Change of the Chinese Diaspora’s Image in Korean Media according to the Korea-PRC Relations after the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations: Focused on Dong-A Ilbo and Hankyoreh

Change of the Chinese Diaspora’s Image in Korean Media according to the Korea-PRC Relations after the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations: Focused on Dong-A Ilbo and Hankyoreh

Article by Lee Yulgong


This study demonstrates how South Korean media have changed the way they portray the Chinese diaspora depending on the Korea-China relations since the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and the People’s Republic of China. For this, the research compared and analyzed by selecting two newspapers with different political perspectives and tones and dividing periods into three based on the historical inflection point of the Korea-China relationship. Dong-A Ilbo is selected as the conservative media, and Hankyoreh is chosen as the progressive media. The analysis period is divided into (i) the period of establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC (1990 – 1996), (ii) the period of rising of the PRC (1997 – 2015), and (iii) the period of the PRC-U.S. tensions (2016 – the present)., and the changes in the interest and the way of portrayal of the Chinese diaspora in the two media by each period are examined. The results of this study support that South Korean media’s portrayals of the Chinese diaspora have fluctuated in terms of various aspects, such as not only economical, political, and social perspectives but also perspectives of human rights and national means, and otherized them according to its political tone and changes in Korea-China relations. The ultimate aim of this study is to reflect on the reality of the attitude toward diversity in South Korean society and to lay cornerstones to gauge the possibility of coexistence with “new others” coming from beyond the border by analyzing the portrayals of “old others” living on the border in the society represented by the Chinese diaspora.

Keywords: Chinese diaspora in South Korea, ethnic image, representation, diversity, portrayal

Header image Daerimdong China Town by Republic of Korea is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.


Although the overall history of the Chinese diaspora on the Korean Peninsula has been 140 years since the establishment of the Qing’s Concession in Incheon after the Imo Incident in 1882, the Chinese diaspora in South Korea (hereafter Korea) has various backgrounds in terms of their nationality, ethnicity, and migration history. However, Korean people’s image of the Chinese diaspora is rather homogeneous. Regardless of their backgrounds, the diverse Chinese diaspora has become just Chinese for numerous reasons. According to Chung (2018), in Korean society, “China” and “Chinese” are considered bywords for Greater China (中華圈, Junghwa-gwon) and Chineseness, which is a kind of otherized imaginary community or culture as a collective meaning. Furthermore, the word “Chinese” is simply used without distinction between the relationship and boundaries of the land where they currently live and their origin. The ambiguity of this boundary is particularly noticeable by equating “Chinese” and “the Chinese diaspora in Korea.”

Based on this phenomenon, all diverse members and communities of the Chinese diaspora, including Old Chinese immigrants (han-hwa or gu-Hwagyo, 韓華 or 舊華僑) who mostly hold the Republic of China (hereafter ROC) passport, New Chinese immigrants (shin-Hwagyo, 新華僑) who mostly hold the People’s Republic of China (hereafter PRC) passport, even Korean-Chinese (hereafter Joseonjok, 朝鮮族) are all treated as the homogenous group, as Chinese who perform ‘Chineseness,’ including speaking Chinese. Thus, they are considered Chinese representatives and have become the main target of anti-Chinese sentiment, which has recently intensified in Korean society. As such, no matter their origin or migration history, the Chinese diaspora in Korea is perpetually perceived as foreigners living outside of the psychological border of Korean people (Forum on Migrant Women’s Human Rights in Korea, 2013).

Korean people’s views on the Chinese diaspora have fluctuated in various ways with the times. Not only historical reasons but ideological, economic, and political reasons are intertwined here. One of the events that greatly influenced the status and image of the Chinese diaspora in Korea was the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and the PRC in 1992. Through this historic event, the sovereignty that “China” means now the PRC, not the ROC. Before 1992, the Chinese diaspora was seen based on its national relationship with the ROC, but after that, the image of the Chinese diaspora fluctuated along with the relationship with the PRC. This is also related to the fact that in East Asian and Korean society, “China” is not a “proper noun” pointing to a fixed territory and a specific country but a “fluid concept” as a common noun whose meaning changes according to the process of long history (Yoon, 2019). Therefore, after the event, it can be assumed that the change in concept and perspective on the PRC according to ideology and period might have affected the perception toward immigrants from “China,” regardless of the ROC or the PRC, and those having Chinese background.

As such, the image of the Chinese diaspora in Korea has changed dynamically depending on relations between Korea and the notion of “China,” from comrades who share anti-communist ideology to an economic threat, strangers, economic partners, and even spies of the PRC or North Korea. Therefore, based on this context of Korean society, this paper analyzed how the Korean media, Dong-A Ilbo as a representative of the conservative-right tone and Hankyoreh as a representative of the progressive-liberal tone, has represented the Chinese diaspora in Korea since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and the PRC on the premise that the media would have influenced the formation of the image of the Chinese diaspora in Korea.

