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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012

Grassroots ties with S. Korea, China will differ


The differences in the political systems and levels of social development in China and South Korea have resulted in contrasting approaches to the way bilateral civilian exchanges with Japan are being handled amid the territorial disputes.

News photo
Traditional attire: A woman wearing a "chimageogori," a traditional Korean dress (second from left), takes photos with a man and woman in "yukata" summer kimono during a Japan-South Korea exchange festival in Seoul on Oct. 3. KYODO

Many Chinese organizers, apparently taking their government's wishes into consideration, have canceled grassroots exchanges with Japan. In contrast, most South Korean coordinators have reacted calmly, drawing a clear distinction between politics and civilian exchanges, observers say.

At a Japan-South Korea exchange festival held in Seoul on Oct. 3, 21-year-old Pak Yong Rim volunteered to help out.

"I applied because I am interested in Japan's popular culture," the university student said. "Other students around me are also not too worried about the political confrontation between South Korea and Japan."

The festival, a key part of 2005 celebrations commemorating the 40th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral ties between the two nations, received about 1,000 volunteers applications this year — a record-high.

Despite worries that attendance would be hurt by the row over Takeshima, known as Dokdo in South Korea, the event proved a great success, with the turnout of around 40,000 people beating expectations.

While a handful of events have been affected, including sister-cities exchanges, cancellations have not been widespread.

"The basic principle of having other fields move forward separately (from politics) remains unchanged," an official in the South Korean Ministry of Strategy and Finance said.

A source involved in Japan-South Korea relations added: "It was only up to the 1980s, amid the wave of democratization movements, that the (South Korean) public became worked up over political issues. There is quite a gap between the overheated media reports and actual public consciousness."

In China, however, the situation has played out very differently.

"Under the Chinese Communist Party's one-party rule, there is no civilian organization that can really conduct unadulterated grassroots exchanges," a Beijing prodemocracy activist said in explaining the rash of cancellations of bilateral exchanges.

"Everyone tries to sound out the party's stance and conform to it," the activist said.

Similarly, a diplomatic source in Beijing said, "Even without clear instructions from higher authorities, organizers reason out the meanings behind the top leaders' words and actions and decide by themselves" to reject civilian exchanges with Japan.

China's top leaders have launched a barrage of criticism at Japan, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry has also repeatedly made statements blaming Japan for triggering the crisis.

The diplomatic source said these actions were taken by organizers as "hints that they should call off the exchanges."

Apparently, many organizers have also decided to postpone or cancel programs for fear of being criticized for holding exchange events with Japan at a time of heated anti-Japanese sentiment.

That sentiment has also taken hold among the Chinese general public.

When Chinese tennis player Li Na, last year's French Open women's champion, took part in the Toray Pan-Pacific Open in Tokyo in September, she was branded as a "traitor" by Chinese Internet users.

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