The Chinese version of popular South Korean variety show Running Man announced on its Sina Weibo on Monday that it was changing its name to Keep Running. The name change sparked suspicions online that the move could be related to a rumored ban on South Korean shows that seems to have started in August 2016 when tensions between the two countries increased due to South Korea's plan to deploy the THAAD system.
Despite netizens' suspicions, the Sina Weibo post seemed to imply that the change is just "an upgrade" for the show's fifth season.
This is not the first case either. Name changes for Chinese versions of South Korean variety shows have become more frequent over the past few months in China, with reality show Infinite Show changing to Our Challenge in October and singing competition shows King of Mask Singer changing to Mask Singer in August and I Am A Singer changing to Singer when its latest season began broadcasting in January.
Moreover, these changes have not been limited to variety shows with South Korean roots, but also include productions co-produced by the two countries, according to a report from the Korea Joongang Daily on February 9.
The report quoted an anonymous source "involved in cultural projects in China" who said China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) held a meeting at the end of last year with producers "to halt joint productions with South Korean companies or programs involving South Korean entertainers."
China's official stance so far has been to deny the rumors that such a ban exists.
At a press conference in November 2016, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially denied that such a ban existed, saying that "China remains positive about people-to-people and cultural exchanges with the Republic of Korea."
Xiao Yu (pseudonym), a Chinese reality show director who has been working in the industry for four years, told the Global Times on Monday that her team was recently told by her supervisors to avoid working with South Korean teams.
"Even though we have cooperated with producers of many foreign shows recently, we were specifically told to avoid cooperating with South Korean production teams. As far as I know, we are not allowed to use South Korean directors or scriptwriters," Xiao said.
However, in Xiao's opinion, the recent name changes did not necessarily happen because of the rumored ban.
"This may also have taken place because the Chinese producers of these shows may have ceased licensing the copyright to these shows from South Korean producers," Xiao said. "Copyrights are expensive."
The alienation of South Korea entertainment seems to have extended from TV to other areas such as films, TV dramas and live performances.
In recent years, Sino-South Korean co-produced films had become a major trend, especially after the two nations signed a co-production treaty in July 2014.
However, the latter months of 2016 saw few such co-productions heading to cinemas in China. And even those that did make it to theaters downplayed their South Korean connections. For example, Chinese comedy Scandal Maker, a remake of a South Korean film, was directed by South Korean director Ahn Byeong-ki, yet there was little mention of this background when it was released in the mainland in November.
Live performances have been impacted as well.
According to a February 8 report from South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, following cancellations of performances from South Korean lyric coloratura soprano Jo Sumi and pianist Paik Kun-woo, ballerina Kim Ji-young was replaced as the lead role in the Shanghai Ballet's Swan Lake.
Kim was supposed to perform in China in April, but the Korea National Ballet said Kim was told that she would not be performing earlier this month with no further explanations given.
According to the report, Jo was scheduled to tour Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai starting from February 19, yet she has yet to receive a visa. Meanwhile, Paik's co-performance with the Guiyang Symphony Orchestra, which was planned for March 18, was also canceled.
Boon for Japan
The cold shoulder toward South Korean productions seems to have been a boon for some Japanese productions.
For instance, iQiyi, one of the most popular streaming platforms in China, is promoting Japanese anime Dragon Ball and romantic drama You're My Pet on the front page of its website, but no South Korean shows.
A late 2016 report from ent.sina.com pointed out that several Japanese dramas, such as Kenja no Ai and My Dangerous Wife, have become hits among Chinese TV lovers.
Even Onmyoji, a Chinese mobile game that has a distinct Japanese style and features imagery from the ancient Japanese classic The Tale of Genji has become very popular recently.
"While Japanese culture has not invaded the country to the same level as the South Korean wave, it has a good reputation and audience base in China," the report said.
There are those who theorize that the rumored ban is a way to protect Chinese productions. However, some netizens have pointed out that this is not the way to go about strengthening the Chinese entertainment industry.
"It is not unpatriotic to travel to a foreign country, listen to foreign music, or watch a foreign play. The high production level and quality of South Korean dramas, US movies and Japanese manga are far higher than that of domestic productions. There is nothing wrong with wanting to watch high quality productions. It would be better to upgrade ourselves rather than ban other countries," a Chinese netizen posted on Sina Weibo.