Perceptions and Misperceptions between China and South Korea amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

China and South Korea have each done a relatively good job in COVID-19 prevention and control. Active cooperation between the two governments in communications and medical materials improved bilateral relations. Opening a "fast track" for businessmen after the epidemic was brought under control shows that each recognized the effectiveness of the other’s efforts at preventing the spread of the virus. However, there is an obvious cognitive mismatch in public opinion. Chinese highly appraise South Korea’s prevention and control of the pandemic and are grateful for its assistance to China with materials after the outbreak, while South Korean sentiment toward China is complicated, and their assessment of China’s response to the pandemic is seen in China as unreasonably negative. This article reviews these responses, offering explanations for what are seen as misperceptions rooted in ideological bias and the impact of the conservative media in South Korea.

Of course, the role of perceptions in the China-South Korean relationship is not a new topic nor do the observations we make for the year 2020 occur in a vacuum. Chinese analysts have been closely following these mutual perceptions for longer than the past decade.1 We have observed ups and downs related to the state of bilateral relations and to public opinion galvanized by cultural issues. Writers have paid close attention to forces inside South Korea impacting attitudes toward China. In 2020 such forces include: the struggle between progressives and conservatives; and media ideologues accusing China of human rights violations, conspiracy, and discrimination against South Koreans inside China. In addition to blaming China for responsibility linked to the pandemic, they convey a broader critique, which is influencing the Korean public.

The COVID-19 pandemic

According to the National Health Commission of China, the Chinese mainland has reported a total of 87,071 local confirmed cases and 4,634 deaths to December 31, 2020.2 According to data from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), as of the same date, there were 56,359 local confirmed cases and 917 deaths in South Korea, with 1,004 new local cases and 25 imported cases from overseas as of December 31.3 Bloomberg listed South Korea 4th and China 8th as the “best places to be in” among 53 major economies of over $200 billion GDP amid the havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic. It focuses on some key metrics including the growth in virus cases, overall mortality rate, testing capabilities, vaccine supply agreements, the capacity of local healthcare systems, and the impact of lockdowns on these economies.4

There are close economic and personnel exchanges between China and South Korea. In 2019, there were 10,833,000 mutual visits, 4,347,000 to China and 6,486,000 to Korea.5 After the COVID-19 outbreak, South Korea did not cut personnel ties with China as many other countries did, instead, imposing targeted restrictions and quarantine measures for visitors from certain areas. According to data from the KDCA, as of December 31, 2020, South Korea had a total of 5,410 imported cases from overseas, including 34 cases from China (0.6% of the total versus from Asia outside of China, 47.1%, from the Americas, 30.8%, and from Europe, 17.9%).6 China has done a very good job in preventing the export of the pandemic. The opening of the "fast track" for businessmen between China and South Korea shows that the two governments have recognized each other’s effectiveness in fighting the pandemic.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Chinese and Korean governments have given strong support to each other’s anti-pandemic efforts, jointly explored bilateral and multilateral international cooperation pandemic programs, and highly recognized each other’s achievements. On January 3, 2020, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent clear information to its South Korean counterpart, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) that pneumonia of an unknown etiology had happened in Wuhan. Accordingly, KCDC took immediate action equivalent to setting a blue level alert for controlling a new infectious disease without any wasting of the time which China made for the world. Before the first case was found in South Korea, the KCDC acted professionally while some other countries were politicizing the epidemic. The South Korean government did not ban Chinese visitors, despite attacks by the conservative political parties. At the beginning of the outbreak, the Chinese and South Korean governments paid close attention to the development trend of COVID-19 in their respective countries and provided each other with much-needed medical supplies at a critical time.

