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Why Korean entertainment succumbs to ‘One China’ policy

The Mnet Asian Music Awards 2017 on Monday announced that it had decided to remove a section on its homepage that categorized Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau as independent countries.

The move took place after Chinese netizens called for a boycott of MAMA 2017, as they considered Mnet’s decision to recognize the three areas as independent states as disregarding China’s “One China” policy.

The “One China” policy recognizes only one sovereign state of China. It does not recognize the Republic of China, more commonly referred to as Taiwan. 

“We (Mnet) understand the concern from the Chinese side and decided to remove the page. A lot of unexpected incidents can occur when running a global business,” said Kim Hyun-soo, head of the convention business department at CJ E&M, Mnet’s operator. “We will take a closer look at the matter in the future and address such issues.”


Officials at CJ were cautious about their comments, but the decision effectively showed that Mnet’s operator had succumbed to Chinese demands to respect the “One China” policy.

2017 Mnet Asian Music Awards (Mnet)
2017 Mnet Asian Music Awards (Mnet)

Ever since K-pop expanded its reach overseas, the so-called cross-strait relations have been a thorny issue for Korean artists and their agencies.

The most recent and notable incident involved Tzuyu of Twice, arguably the most popular K-pop girl group today.

In 2015, weeks after Twice’s official debut, the Taiwan-born teenager appeared on MBC and waved a Taiwanese flag. After the incident spread via international media, controversy erupted over whether it meant that Twice’s agency JYP Entertainment was disregarding the “One China” policy.

The controversy was further fueled by a JYP official, who said the company “cannot choose between China and Taiwan,” which was interpreted as recognizing Taiwan’s status as an independent state.

JYP attempted to put out the fire by saying that the actions were not in any way political and that both Tzuyu and JYP respect the “one China” policy.

The constitutions of China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over each other’s territory, although the Taiwanese are divided between claiming sovereignty over China as a whole and arguing that they are two separate countries.

The audience cheers at the 2016 MAMA held at Asia-World Expo Arena in Hong Kong on Dec. 2, 2016 (CJ E&M)
The audience cheers at the 2016 MAMA held at Asia-World Expo Arena in Hong Kong on Dec. 2, 2016 (CJ E&M)

Hong Kong adopts the principal of “one country, two systems” and maintains separate political and economic systems. While many citizens of Hong Kong identify themselves as being from Hong Kong rather than China, the conflict is different than that involving Taiwan, as the city officially recognizes itself as special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China.

Some K-pop companies have tried to avoid such issues altogether. S.M. Entertainment’s Amber, a rapper of the girl group f(x), is an American citizen born to Taiwanese parents. But she has repeatedly said on Korean TV that she is Chinese.

In light of the Tzuyu incident, there were some who felt that JYP should have had better understanding of the sensitivity surrounding the cross-strait relations.

When it comes to having to choose between agreeing with China or Taiwan, the K-pop industry often opts for the former. This is mostly due to the fact that China is a much larger market.

In 2014, roughly half of the 44 million votes submitted for artists participating in MAMA were from China. Korean votes only accounted for 10.5 percent, while the entire Southeast Asian region accounted for 26.1 percent.

China is likely to remain one of most important markets -- if not the most important -- for K-pop.

According to an analysis by DB Financial Investment, 12.5 percent of S.M. Entertainment’s sales in 2016 were from China, which dropped to 7.1 percent in the first quarter of this year. It pointed to the lack of activities in China as one of reasons for the company’s sluggish performance.

Stocks for major companies in the entertainment sector -- including CJ E&M, YG Entertainment, S.M. Entertainment and JYP Entertainment -- have rebounded since the news of Seoul-Beijing relations showing sign of recovery after a debacle over the deployment of a US missile defense system in Korea.

While there is no denying that China is one of the most important markets for K-pop, how well the industry can navigate the sensitive cross-strait relationship -- and if it should keep catering to China’s demands -- remains to be seen.

By Yoon Min-sik