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China squeezes K-pop content after S Korea missile defense plan

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South Korean boy band GOT7 performed in Shanghai in May and in Guanzhou in June 2016.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- Be it idols, music, beauty products or fashion, South Korean popular culture has enjoyed robust growth in China in the past decade. However, further growth may be stalled as Chinese authorities are reportedly restricting K-pop content on the mainland to underline their opposition to Seoul's decision to install a new anti-ballistic missile defense system.

"I am finding less and less content on the video streaming website I use," said Sun Yueming, a 23-year-old Chinese college student whose favorite way of spending time is to immerse herself in anything to do with Korean culture. She is one of roughly 50 K-pop fans who attended a recent free movie night at the Korean Cultural Center in Beijing, hosted by the South Korean government. "When I watch drama or listen to music, it is almost always Korean. I am sad thinking that there will be less content available in the future," said Sun.

Her worry is growing as Beijing seems to have been tightening censorship over Korean content in recent days. TV stations in southeastern Guangdong Province said that they have received verbal orders from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television -- the censorship authority in China -- that new approvals for programs featuring South Korean pop stars would not be granted in the near future, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the Chinese government censor told the Nikkei Asian Review on Friday that they neither acknowledge that there is a ban on Korean pop culture, nor do they currently have an intention of implementing such a restriction in the future. The Korean Cultural Center in Beijing did not respond to phone calls from the NAR.

Despite the official denial from the government, Global Times, a Chinese tabloid newspaper and subsidiary of state mouthpiece People's Daily, on Thursday reported that over 86% of Chinese netizens would support a government ban on South Korean entertainers, according to an online poll of 280,000 people taken on Wednesday.

Beijing's apparent stance is considered to be a countermove against the agreement made between the U.S. and South Korea on July 8 to install Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, a U.S. anti-ballistic missile system, on the Korean Peninsula. The two countries said that the decision was made to counter the growing military threat from North Korea, however, Beijing has been staunchly opposed to the decision as it would undermine its own security.

State-owned media such as Xinhua and CCTV have repeatedly reported on how THAAD will be damaging to China's relations with South Korea and may result in weak demand for South Korean products.

The impact of Beijing's move has already been felt in the stock market in Seoul. The share prices of local entertainment companies, such as YG Entertainment, S.M. Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and Samhwa Networks, lost between 3% and 8% in Friday trading.

A public appearance by Kim Woo-bin and Bae Suzy, the actor and actress who star in popular Korean TV drama "Uncontrollably Fond," which was scheduled for Saturday in Beijing, has been called off. An official at the TV series' production company told Korean agency Yonhap that the organizers of the event decided to cancel for "reasons beyond their control."

Not all Chinese netizens support the ban. "I'm not a K-pop fan, but I am not supporting this move. If we ban K-pop because South Korea deploys THAAD and ban J-pop because Japan deploys tomorrow, we will isolate ourselves in the end," one person wrote on, China's online news and comments aggregator.

Foreign content on the mainland has long come under strict control of the Chinese government. In late June, the government announced that foreign content and foreign-inspired content were required to get official approval before being broadcast.

The changes in what is and is not allowed can happen very suddenly. For example, at the Shanghai film festival in 2015, a Japanese movie based on the manga series "Attack on Titan" was banned from being screened just three days before the event.

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