On January 28, President Moon Jae-in sent a letter to President Xi Jinping, conveying the willingness of South Korea to provide support and assistance to China in response to COVID-19. On January 30, South Korea’s foreign ministry said it decided to extend emergency assistance worth a total of 5 million U.S. dollars to China, including more than 2 million masks as well as 100,000 pieces of protective clothing and 100,000 pairs of protective eyewear, in cooperation with the private sector. Some of the supplies arrived in Wuhan that night. The Chinese foreign ministry said that South Korea was one of the first countries to donate and has sent one of the largest amounts of anti-pandemic supplies to China. On March 6, after the outbreak of the pandemic in South Korea, the Chinese government decided to provide material assistance to South Korea, including 100,000 N95 masks, 1 million surgical masks, 10,000 sets of medical protective suits, and 50,000 test kits. Subsequently, it provided an additional 1 million surgical masks, all arriving in South Korea before March 23.7 In addition, at a crucial time when medical supplies were in short supply, the spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in South Korea said on March 9 that the first batch of 5 million masks, including ordinary medical masks and N95 masks, will be exported to South Korea from March 10 with further export of masks ahead.

As the epidemic was effectively brought under control in both China and the South Korea, the two governments were constantly strengthening bilateral cooperation in epidemic prevention. On March 13, the China-Korea joint prevention and control mechanism on COVID-19 was formally established, led by the two foreign ministries with the participation of health, education, customs, immigration, civil aviation, and other departments. From May 1, the "fast track" arrangement between China and South Korea applicable to ten Chinese provinces and cities allowed South Korean travelers to apply for visas after applications submitted by their companies were approved. After passing through health-screening and quarantine procedures, they were quarantined for a shorter period in China, and their whole stay was effectively managed, forming a closed loop to ensure safety. Chinese travelers to South Korea who wish to use the "fast track" need to apply for exemption from quarantine when applying for a visa from the Korean embassy or consulates in China. If they meet the conditions for approval of the Korea side and test negative for the coronavirus before departing and after arriving in South Korea, they are exempted from quarantine and accept flexible epidemic prevention management of the Korean side. Sino-Korea "fast track" is an innovative measure implemented in the context of effective control of the epidemic by both countries. It facilitates the exchange of personnel in important business, logistics, production, and technical services, minimizes the negative impact of the epidemic on the international industrial chain, supply chain, and value chain, and stabilizes bilateral economic cooperation. According to the Chinese embassy in South Korea, by mid-August, more than 8,000 people had traveled to and from China and South Korea through the "fast track."

At major multilateral diplomatic events, the two governments took similar positions and jointly acknowledged the important role of multilateral cooperation in global pandemic prevention and control. On March 26, the G20 held a special summit at which Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in stressed the need for countries to work together to overcome COVID-19, fully supporting and pledging to further strengthen the role of the WHO in coordinating international action against it. On April 14, Premier Li Keqiang and Moon attended the 10+3 Leaders’ Special Meeting on COVID-19 and signed the joint statement. On September 21, Xi Jinping and Moon delivered speeches at the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, each stressing active cooperation with the multilateral mechanism centered on the United Nations to jointly tackle COVID-19 and other common challenges humans face. At the 27th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting on November 20, China and South Korea both called for intra-regional connectivity to facilitate cross-border people-to-people exchanges in the post-pandemic era.

Leaders of China and South Korea highly approved each other’s efforts in fighting COVID-19 through phone calls and letters. In a call on February 20, Moon, on behalf of the South Korea government and people, expressed sincere condolences to the Chinese people for their suffering in the outbreak and confidence that, under Xi’s strong leadership, the Chinese people will unite as one and win the battle against COVID-19 at an early date. Moon said that South Korea and China are close neighbors and China’s difficulties are South Korea’s difficulties. This shows that the South Korean government stands firmly with China to defeat the virus without any intention to politicize the epidemic. On March 13, Xi Jinping sent a message to Moon on behalf of the Chinese government and people, expressing sincere condolences to the South Korea government and people and willingness to work together to defeat the pandemic. Xi stressed that China and South Korea are friendly neighbors who help each other in times of difficulty and noted that the South Korea government and people have expressed concern and offered a lot of help to China in its fight against the pandemic. He pointed out that the virus has no borders and all countries in the world are in a community of shared future. The Chinese government and people share the same feeling for the difficulties South Korea is facing and will continue to provide assistance within their capacity and support it in its fight with the pandemic. Moon responded with a letter of thanks on the 15th of the same month.8