The purpose of this research was to analyze the image formation and fluidity of the Chinese diaspora by Korean media as a measure of the acceptability of diversity and its possibility in Korean society, which has encountered intense anti-Chinese and anti-immigration sentiment while entering a multicultural society. It also aimed at criticizing the majority’s perspectives of Korean society on migrants, which are based only on their origins, by erasing their complex history and context. Therefore, this analysis of the old strangers in Korean society, represented by the Chinese diaspora, could be one way to think about the possibility of coexistence between Korean media and new others in Korean society in the future. This might be an opportunity to reflect on how Korean media delivers and represents anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant sentiments in Korean society these days.


To analyze the articles in Korean media from the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC to the present in a chronological way, the whole period was divided into three terms: (i) the period of establishing diplomatic relations between Korea and the PRC (1990 – 1996), (ii) the period of rising of the PRC (1997 – 2015), and (iii) the period of the PRC-U.S. tensions after the controversy surrounding the U.S. THAAD in Korea (2016 – the present). The focus was on articles related to the Chinese diaspora in Korea from 1 January 1990 to 30 April 2022.

To collect data, Big Kinds (, a news article database search system provided by the Korea Press Foundation, was used. The word used in the search was “화교 (Hwagyo, 華僑),” meaning the Chinese diaspora in Korean.

To grasp the increase or decrease in each media’s interest in the Chinese diaspora, the number of articles by the media and by each period was analyzed and compared. After that, content analysis was conducted. A total of 60 articles were analyzed by selecting ten articles for each period and media. Five factors were considered: (i) the articles’ tone: positive, negative, or neutral; (ii) the focus of the articles: economic, social, cultural, criminal, etc.; and (iii) the way the articles look at the Chinese diaspora: as an individual, or as a collectively single group based on their ethnicity or nationality; (iv) the articles’ statements: opinion or fact; and (v) other specific keywords revealed and implied in the articles.

Photo taken by Lee Yulgong


1. The Number of Articles about the Chinese Diaspora in Korea

As can be seen from Table 1, in the first and second periods, Dong-A Ilbo published more articles related to the Chinese diaspora in Korea than Hankyoreh. In particular, during the period of diplomatic relations between Korea and the PRC led by the conservative administration of Korea, Dong-A Ilbo, which represents the perspective of conservatives, seems to have been relatively more interested in the Chinese diaspora in Korea. During the second period, the rise of the PRC, Hankyoreh, representing the progressive perspective, also published many articles. However, it can be seen that Dong-A Ilbo still showed more interest in the issue. However, during this period, the degree of interest between the two newspapers in the Chinese diaspora did not differ much. However, in the third period after that, there was a reversal. Dong-A Ilbo showed poor interest in the related issue by publishing only 29 articles over a period of more than six years. Furthermore, Dong-A Ilbo did not even publish a single related article in 2022. This could be interpreted as an intentional exclusion of related issues due to the recent intensifying of anti-Chinese sentiment in Korea, especially among conservatives.

Table 1. The Number of Articles of the Chinese Diaspora

Newspapers Periods Dong-A Ilbo Hankyoreh
Period 1 (1990-1996) 72 53
Period 2 (1997-2015) 288 266
Period 3 (2016-2022) 29 55

2. Period 1: 1990 to 1996

According to Cha (2017a), during this period, Korea expected that the PRC could be transformed into an “in-group” that could cooperate with Korea in many ways, not an “out-group” enemy of the past. Therefore, the general perception toward the PRC and the Chinese diaspora in the first period was rooted in expectations for factors such as self-reliance, the reunification of Korea, and the economy (Cha, 2017b).

Based on this national perspective, during the first period, it was confirmed that Dong-A Ilbo’s view on the national background of the Chinese diaspora shifted from Taiwan as the ROC to China as the PRC. Dong-A Ilbo mainly reported on the potential power of the PRC and the usefulness of the Chinese diaspora while advocating for the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC led by the conservative administration. In this reporting process, Dong-A Ilbo homogenized the Chinese diaspora as a collective community and depicted them as a means for Korea. In addition, even in articles unrelated to people’s background or their origin, Dong-A Ilbo stigmatized them with the label “Chinese” and overlaid them with the image of perpetual foreigners.

On the other hand, Hankyoreh continued to appeal that Taiwan as the ROC was the national background of the Chinese diaspora in Korea during this period, inducing empathy from the audience. By writing articles focusing on interviews with individual overseas Chinese, they published the negative emotions that the Chinese diaspora was experiencing. To this end, Hankyoreh used various emotional words and phrases. In addition, Hankyoreh projected a paradigm of inter-Korean relations into the image of the Chinese diaspora in terms of divided nations by ideology.

