Will China switch peace with Korea from streaming?

Will China switch peace with Korea from streaming?

On Sunday 20 November, the Chinese streaming platform Tencent Video made a film released in theaters a few years ago available in its catalog in China. The title made available is called Hotel by the River and was directed by director Hong Sang-soo. Awarded at the Locarno film festival, the drama deals with the relationship between a father and his two sons.

Nothing strange, at first glance. Except that the film in question is a South Korean production: it is the first K-movie to be approved for distribution on Chinese streaming services since 2017, according to the Korean Film Council. “After the lockdown […] it is the first time that a Korean film has been uploaded to one of China's top three streaming platforms,” an official of the government body said. An encouraging sign for the booming film industry of South Korea, which has been closed to one of the most important Asian markets for over half a decade.

The Chinese blockade of the Korean wave

Starting from 2017, in fact, the People's Republic has banned many pop culture products that come from South Korea, despite these having become very popular in China. The hallyu , the so-called K-Wave or "Korean wave" of entertainment products, is a phenomenon that has crossed all aspects of global pop culture in the last decade. From music to TV series , from comics to cinema . A wave that, however, has been breaking against the Chinese blockade for about six years now.

Beijing's restrictions on South Korean cultural products have little to do with the content conveyed. The nature of the blockade is all political in nature. To understand its origin, we need to go back to 2016-2017, in a period of intense tension on the Korean peninsula due to the nuclear and missile provocations of Pyongyang. To counter the growing North Korean threat, the Seoul government had agreed with Washington on the deployment of the US Terminal high altitude area defense (better known as Thaad) on South Korean territory.

The Thaad is an anti-missile defense system, which in 2017 was introduced by the US military in Korea. Much to China's disappointment. In fact, Beijing had spoken out against the deployment of Washington's anti-missile battery, since the capacity of its radars also allow it to scan Chinese airspace as well as that of North Korea. When Seoul finally approved the introduction of the defense system, Beijing adopted a series of tacit retaliations aimed at damaging the South Korean economy. In addition to boycotting Lotte's Chinese business, the Korean company that supplied the land on which Thaad was located, China has also cut off the flow of tourists to Korea and closed its domestic market to cultural and foreign products. hallyu entertainment .

Politics claims the result

The president of South Korea, the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol , wasted no time in presenting the comeback of a film product as his own success South Korean on Chinese screens. Presidential spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye showed up at a press conference on Tuesday and announced that “a Korean film has been aired on Chinese streaming services after a six-year ban”. The approval of the film has left a glimpse of glimmers for a greater opening up of the Chinese market. “We hope this small gesture will lead to big and significant progress for the future of the bilateral relations between the two countries,” Kim added.

The Chinese decision comes just days after Yoon and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed met on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali. A brief but significant meeting, according to Seoul. The inclusion of the South Korean film in Tencent Video's online catalog would in fact be the result of those talks. “ During the South Korea-China summit, President Yoon stressed the importance of cultural and interpersonal exchanges between the people of the two countries, and especially the need for communication between the younger generations ”, Kim said.

Both communiqués published by the two countries after the Bali summit show that the issue of cultural exchanges has been discussed, but this detail has been omitted from the English version published on the website of the South Korean presidency. Considering that the conversation between the two presidents ended in just 25 minutes and a great many topics were touched upon (from North Korean nuclear power to trade agreements), it is possible that the discussion on cultural exchanges was touched upon only tangentially. Including the one on the exchange of film products.

From a certain point of view, it cannot be excluded that the government of Yoon, whose popularity in the polls has been around 30% for a few weeks, has tried to claim the merits of the Chinese decision. A decision that may have come spontaneously from Beijing as a sign of good faith to relaunch relations with Seoul, which have become much more complicated since the conservative Yoon took office in Seoul this spring.

What are you waiting for the Korean wave now?

Despite the blockade, Hotel by the River is not the first South Korean film to be admitted to China since 2017. Last December, a South Korean comedy was approved for screening in theaters Chinese. Even a year ago, the permission granted to the film raised the hopes of the Seoul film industry. In vain, because in the last 11 months no more have been approved for distribution.

It is therefore understandable that the approval of the father of the Beijing authorities for culture has once again aroused enthusiasm in South Korea. The huge market of China, with hundreds of millions of spectators hungry for good cinema like the one that the South Koreans know how to produce, the industry continues to be of great interest. And yet, there should be no illusions.

China says it is willing to reopen its market to South Korean films, but caution is likely to prevail in Beijing. The spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry says that the country keeps the door open to cultural exchanges with South Korea. For now, however, it is more of an experiment, a trial ballon. Hotel by the River is all in all a small production that dates back to 2018, certainly not a blockbuster. It will still take some time to understand the true extent of the change in Chinese policy, while Beijing will evaluate the answers arriving from Seoul.

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