On May 13, Xi Jinping invited Moon Jae-in to make a phone call. Xi stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic has been effectively brought under control in both China and South Korea through arduous efforts. In the joint fight against the pandemic, the two have always supported each other, stood together through thick and thin. They are among the first to establish a joint prevention and control cooperation mechanism, and the first to open "fast track" for the exchange of important and urgently needed personnel, so as to ensure the smooth operation of regional industrial, supply, and logistics chains. This fruitful cooperation has not only served the overall fight against COVID-19, but also demonstrated the principle, "good neighbors are not exchanged for money." It has set an example of cooperation for the whole world in fighting COVID-19. China will continue to strengthen cooperation with South Korea in joint prevention and control and drug and vaccine research and development, and support the WHO in playing its crucial role, while strengthening communications and coordination within multilateral frameworks such as the United Nations, the G20, ASEAN, the CJK summit, and constantly advancing bilateral and international cooperation against COVID-19. Moon said that under Xi’s strong leadership, China has achieved remarkable results in its fight against COVID-19, which he highly appreciates. adding his hope that application of the China-Korea "fast track" will further expand and set an example for the world.9

Mutual perceptions

Mutual perceptions show an obvious mismatch. According to a poll of 14 developed countries released by the Pew Research Center on October 6, 2020, 79 percent of respondents in South Korea gave a negative assessment of China’s response to the pandemic, while only 14 percent gave a negative assessment of the South Korea’s response. South Koreans’ negative view of China’s response to COVID-19 is matched by that of Japanese, exceeding the levels of any other developed country surveyed (the average was 61% negative). Only 20 percent of South Korean respondents gave a positive assessment of China’s handling of the pandemic.10 The perceptual mismatch between Chinese and South Koreans motivates us to explore the main causes of this phenomenon.

The Pew study showed that 81 percent of those who have an unfavorable view of China see it handling the crisis badly—28 percent more than those with favorable views. The degree of negativity toward China influenced perceptions of China’s response to the pandemic, but even those more positive toward China were mostly critical. From the spring of 2019 to the summer of 2020, South Koreans who have an unfavorable view of China rose by 12 percent to 75 percent, a total lower only than Sweden and Australia. In 2015 the Pew annual survey put the South Korean negativity at 37 percent—only Australia was less negative among the developed countries covered. By 2017 it was at 61 percent—second highest only to Japan, and there was little change for two years, even as negativity rose elsewhere. While the drop in favorable attitudes in 2016 is well understood due to its linkage to China’s response to THAAD, and the stabilization for two years after Moon’s visit to Beijing occurred along with reduced tensions, the fall-off in 2020 raises more questions, some associated with the impact of the pandemic. Moreover, in contrast to the other countries covered, younger South Koreans (18-49) hold a more negative view of China—and by as much as 10-12 percent. The differential elsewhere is mostly in double digits in the opposite direction; those older than 50 are more negative. These data leave much to explain about South Korean views of China.   

Public opinion in China and South Korea stand in sharp contrast unlike the good interactions between the two governments. The Chinese people are grateful to South Korea for its assistance during the pandemic and recognize the effectiveness of South Korea in fighting the pandemic. On the contrary, some people in South Korea are not satisfied with the assistance from China. What Chinese see as fake news about China can be easily found on South Korean media, and many South Korean people have a low evaluation of China’s anti-pandemic efforts.

South Korea’s firm support for China’s fight against the pandemic has, in contrast, caused a positive response in Chinese society. On January 30, the South Korean embassy in China’s announcement that "the government of the South Korea has decided to provide China with emergency assistance worth about $5 million" quickly attracted the attention of Chinese netizens. It received more than 108,000 likes and 32,000 retweets, with much higher popularity than other information released by the same account in the same period. Gratitude to the South Korean government and people was the dominant response. Xue Jingling, a popular netizen, even thought that South Korea’s propaganda was too "obscure," expressing the hope that more Chinese people would see "so much assistance from the South Korean government." In addition, the Chinese media reported that the South Korean embassy in China had hung a banner with the words "China’s difficulties are our difficulties" and that a landmark building in Seoul posted the words "Go Wuhan, Go China." On February 20, a new South Korean consul general, Kang Seung-seok, took office in Wuhan despite the severe situation of the pandemic in Hubei province. He brought a batch of relief medical supplies donated by local governments, enterprises, and non-governmental organizations, and he was praised as a "brave countermarching person" by the Chinese media.

