BEIJING — A publicity stunt involving South Korean girl group Blackpink and a cuddly baby panda has prompted outraged comments and calls for an apology from some in China.
The endangered animals are native only to China, which claims ownership over all pandas loaned to foreign zoos, including those born abroad. Many Chinese are particularly sensitive about representations of what they view as a national symbol, sentiments fed by rising nationalism that often takes its most virulent form on the internet.
The outrage over a video of group members cuddling the baby panda in Everland Zoo near Seoul may also reflect a growing awareness of animal welfare, with the China Wildlife Conservation Association among those raising their voices.
The stunt "violated the professional requirements for protection of the giant panda," the group said, adding that the zoo should improve its management to ensure such incidents do not happen again.
In comments under a posting of national broadcaster CCTV's report on the controversy, users called for apologies from the band and their management and some form of explanation from the zoo itself.
"If it's all about the money and you cannot or don't wish to take proper care of (the pandas), then give them back to us," wrote one person, using the name Jenea_y.
"K-pop" bands such as Blackpink are hugely popular in China, as well as in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere. But politics poses a particular challenge for those seeking fame and fortune in the vast Chinese market.
Any hint of criticism of China's ruling Communist Party — and its take on major historical events — or support for an independent Taiwanese identity or for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong can bring a major fan backlash, egged on by state media and Chinese diplomats. South Koreans tend to be the biggest targets of such attacks, along with Americans and Japanese.
Last month, Chinese nationalists unloaded on South Korean boy band BTS after its leader thanked Korean War veterans for their sacrifices. Chinese internet users and state media took RM's comments as a slap at China, whose soldiers fought alongside North Korean forces during their failed attempt to annex South Korea in the 1950-53 war.
The force of the outburst prompted South Korean companies to drop the use of BTS in their Chinese promotional materials, although the long-term effects appear to have been relatively mild. In comparison, China completely destroyed the Chinese business of South Korean retail and entertainment giant Lotte after it provided land in South Korea for a U.S. anti-missile system opposed by Beijing.
In Blackpink's case, the effects appear to be even more fleeting, and by Friday the level of invective had fallen considerably. The band's management removed the video and scrapped plans to use it in its reality TV show, although no formal apology has been offered.
Some Chinese fans even sought to defend their idols, pointing out that the photo-op had obviously received approval from the zoo and the band members were wearing personal protective equipment when holding the cub.