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Beijing’s Jeju boycott hits Chinese, too

Mar 16,2017
JEJU - For 45-year-old Chinese entrepreneur Wang, Jeju Island was the answer to her idea of a sprawling business. Hundreds of thousands of her countrymen were flocking to Korea’s southern resort island every year, showing absolutely no signs of ebbing. Coming from a country where an emerging middle class were looking abroad for new travel opportunities, Jeju Island seemed the perfect place to open her jewelry shop.

Wang, who wished to use an alias for this article, finally put that thought into action last year and managed to attract over 20 Chinese customers a day. Prospects were hopeful, until she heard the news that her government was upset about a U.S. missile shield Korea planned to deploy.

Never had she imagined that a military issue would swiftly escalate to strain diplomatic ties between the two countries. Even when China retaliated against Korea for agreeing to host the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system, fearing its radar could be used to spy on its airspace, the row was still at the back of her mind. That changed on March 2.

The Chinese government began handing down orders to travel agencies not to send their customers to Korea. The instructions, which were supposed to strangle Korea’s tourism industry, took a toll on Chinese nationals here in Jeju where thousands are trying to make a living, says Wang, who now has three to four customers a day.

“My Chinese colleagues working in Jeju shopping centers say each day feels like they’re walking on thin ice,” said Wang. “China’s decision is affecting its own citizens in Korea.”

A major travel agency catering to Chinese tourists said they were temporarily closed until May 1 due to the decision. They had no tour groups yesterday, when Beijing’s order went into effect. The rest of the month was also empty.

“It’s supposed to be peak season from March through August,” lamented a worker from the company. “We’ve practically lost our entire market.”

A Chinese tour guide, who requested anonymity in fear of reprisal from the Chinese government, said some of his friends had already gone back to China to search for other jobs. Among the 3,000 guides in Jeju who provide Chinese language services, 80 percent, or 2,400 people, are Chinese nationals, according to South Korean government statistics.

Jeju’s dining industry, which employs roughly one thousand Chinese workers, is also struggling. A Korean owner of a king crab restaurant said he used to serve up to 20 crabs a day last year, but now sells only two to three.

“I used to have eight Chinese workers in my restaurant,” said the owner, “but now I only have four.”

Lotte supermarkets in China are also falling victim to the decision, with at least 55 stores out of 99 temporarily closed so far over violations of safety regulations, and local experts now surmise that some 5,000 Chinese who work there could also lose their jobs. Lotte gave up a golf course in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang, for the Thaad site.

“It’s just really shortsighted of the Chinese government to impose retaliatory measures against Korea,” said Oh Sang-hoon, a tourism management professor at Jeju National University, “souring bilateral relations and, at the same time, failing to take into regard its own people.”

BY CHOI CHOONG-IL [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]