The Chinese people spoke highly of pandemic prevention and control in South Korea. This author headed an online article in "Dong Xiangrong Asia-pacific Observation," on March 10, 2020 with "Where does South Korea get so many COVID-19 test kits?" It drew 633,000 readers, who made very positive comments on the response of the South Korean government and people. User 1387536272221 said, "In fact, President Moon is a good president of the Republic of Korea. He is dedicated to fighting the pandemic for the people. He is a good and competent president!" which had 866 thumbs-up reactions. "Moon’s government is pragmatic and reliable," said user v70468376173, who received 988 thumbs-up reactions. User 6002908355722 said, "thumbs up Korean government!" It had 446 thumbs-up reactions. Another user noted, "Korea deserves credit for testing more honestly than all other countries combined (except China). The most important thing in fighting the pandemic is early detection, early isolation and early treatment. This is why the outbreak in South Korea was quickly brought under control, thanks to widespread tests." The comment had 233 thumbs-up reactions. These responses reflect the Chinese people’s positive evaluation of South Korea.11

Compared with China’s public praise, South Korea’s public opinion is much more complicated. Some opinions can be attributed to ideological differences and bias. Some are viewed as unreasonable criticism. Amid COVID-19, news about China’s resistance to the infectious disease in South Korean media is mostly negative. These responses in media can be divided into several streams: "China’s responsibility view," "China’s human rights violations view," "China’s conspiracy view,” "the view of discrimination against South Korean in China,” and “the view that China’s masks are forged and fake.” Selective facts, alternative facts and fake news about China processed by South Korean media severely damage China’s image, mislead the South Koreans, and drag down public evaluations of China’s work done in resistance to the disease.

“China responsibility view”

According to the "China responsibility view" in the South Korean media, China is responsible for the origin and spread of COVID-19. These reports mainly blame the deliberate concealment of information by the Chinese government, its slow and ineffective response to the pandemic, the spread of the virus by Chinese citizens traveling abroad, and so on. On February 22, 2020, ChosunBiz explicitly doubted the factuality and accuracy of China’s disclosed data. The columnist of the article mentioned, “The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus infection announced by the Chinese government is frequently reversed,” and “many experts criticize that it is difficult to estimate the spread of COVID-19 in China due to the fluctuating standards in China’s statistics.” She criticized, “while China conceals the truth and manipulates the information, coronavirus has spread to more than 30 countries. Xi Jinping’s statement of China, ‘a great country that fulfills its responsibilities,’ seems hollow both in China and abroad.”12 In addition to the unreasonable criticism, the press of South Korea has been filled with contents related to arguments and topics of China’s fault raised by some American politicians such as Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo. These VIPs try their best to make China a scapegoat for their own failure of defending the lives of the citizens13 Not only unreasonable critics from the United States, but also a survey from the United Kingdom saying that 7 out of 10 agree with the China responsibility view, inevitably exerted influence over the fairness of evaluations on China’s efforts in pandemic prevention and control.