3. Period 2: 1997 to 2015

The handover of Hong Kong, the Asian financial crisis in 1997, and the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 made Koreans more aware of the economic importance of the PRC. In other words, because the expansion of the Greater Chinese economy and the two financial crises became important opportunities for the PRC’s economic rise, in this period, Korea recognized the PRC as a “great power,” unlike in the early days of diplomatic relations (Cha, 2017b). In addition, the deepening of anti-U.S. sentiment in Korea around 2002 due to the Yangju highway incident also affected Koreans’ perception of the PRC as a substitute for the U.S. in this period, especially among liberal and progressive people. However, in the latter of this period, the perception of the PRC became more entangled with policies toward the U.S. and North Korea, and it began to be distinct ideologically (Cha, 2017a).

Based on this complex context, Dong-A Ilbo emphasized that the Chinese diaspora could be economically useful. They criticized discrimination against overseas Chinese by putting economic logic rather than ethical logic. It can be said that this reveals the instrumentalized image of the Chinese diaspora. However, towards the latter of this period, based on hostility toward North Korea and communism, Dong-A Ilbo portrayed the Chinese diaspora as an image refracted by the conservative-right ideology.

On the other hand, Hankyoreh continuously depicted the Chinese diaspora based on an understanding of inter-Korean relations. In addition, they began to intensively criticize discrimination against the Chinese diaspora in terms of ethics and human rights. However, they overemphasized only tragic cases, so Hankyoreh also showed limitations which described the Chinese diaspora as just passive others in need. As such, Hankyoreh also portrayed overseas Chinese as a collective people, but they attempted to look at overseas Chinese as individuals by introducing their food culture and history, various communities of overseas Chinese, and individual interviews.

4. Period 3: 2016 to 2022

Since the mid-2010s, under the pretext of the deployment of U.S. THAAD in Korea, the PRC has imposed massive economic retaliation against Korea and ordered a government ban on Korean culture (限韓令) throughout the country. This negatively affected general Koreans’ perception of national pride, sovereignty, and identification of friends or foes and served as a factor that worsened Koreans’ perspective on the PRC (Cha, 2017b). In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic and the controversy over cultural depredation, which started with the PRC’s claim that the origin of making kimchi and Korean traditional clothes hanbok can be found in China, deepened the anti-Chinese sentiment (McCurry, 2020). Eventually, as a result of a survey conducted by Hankook Research in 2021, Koreans’ affinity for the PRC was lower than for Japan and North Korea (O. S. Lee, 2021). Historically, it was the first survey that showed the Korean people’s hostility towards the PRC exceeded that towards Japan.

With such national anti-Chinese sentiment becoming strong, Dong-A Ilbo reduced the number of reports about the Chinese diaspora in the third period. Even if Dong-A Ilbo described it, the Chinese diaspora was negatively imaged by emphasizing the background of the PRC more than before. Through this, the image as the threat was highlighted rather than the image of a social minority.

On the other hand, Hankyoreh began to more vigorously criticize Korean society for discriminating against the Chinese diaspora. By directly listening to their own voices, Hankyoreh attempted to avoid the conventional image interpreted within the framework of the dominant perspective. In addition, by increasing cultural reports, they tried to avoid othering the Chinese diaspora and embrace them as an in-group by emphasizing their familiarity and proximity to Korean society. However, more or less othering descriptions were still unavoidable.


Throughout the three periods, Dong-A Ilbo and Hankyoreh’s interest in the Chinese diaspora gradually changed. The conservative Dong-A Ilbo showed relatively more interest in the Chinese diaspora during the first period, which is Korea-the PRC diplomatic relations led by the conservative administration, and during the second period of rising of the PRC. However, during the third period of the PRC-U.S. tensions to the present, when anti-Chinese sentiment among conservatives intensified, the number of articles on the Chinese diaspora was drastically reduced, pushing them back beyond the visual line of sight of the mainstream. On the other hand, Hankyoreh continued to increase its interest in the Chinese diaspora, showing more interest than Dong-A Ilbo from the third period until now. It seems to be reporting a larger number of articles on the Chinese diaspora in Korea for criticism and introspection of extreme anti-Chinese sentiment in Korean society. This is expected to help make the Chinese diaspora as a social minority group in Korea visible to mainstream society.

This research is meaningful in that it examined how Korea’s representative conservative and progressive media have represented the image of the Chinese diaspora in accordance with changes in Korean-China relations. Through this, the relationship between Korean society and the Chinese diaspora in Korea could be understood chronologically and ideologically. However, this research has several limitations. First, not all articles published during the whole period were analyzed. Selective analysis of the whole article inevitably involves the researcher’s subjectivity to some extent. In this regard, in future research on the same topic, it is necessary to increase the objectivity of the research results by selecting and researching articles with other coders and researchers.

Lastly, this research did not classify and quantitatively analyze what kind of form the articles took and who the news sources were. News articles might have different intentions and implications for the media to describe the target depending on the format and source of the news. Through this analysis, it is possible to better understand the forming and spreading process of discourse through the media. However, in this research, only the part analyzing the changes in the number of articles according to the periods might be able to be called quantitative to some extent. Therefore, future research should involve coding and classifying the format of articles and sources of news into several categories for in-depth analysis.


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