatic tiff, it could be handled quietly. YouTube has obviated that course. And legally, the Korean authorities are compelled to act. Everyone in Korea has seen the video, and the Korean police are now scrolling through that video to identify the particular Chinese thugs who threw rocks and bottles, and who beat and kicked protestors.
President Lee, it should be remembered, has made an issue of restoring the public order that Roh had allowed to erode. If he lets these goon squads escape real punishment, the Korean street will be furious, and rightfully so. If the South Korean authorities prosecute, the Chinese street will be furious, and it will probably be lost on many of them that doing the same thing in China would likely earn them a stretch in the laogai or a fatal beating in a local police station. For a day, Seoul became for politically repressed Chinese youth what Tijuana is for sexually repressed American youth.
“It is deeply regrettable that foreigners staged illegal, violent protests at a time when people here are refraining from violent rallies since the new government took office,” Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han told the Cabinet. [Yonhap]
Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said his government will handle the case in accordance with “law and principles.” “As the national pride has been considerably hurt by the incident, legal and diplomatic measures that can restore the national pride will have to follow,” Han, a former foreign minister, was quoted as telling a Cabinet meeting by Vice Culture Minister Shin Jae-min, who serves as a government spokesman. [Yonhap]
And here, in one word, is what politicians of both parties now find themselves up against: pride. The people of both countries — Chinese and Koreans alike — are in that queasily familiar aggrieved mood, by which I do not mean to suggest moral equivalance for an instant, for this reason:
According to Chinese students here, the Chinese Embassy in Seoul contacted Chinese students in each college to urge them to take part in the torch relay ceremony. [Joongang Ilbo]
I wonder if the students will tell the police the same thing, although you have to know that those flags, t-shirts, and buses didn’t appear by themselves.
Public furor here has grown, with major broadcasters replaying the footage of the clashes and interviews with witnesses. Media reports stated that more than 10,000 Chinese people took to the streets during the 24-km relay in Seoul. Many were students studying in South Korea, while some flew from China to counter rallies by those protesting against Beijing’s recent crackdown on Tibetans, police said. [Yonhap]
South Korean conservatives are especially incensed.
The level of common sense displayed by the Chinese hooligans is detestable, but how poorly must they view Korea and Koreans for them to treat us this way? Korean politicians until now have been unable to say what they wanted to China, while the so-called learned people in Korea, regardless of their ideology, have made it a habit of letting things quietly slip when they involve issues with China. We must ask ourselves whether this passive approach to China had led to such rude and haughty behavior by the Chinese. [Chosun Ilbo]
One commentator is comparing Beijing 2008 to Berlin 1936, a comparison that I’d frankly call defensible. But I suspect that this view is probably more typical of ordinary South Koreans who saw the video of the Chinese students’ behavior on TV:
“For a country hosting such a massive event, the Chinese Embassy should have paid more attention to making sure their people were under control,” said Lee Ji-young, a 30-year-old office worker in Seoul who was in the middle of the crowd watching the torch relay. “What I saw on Sunday was complete madness, and the police were so busy trying to protect the torch that they didn’t have time to protect Koreans.” [Joongang Ilbo]
And then there are South Korea’s “netizens.” There are thousands of angry comments, but things have gone beyond that:
Some angry Internet users have displayed signs of extremism. On one Internet bulletin board, a list containing the personal information of some of the Chinese nationals whose faces were made public via television footage of the demonstration, was posted. The information included names, schools and mobile-phone numbers. The board also contained such hostile commentary as: “Let’s protest against Chinese students” or “Find the leaders at each university.
On the same day, overwhelming traffic forced the Web site of the Chinese Students Association in Korea to shut down. In addition, an Internet community site was set up with the motto of punishing the Chinese nationals. The site drew some 1,000 Internet users who went through the procedure of signing up as members, a requirement of many Internet sites in Korea for access to the bulk of the information on any given Web site. [The Hankyoreh]
Outrage on the right was to be expected. But I found it more interesting that the Korean left, too, is at least acting incensed. The Hankyoreh called it “nothing short of lawlessness” and said this:
With behavior like that the Chinese protesters were doing their own damage to China’s dignity. They all either waved or wore Chinese flags and went about revealing nationalist tendencies with slogans and signs saying things like “Tibet is Chinese forever!” They physically attacked Koreans protesting China’s armed suppression of Tibetan protests, which was enough to prompt the people of the world to wonder whether Chinese nationalism is going so far that it is becoming violent. If the Chinese think those who express other views are to be attacked and erased, then it is nothing more than an expression of an intolerant collectivism. It was a far cry from the mature democratic society China is trying to show off through the Olympics. [The Hankyoreh]
Here is a photograph in which a man described as the leader of a “progressive” party is demanding an apology from China. Robert even links to a statement from Peoples’ Solidarity for Participatory Democracy accusing the Chinese government of organizing the student mobs. This is one of the more ironic things I’ve heard all year. If PSPD is not a North Korean front group, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, and PSPD has certainly joined hands with other groups on the left that have engaged in some fairly violent means of protests. The difference being: on those occasions, it was Koreans who were engaging in violence.
In a role reversal of 2002, Korea’s right stands to gain from a nationalist reaction. This time, the left follows and hopes for restraint it certainly didn’t seem interested in six years ago.
To a degree, this is healthy. South Korea had become far too prosaic to drift in the malificent currents that China’s regime has channeled into the authorized political culture, though China’s favorables have fallen sharply in recent times. If the hostility exceeds a degree of enlightened wariness and descends into addlebrained provocations on both sides, it would pit a well-armed superpower against a much smaller and richer nation that still hosts 29,000 U.S. military personnel.
It’s also true that the stupidity of the Chinese who created this melee has made a great P.R. success of a modestly attended demonstration on behalf of North Korean refugees (remember them?). What remains to be seen is whether the focus will shift from the imperial boorishness of the Chinese to the suffering of Korea’s ragged and exploited brothers and sisters in China. I don’t mimimize the magnitude of China’s affront against Korea this week, yet that still pales in comparison to this:
In northern China, [Jasper] Becker joined a Chinese shopkeeper to hunt for refugees, for whom the Chinese government was paying 60 [illegibile] bounties. They found one near a garbage dump. “As the shopkeeper fished around in his pocket for some plastic twine, a dirt-covered face scabrous with pellagra that looked about fifty years old shrunk back into the shadows of a hood made from grey sackcloth, like a medieval leper,” he writes. The woman, who was in fact only 28, had crossed the border in a final effort to avoid starvation. As a prisoner, she would be sent back to North Korea, to face possible torture or even death in a labor camp. Becker bargained with the shopkeeper for her freedom, ultimately paying about $24, “the market price for a North Korean life. [Time, Austin Ramzy]
I hope the original topic of discussion will not be lost.