From China’s perspective, the “China responsibility view” is totally unacceptable. The government shoulders comprehensive responsibilities when an emergency appears. “There is a process for medical experts to understand a newly-discovered infectious disease. Information should be disclosed accurately with a scientific attitude,” Zhou Xianwang, the Wuhan Mayor, explained.14 In fact, Chinese decision-makers and expert teams took rapid actions. It was Dr. Zhang Jixian and Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, the hospital with which she is affiliated, reported cases of pneumonia of unknown cause to the Wuhan Jianghan Center for Disease Prevention and Control on December 27, 2019: On December 30, the Wuhan City Health Commission (WCHC) issued Urgent Notice on Treatment of Patients with Pneumonia of Unknown Cause. This raised discussion among the doctors in Wuhan, including the respected ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, through Wechat, a well-known social media in China. When Gao Fu, the director of the National CDC got the information and reported it to the National Health Commission (NHC) that night. Upon learning of developments, the NHC made arrangements in the small hours to send a working group and an expert team to Wuhan to find out what was happening there On December 31,2020, the WCHC website carried its Information Circular on the Pneumonia Cases in Wuhan, confirming 27 cases and urging the public to stay away from enclosed public places with poor ventilation and venues where large crowds gathered. The commission also suggested the use of face masks when going out. At the very beginning of the pandemic, it was not clear if this was a new virus, what it is, how it spreads, and what its effect would be. For example, it took a whole night of discussion to 4 am on January 1,2020 among officials and experts of the national and local health commission to decide on closing the targeted Huanan Seafood Market, which affected many people’s daily life. At that time, Wuhan had only 41 reported cases of the new virus.15 From January 3,2020, on a regular basis, China began to update the WHO, relevant countries, and regional organizations on the development of the disease. We know that Korea is along those countries that firstly got detail information from China. And on January 23 China started the strictest and historical shutdown of Wuhan, a city of over 10 million residents. The people of Wuhan suffered so much due to the shutdown. And this is also the background of the Fang Fang Diary which resonated with the public. Fortunately, Wuhan finally put the epidemic under control with the efforts of the local population and help from other provinces and even from abroad. From January 24, Chinese New Year’s Eve, to March 8, it rallied 346 medical teams, consisting of 42,600 medical workers and more than 900 public health professionals to the immediate aid of Hubei and the city of Wuhan.16 It is fair to say, that China is trying its best to keep the virus under control. As Dr. Bruce Aylward, head of the WHO delegation to China, observed about the lockdown of Wuhan at a press conference of February 24,, 2020, “Behind every window of these skyscrapers we drove past, there were people. There were 15 million people who were staying put in one place for weeks at a time to stop this disease. I just thought it’s so important that we recognize that to the people of Wuhan, it is recognized, the world is in your debt. And when this disease finishes, hopefully, we will have a chance to thank the people in Wuhan for the role that they played in it, because many of us, many of the people here have suffered but the people of that city have gone through an extraordinary period.”17

Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese CDC, who graduated from the UCLA School of Public Health, listed two records about China. “It only took a week to isolate the virus after we identified the epidemic. This was the shortest time on record for scientists to recognize a new infectious disease. It only took a few days from the isolation of pathogens to the creation of diagnostic reagents for clinical diagnosis. This was also a record-breaking short time in history.”18 Although not perfect, Chinese government and citizens had tried their best to prevent the spread of the virus and did a relatively good job compared to other major powers in the world. This is the response given to South Koreans and others airing the responsibility view.

“Human rights violations view”

The "human rights violations view" of the South Korean media refers to comments criticizing the Chinese government for restricting citizens’ freedom of speech during the pandemic and for its tough and brutal anti-pandemic work methods. On April 10, Chosun Ilbo published an article on its official website titled "China lockdown again…" "Fang Fang, a Chinese novelist who documented the tragedy during the two-month closure of Wuhan, was attacked by Chinese state media and netizens," the report said. "Those who criticized the Chinese government’s response at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak are now being investigated by authorities or are missing," it added. For example, it reported that Ren Zhiqiang, former chairman of Huayuan Group, is under investigation for "major violations of laws and regulations," the Beijing Commission for Discipline Inspection said on July 7.19

Obviously, such news tries to impose an image of the Chinese government threatening freedom of speech. It attributes Chinese criticism among the public against Fang Fang to administrative intervention from the words and situation of Ren Zhiqiang. In fact, Fang Fang’s experience has almost nothing to do with the Chinese government. As we said above, Fang Fang recorded the tough days suffered by Wuhan residents, which resonated with the public. It is part of the history, the unprecedented lockdown of a modern city in a peacetime era. The moment when public opinion in China began to be polarized about Fang Fang is the time when a foreign publishing house was going to publish her diary abroad. Those for and against Fang Fang co-existed as two streams, and neither has been restricted or encouraged. Those who think highly of her work argue that the memories she recorded well reflect some people’s emotional states during Wuhan’s lockdown, while some hold that Fang Fang’s narrative does not comprehensively demonstrate the majority of people’s lives and struggle against the virus in Wuhan, and especially demeans front-line workers in epidemic prevention. However, when Fang Fang’s writing was politicized by some interest groups with bad intentions towards China, more and more Chinese refused to understand why she insisted on publishing her work overseas, and shifted ground to blame her, especially considering her identity as the chief of the Association of Writers in Hubei Province, a retired high level official. This is a partial Chinese response to Korean human rights criticisms.

