South Korea’s Lotte Department Store (photo by Steve46814 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lotte Group’s development in the Chinese market should come to an end”, wrote the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece Global Times on February 28, one day after the South Korean conglomerate approved a land swap deal that allowed the government in Seoul to deploy a controversial US missile defence system.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, as it is officially known, is designed to protect South Korea from a possible attack by the North Korean Communist regime. Beijing, however, opposes the THAAD deployment, arguing that it would compromise “regional strategic equilibrium” and jeopardize China’s strategic security.

The Chinese government can do little to prevent the implementation of the US-South Korean military agreement, unless it is willing to risk a war over the issue. Therefore, Beijing has resorted to a strategy that has been repeatedly used in China over the past century to react to what it perceives as foreign aggression: boycotts.

The Global Times called on Chinese society to “coordinate voluntarily in expanding restrictions on South Korean cultural goods and entertainment exports to China, and block them when necessary.” The piece went on arguing that “since Beijing and Seoul formally established diplomatic relations in 1992” peace in the region had “pushed the country into the group of developed nations”. Therefore, the Global Times warned that South Korea could not enjoy economic growth without the support of the Chinese market.

The newspaper stated that Beijing aims to “use economic measures to deter Seoul from installing the THAAD system … Economic sanction is necessary and effective against Seoul. South Korea has a much smaller economy than China, and depends heavily on China in trade. Tougher economic sanctions will negatively impact South Korea’s corporate interests, which may then exert some influence on the country’s political arena.”

China’s first step in this direction was to block “clips of South Korean music and dramas on the country’s online video sharing platforms.”

In March, Lotte’s business in China was disrupted under various pretexts. Dozens of Lotte Mart stores were shut down by the authorities due to alleged violations of fire-safety regulations. Chinese retailers refused to sell Lotte products. The company’s websites were hit by cyber attacks originating from China.

The boycott affected other businesses, too. In March, sales of South Korean cars plunged 52.2% compared with the same month last year. Beijing told travel agencies to stop selling tours to South Korea. On March 12, 3,300 Chinese tourists refused to leave a cruise ship at the South Korean resort island of Jeju.

It is obvious that the Chinese Communist government is flexing its economic muscles in order to punish Seoul, promoting anti-foreign nationalism. The Chinese government is drawing on a long tradition of boycotts against foreign countries, but it is perverting the original purpose of such movements.

The first anti-foreign boycott in the China was arguably the boycott of American goods organized in 1905 to protest against the United States’ Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese government tried to negotiate a new treaty with Washington, which would have narrowed the provisions of the anti-Chinese immigration policies to exclude only non-skilled labourers.

The US government rejected the proposals. Angry Chinese citizens in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin and other cities decided to organize a boycott of American goods. The movement was backed by members of the elites. One notable example was Wu Tingfang, a diplomat who would later play an important role in the 1911 revolution. Wu believed that the boycott would force the US government to yield to Chinese demands, yet ultimately it proved to be unsuccessful. The 1905 boycott is widely considered to be the first manifestation of popular nationalism in China (see Linda Pomerantz-Zhang: Wu Tingfang [1842-1922]: Reform and Modernization in Modern Chinese History, 1992, p. 165).

The first boycott of Japanese goods was organized after the so-called ‘Tatsu Maru incident’. On February 5, 1908, Guangdong authorities seized the Japanese ship ‘Tatsu Maru’ off the coast of Macau, lowered the Japanese flag and replaced it with the Chinese flag. Qing offiacials argued that the ship was carrying contraband arms and munitions to supply Sun Yat-sen‘s revolutionaries in Guangxi. The Japanese government condemned China’s action, demanding the release of the vessel, the payment of an indemnity and an official apology. When Tokyo set an ultimatum, the Chinese government relented for fear of a military conflict (C. F. Remer / William B. Palmer: A Study of Chinese Boycotts, with Special Reference to Their Economic Effectiveness, 1933, p. 40).

