- - Thursday, June 26, 2014

As Supreme Leader Xi Jinping prepares to start a key state visit to Seoul, two South Korean heartthrobs have triggered an eruption of anger toward China.

The incident is a reminder of just how deeply China’s territorial claims upset its neighbors — even those Beijing is seeking to befriend.

South Korean actress Jun Ji-hyun and actor Kim Soo-hyun are among the most popular screen and TV performers in China. This year, Chinese mineral water bottling company Hengda Group paid close to $1 million to each of them to endorse its mineral water, Hengda Icy Spring.

Unbeknownst to the actors, the company inserted a statement in the commercial that claims Hengda Icy Spring comes from Changbai Mountain in northeast China.


Many South Koreans were furious over the claim because Changbai Mountain is a taboo phrase in commercials in South Korea. Koreans regard the mountain as the sacred birthplace of their people and only refer to it as “Baekdu” or “Paektu” but never Changbai.

To many in Korea, it was a great insult for China to claim Baekdu as its territory. Even though China and North Korea share the volcanic mountain, its exact boundaries are murky and disputed by many in the South.

Oblivious to Korean sensitivities, China has made the mountain a symbol of its integral cultural heritage, using it as a historical asset to develop tourism and justify its bid for hosting international sports and registration as a Chinese World Heritage Site. That has produced anger among Koreans.

Ms. Jun and Mr. Kim are South Korea’s most successful commercial spokespersons, with dozens of lucrative endorsement deals. The furor over their faux pas in the Chinese commercial grew momentous inside South Korea, jeopardizing their deals and eliciting condemnation from mainstream and social media.

Last week, they issued separate apologies to their Korean compatriots for “grave mistakes” in representing Hengda Icy Spring and announced they had told Hengda Group they were canceling their contracts and withdrawing their endorsements.

China’s government-controlled media called the episode a “farcical theatric play.”

HONG KONG PROTEST VOTE

Since June 20, more than 750,000 Hong Kong residents have voted in a symbolic “civil referendum” in defiance of Beijing to protest eroding freedoms promised by communist-led China when the British handed over the city in 1997.

The referendum was organized by civic activists, not Hong Kong’s Beijing-controlled government. The voting became more significant after Beijing issued a reinterpretation of the “one country, two systems” approach: Whoever is elected Hong Kong’s chief executive in the city’s first-ever popular vote in 2017 must be “patriotic” and compliant with the Beijing government.

Though not legally binding, the referendum is sending a powerful message to Beijing that a great number of Hong Kong’s 8 million residents want a real election in 2017, not a manipulated one.

Beijing agreed to hold a “one person, one vote” election in 2017, but the communist government insists on manipulating the nomination process to ensure that only candidates it approves are on the ballot. A central tenet of the civil referendum is for Hong Kong residents to nominate their own candidates.

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