“China conspiracy view”

The "China conspiracy view" in the South Korean media emphasizes that the Chinese government is using the COVID-19 pandemic for its own political purposes, even including that the COVID-19 virus was developed by the virus research institute in Wuhan. These reports also believe that the Chinese government distorted the results of the fight against COVID-19 to cover up its own responsibilities. On March 10, the website of Chosun Ilbo put online an article questioning the idea that "the Chinese government contributes to the prevention of disease." "The Chinese state media’s much-publicized efforts to combat the pandemic are designed to deflect international criticism that the Chinese leadership has been late in responding to the outbreak."20

Such hostile suspicions preempt potential compliments and positive impressions towards China among the South Korean people. As an article that tries to express difference voices and critical opinions to the public, the news above does not seem to be violating basic rules for the mass media. However, by creating an “artificial truth” that tends to be accepted due to stereotypes, the narrative attempts to undermine the increasing evidence of Chinese contributions to global COVID-19 control, including the limited domestic growth in confirmed cases and the responsible emergency humanitarian aids overseas.

“Discrimination against South Koreans in China view”

The South Korean media accused the Chinese government of discriminating against South Korean citizens in its pandemic prevention work. On March 2, Chosun Ilbo published a report on its website titled, "How can China do this? South Koreans’ entry cards are marked differently, doors even nailed to the floor." It stated: "As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies in South Korea, the prevention and control measures for Koreans living in China are also being strengthened." According to the article, an apartment in Shanghai’s Gubei New District is offering temporary entry permits to residents from South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan from March 1. "Compared with Japan and Taiwan, the apartment has only more stringent requirements for residents from South Korea," it said. "Among the documents required to obtain a temporary entry permit for foreigners, the only questions related to South Korea are ‘have you been to Daegu or Gyeongbok recently.’"21

It is a typical case of alternative facts. The media merely represents the experience of South Korean residents in China under the circumstance that the pandemic in South Korea gained momentum, instead of explaining that the Chinese government strengthens COVID-19 prevention for both Chinese and foreigners. Besides, the narrative attempts to arouse social memory of when the COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, the South Korean government did not set entry restriction for Chinese people to visit Korea. By displaying partial truths that cater to social memory, an audience may be misled into believing that South Korean residents in China are unfairly treated.

“The fake and shoddy medical supplies view”

Reports in the South Korean media of "fake and shoddy" medical supplies from China have also had a serious negative impact on China’s image. On March 5, South Korea’s MoneyToday published a headline entitled "KF94 donated to China, But China donated to us…?"22 which questioned whether the masks donated by Weihai city to Incheon were quality products and had any effect on pandemic prevention. As soon as it appeared, it aroused heated discussion among South Korean netizens and once ranked third on the list of social news. One of the posts, which garnered nearly 14,000 thumbs-ups, was "thank you [alluding to Moon Jae-in] for making South Korea the best bully country in the world, so proud."

The news was soon proved fake. On the same day, the Incheon municipal government issued an emergency notice stating, "The disposable medical masks provided by Weihai city have been tested by the Incheon Institute of Health and Environment and found to be qualified products." South Korean television station KBS has gone out of its way to debase the rumor and trace its source, pointing out that the manufacturer of the mask did have a record of substandard testing, but the masks donated to Incheon were not of the same type, but at the high-end range of the manufacturer’s products. MoneyToday finally issued a public apology on March 7, saying, "The Chinese mask story we reported was found to be untrue and has been removed. We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience caused to readers and Incheon city due to our inaccurate report."23 However, it seems that the adverse impact in South Korea on the mutual trust between Chinese and South Korean people is irreversible.

Causes of the perceptual mismatch between China and South Korea

Chinese and South Korean governments recognize the effectiveness of the other country’s response to the pandemic, but why do the Chinese and South Korean have misperceptions about the other country’s response? In particular, why did the South Korean public not objectively evaluate China’s performance? The author believes that the perceptive dislocation of Chinese and Korean people in this pandemic may be due to interrelated factors.