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Beijing’s settlement of the issue caused an uproar in Southern China. In Guangzhou, the guilds and businessmen declared a boycott of Japanese goods “to continue until the damage done to Japanese trade should amount to 10,000 dollars for every one dollar indemnity exacted from Peking.” Merchants burnt Japanese products, workers at the docks refused to unload Japanese ships, a fine of $500 was imposed on any merchant who bought Japanese goods. A women’s organization launched a “National Humiliation Society” on April 6. The movement spread to Hong Kong, where shippers refused to use Japanese vessels (ibid., p. 41).

The publication of the Twenty-One Demands on January 1915 sparked a second boycott of Japanese goods (Linda Grove: A Chinese Economic Revolution: Rural Entrepreneurship in the Twentieth Century, p. 116), followed by another one during the 1919 May Fourth Movement as an act of protest against the Treaty of Versailles, which granted Japan control over Shandong. Other boycotts of Japanese goods were staged throughout the 1920s and 1930s in reaction to Japan’s military incursions in Northern China.

Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, protests led to the so-called ‘Great Boycott’. The patriotic fervour of the protesters went so far that on October 1931, students beat up Foreign Minister C. T. Wang because “his policy toward Japan was not positive enough” (Time, Volume 18, Issue 2, p.19).

After World War II, boycott movements occurred in the Republic of China (Taiwan), when students protested against the US government transferring the sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands (called Diaoyutai in Taiwan and Senkaku in Japan) to Tokyo in 1971. Zhongyang Ribao reported that Taiwanese students erected banners and posters on campuses criticizing the United States and Japan and organized demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy.

Tan Jiahua, the chairman of a students’ committee, organized the signing of a petition written with blood, or ‘blood letter’ (xue shu), to present to the American and Japanese embassies. As Mark Harrison wrote:

Students lined up at the campus health center where four nurses drew blood from each student, who then took a calligraphy brush to write his or her name. Some students wrote with their fingerprints pricked with a disinfected needle. The blood letter day began at eight in the morning and continued until after six in the evening at which time there were four, ten-meter-long petitions with a total of over 2000 names (Mark Harrison: Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity, 2006, p. 121).

However, while the tradition of boycotting foreign goods dates back to the pre-Communist era, in recent years this practice has undergone a fundamental political and ideological shift.

During the Qing Dynasty and after the 1911 revolution, the Chinese government was weak and unable to oppose foreign aggression. Boycotts were thus reactions to a situation in which China was objectively under threat and incapable of defending itself.

In recent years, by contrast, the Chinese Communist Party has begun using boycotts motivated by nationalism as a means to assert its own foreign policy and ideological agenda, so as to win the support of the people. China knows that it is a great power, yet the government uses the same logic of the era of imperialist aggression to justify and encourage patriotic indignation. Given that public discourse in China is shaped by the Communist Party, which suppresses alternative narratives, it is clear that nationalism and boycotts have become instruments of dictatorial politics.

For example, a boycott of Japanese goods was organized in 2012 during the Diaoyu/Senkaku crisis, damaging bilateral trade. In January 2017, China’s National Tourism Administration ordered travel operators to boycott Japanese APA hotel following APA’s refusal to remove from shelves books denying the Nanjing Massacre.

However, nationalistic boycotts often seem to backfire and exasperate tensions.

According to a report by Apple Daily, South Koreans appear not to have been intimidated by China’s threats. Bookings of tours to China have fallen by almost 50%. Beijing’s boycott might indeed have caused more harm than good to its cause. “In the past I opposed the THAAD because I thought it had not been approved through a democratic process,” explained a South Korean surnamed Lee to Apple Daily, “but now, after seeing China’s retaliation, I understand that we, too, need to have a strong national defence. The THAAD agreement cannot be rescinded.”

Creating content for a website such as this requires a lot of time and effort, and it cannot be done without readers’ support. If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. We hope to be able to translate more books in the future, so as to promote lesser known Chinese classics as well as the works of emerging authors. Thank you for your support!