First, the South Korean government did not "politicize" the pandemic and took a very professional attitude to deal with it, but the public’s opinion was heavily influenced by ideology and was subjective. As part of the group of western developed countries, coupled with the tension of geographical proximity, the public in South Korea has seriously underestimated China’s response to the pandemic. Before the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992, the two sides had experienced the bitter Korean War and nearly 40 years of Cold War confrontation. "Anti-Communist consciousness" became the main pillar of the legitimacy of the South Korean regime during the Cold War, which further strengthened the hostility of the South Korean people towards China. After the success of the democratization movement in South Korea, the dualistic antagonism of "autocratic dictatorship/liberal democracy" has provided a new identity element for the Korean people, which continues to negatively affect the Korean people’s perception of China. Anti-communist propaganda in the field of ideology is deeply rooted in the hearts of Korean people. Once an event occurs, the politicized interpretation often blurs the basic facts or takes a one-sided view of things, interwoven with the domestic politics of South Korea, which deviates from the objective reality. For example, on February 28, 2020, Chosun Ilbo reported that 31 South Koreans in Nanjing were refused entry by pandemic prevention workers. The comments section was filled with ideological bias. "South Korea will eventually become a colony of China," came in at no. 3. Another commented: "Investing and living in a communist country, this kind of thing always happens…"24 On April 17, 2020, the Wuhan government revised the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths to ensure the accuracy of the statistics and respect for every human life. JoongAng Ilbo made a detailed and objective report, but the mainstream voice in the comments section chose to continually criticize China on data manipulation, instead of praising the Chinese government’s attitude of seeking truth from facts.25

Second, some South Koreans’ perceptions of China are influenced by the conservative media, which has a negative attitude. Due to the selective coverage by these media, it is difficult for ordinary South Korean people to have an objective and comprehensive understanding of China’s anti-pandemic process. Discrimination against Korea, for example, is a typically one-sided truth. South Korea’s conservative media distort stories with headings such as "high risk areas to strengthen management in China" or "South Koreans living in China are being more regulated," guiding readers from South Korea to think of China’s discriminatory treatment. Some South Korean media did not objectively report the fact that China has made great efforts to contain the pandemic at home.

Third, some South Koreans have a stereotype of "fake and shoddy" Chinese products, a fixed view spread widely. Once a stereotype is formed, information that fits that stereotype is more likely to be accepted, while information that does not fit is more likely to be rejected. Questioning China’s donation of masks during the pandemic is a manifestation of this stereotype, seriously affecting mutual feelings between China and South Korea. In "Struggling in Korea," netizens of the largest Korean-Chinese online community expressed their sadness. A commentator named RUBY wrote, "Sad… How can you so casually trample on others’ assistance to you? Who would dare to help again?"26 There was also a public outcry on Chinese social media. On March 10, WeChat published an article titled "Masks aided by China considered inferior by these South Koreans? The truth is chilling!" South Korea’s hostility toward China "makes people angry and even more alarmed."27 The article has struck a chord with netizens and spread widely on social media platforms in China.

Lastly, Chinese media, including social media, assumes that "the mountains and rivers are different, but the wind and the moon are the same sky" (山川異域,風月同天) and "people who are not far away by road, are people who are not in a different country"(道不遠人,人無異國), misleading the Chinese people to overestimate the evaluation of the other side. The imagination of "closeness" between China and South Korea was born at a special moment, when South Korea extended a selfless hand of assistance to China during the most difficult time of the pandemic. The fact is that the governments of China and South Korea have good interactions, the people are friendly, and mutual assistance exists objectively, but these are only some aspects of China-South Korea relations. After deploying THAAD in 2016, the images of China and South Korea have been seriously damaged in the minds of the people on both sides. In fact, in recent years, public opinion in both countries has been far more critical of each other than complimentary. The one-sided trend of public opinion in China during the pandemic highlights the positive side between China and South Korea, but also objectively covers up many unresolved issues in bilateral relations, which leads to the tendency of Chinese people to overestimate the status of China-South Korea relations. However, once the special public opinion environment is lost, or China-South Korea relations suffer an unexpected impact, the Chinese people will suffer a greater psychological gap. This misperception also happens between China and Japan which lead us to keep calm and realistic attitude toward a more complicated sphere out of China amid and after the pandemic.


Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Chinese and South Korean governments have highly appraised each other’s response to the pandemic, but there is a cognitive mismatch between the Chinese and South Korean people. South Koreans criticize China’s response, contrary to expectations from the Chinese perspective, under the impact of stereotypes and ideological factors superimposed on the influence of their conservative media. Searching for the causes of such misperceptions, we have pointed to ideological factors and reminded readers that the Chinese people may awaken to the gap in mutual images regarding pandemic responses. By making timely corrections, South Korea can sustain and promote the sound development of China-South Korea relations and prevent misjudgments and even hostility between the two countries.

* This paper is partially based on the research project of Asian Research Center, CASS, Project No. 2019yyzx003.

1. See the books in Chinese translated as DongXiangrong, Wang Xiaoling, Li Yongchun, How the Koreans View China (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2012); Wang Xiaoling, How the Chinese View Korea,(Beijing: The Ethnic Publishing House, 2009).

2. National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China,

3. Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency,

4. Rachel Chang, Jinshan Hong, and Kevin Varley, “The COVID Resilience Ranking, The Best and Worst Places to Be in COVID: U.S. Sinks in Ranking,” Bloomberg, November 24, 2020,

5. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China,

6. Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency,

7. The Chinese embassy in Republic of Korea, “The Chinese government aid has arrived in Republic of Korea,”

8. President Xi said: "The willingness to visit South Korea this year remains unchanged; President Moon: Korea’s relationship with China is very important," KBS, May 13, 2020,

9. “Sino-Korea summit "entrepreneurs’ first fast-track, prevention and control of COVID-19, a new cooperation model," Yonhap, May 13, 2020,

10. Laura Silver, Kat Devlin, and Christine Huang, “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries, Majorities say China has handled COVID-19 outbreak poorly,” Pew Research Center, October 6, 2020,

11. “Where does South Korea get so many COVID-19 test kits?” Dong Xiangrong Asia-Pacific Observation, March 10, 2020,

12. “The bare face of the great country that ‘fulfills its responsibilities,’” ChosonBiz, February 22, 2020,

13. Articles on China’s fault include but are not limited to: “’COVID-19 is Chinese infectious disease,’” Trump openly attacks,” Financial News, September 23, 2020,; “After Trump, Pompeo also announced “COVID-19 origins from Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Segye Ilbo, May 4, 2020,; “7 out of 10 British people fault China for its responsibility in the spread of COVID-19,” Kookmin Ilbo, April 20, 2020,;: “CNN: U.S. tries to enlist foreign allies in pressure campaign against China over coronavirus response,” KBS News, May 6, 2020,

14. “Wuhan mayor says will resign if it helps control outbreak,” China Daily, January 27, 2020,

15. Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the China CDC: the prevention of COVID-19 should not "block the road" should be vigilant against asymptomatic infected persons’ impact of the epidemic,

16. The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, Fighting Covid-19 China in Action, June 2020.

17. Global Times (on Haokan Video), February 25, 2020,

18. “Wu Zunyou on COVID-19’s Control in the World,” Peking University, December 8, 2020,

19. “China blocks again: Wuhan Diary Writer Fang Fang Accused,” Chosun Ilbo, April 10, 2020,

20. “China: President Xi’s efforts in pandemic prevention impress the world,” Chosun Ilbo, March 3, 2020,

21.   “How can China do this? South Koreans’ entry cards are marked differently, doors even nailed to the floor,” Chosun Ilbo, March 2, 2020,

22. “KF94 donated to China, But China donated to us…?” Money Today, (The report has since been deleted).

23. “About ‘KF94 donated to China, but China donated to us…?” Money Today, March 7, 2020,

24. “31 Koreans in Nanjing, China: not allowed to go back to the apartment , South Koreans out," Chosun Ilbo, February 28, 2020,

25. "1290 more deaths, China’s Wuhan authorities ‘failed to report,’” Joongang Ilbo, April 17, 2020,

26. “Struggle in South Korea,” March 5, 2020,

27. “Why do these South Korean people think the masks aided by China are inferior? The truth is chilling!” Global Times Review, March 10, 2020,