Caught Between Two Countries11 min read

Northeastern China’s ethnic Korean minority – Eduardo Baptista


“South Koreans treat us like foreigners … worse, they treat us like dogs!” shouted Li Zhangyan, a retired 67-year old chaoxianzu, as ethnic Koreans are called in Chinese. He and  his friends had drunk a few too many bottles of soybean wine, making them welcoming to my presence, but also easily riled up.

Li has worked in total for over a decade in different cities around South Korea, taking advantage of the higher salaries compared to his home in Yanbian, China’s ethnic Korean prefecture.

“There isn’t one of us,” he pointed at himself and his two friends, also retired, “who hasn’t bought a couple of houses here in Yanbian. We made all this money but South Koreans still look down on us!”

We were sitting inside a restaurant in Yanji, the county seat of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Located in the northeastern province of Jilin and bordering North Korea, Yanbian is officially designated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the home of China’s chaoxianzu, who number over 2.3 million.

China has been inhabited by Koreans since the Ming dynasty, but the most important migration occurred during the 1860s and 1870s, when natural disasters in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and peasant uprisings in the south led tens of thousands of Koreans to move into Northeast China. Much of the land these Koreans moved into was, if not uninhabited, then uncultivated. The Korean migrants set about diligently building rice paddies in their new environs, with such success that many Chinese Han started recruiting Koreans for their own paddy field projects. The extent of the Koreans’ expertise in this crucial area of production was such that by 1934, Korean farmers produced over 90% of Northeast China’s rice output, even though they only constituted 3% of the population in the region.

From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, the population of Korean migrants was so large that the Qing government had to find ways to integrate them into China. The empire began to grant land ownership to the chaoxianzu in exchange for wearing the queue.

In 1910, the Japan-Korea Treaty formalized Korea’s annexation to the Meiji empire. By this point, many Koreans, sensing what was to come under Japanese rule, fled to Northeast China. This wave of migration brought with it a strengthening of Korean national identity, as many Korean independent activists and independence organizations established their base in Northeast China.

Bilingual street signs in Yanji. (Eduardo Baptista)

Yanbian’s fast transformation into a haven for Korea’s staunchest patriots no doubt made it difficult for Chinese organizations to naturalize or integrate the chaoxianzu. The Fengtian clique, a Chinese warlord-led army that sometimes cooperated with the Japanese, failed to persuade Koreans living in Northeast China to become naturalized citizens of China. There were also some Koreans who were hired by the Japanese government to make rice paddies on land Japan had bought or taken over.

While many chaoxianzu were suspicious of Han assimilation, they were also fiercely anti-Japanese, especially after the Meiji annexation of Korea. During the 1920s and 30s, the CCP’s staunch anti-Japanese stance, along with its conciliatory approach towards the chaoxianzu, led thousands of ethnic Koreans to join the Red Army. After World War II, Kuomintang forces in the Northeast made the mistake of treating chaoxianzu farmers like the defeated Japanese, expropriating their property, which only bolstered the chaoxianzu ranks within the Red Army as it entered the Second Chinese Civil War (1946-1949).

The chaoxianzu’s cooperation with the CCP earned them an equal slice of the land allocation process that the CCP began implementing in 1946. They also gained official recognition in 1949 as one of the Republic’s first ten ethnic minorities (today numbering 55 officially recognized groups, in addition to the Han majority).

During the Korean War in the early 1950s, bilingual chaoxianzu soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army served as messengers and translators, while those who stayed home in Yanbian organized a donation campaign known as the “Yanji Jet campaign,” amassing enough funds for six fighter jets.

Such a shared historical legacy explains why concerns about the appearance of Korean irredentism in Yanbian have seldom, if ever, been a matter of discussion in Beijing, a stark contrast to the CCP’s approach to Xinjiang and Tibet. In 1994, the State Council deemed the chaoxianzu so well-behaved that they awarded Yanbian the title of “model autonomous prefecture,” an award that Yanbian would go on to win four more times.

Yanji is distinguished by the bilingual signs, just as one finds in China’s other autonomous regions and prefectures. While the THAAD-induced boycott on South Korean culture has  only recently let up, elements of South Korean culture can be found all over Yanji. My ears pricked up upon hearing the deep, warbling voice of a mourning woman singing in an up-beat tempo; it was a female cover of the classic “What About My Age” by Oh Seung-Geun, the kind of song that older generations of South Koreans appreciate. The music was being blasted out of a loudspeaker installed on the shopfront of a WOORIMart, a chain of South Korean convenience stores that’s also popular in Yanji. Meanwhile, bilingual CCP propaganda abounds across the city’s university campuses and downtown avenues.

For the city’s chaoxianzu population, however, the allure of the South Korean economy, combined with the pressure of assimilation into a Han-dominated society, has turned this biculturality into a particularly sharp double-edged sword.

Bus station poster in downtown Yanji. It reads, “become a civilized inhabitant of Yanji, build a city bearing the nation’s civilization.” (Eduardo Baptista)

On the one hand, many ethnic Koreans have benefited immensely from being naturally bilingual. This has allowed them to find employment in South Korea, do business with both halves of the Korean Peninsula, and boost their competitiveness within the domestic and international job market.

“There is no denying, us Yanbian chaoxianzu owe a lot to South Korea,” Li Zhangyan observed. “Without such a country for us to go to, we wouldn’t be living so comfortably now.”

“My daughter is studying abroad in Australia right now. She tells me her friends are all jealous that she is such a natural polyglot,” boasted Jin Xuanjing, a 40-year old chaoxianzu woman who runs an AirBnB business in Yanji.

Like many chaoxianzu households after Reform and Opening, Jin’s family left Yanbian for the booming coastal areas in southern China. Having returned to Yanji after her twenties, her Korean is only rudimentary. Eager to show me the bilingual abilities of young ethnic Koreans, she called over her 15-year old nephew, Jin Chunlai, who explained to me that he and his friends often mix Korean and Chinese in their daily speech. If they want to hail a cab, for example, they’ll say Oori chuzuche taja (우리 出租车 타자), plunking the Mandarin word for taxi into a Korean sentence.

This biculturality has also created its fair share of problems for the chaoxianzu, whose population in South Korea was calculated in 2013 by the Korean Statistical Information Service to be 329,835, making it by far the largest immigrant nationality in the country.

Despite the ease with which they can access employment in South Korea, their lived experience there has made it clear to them that they are not regarded as long-lost brethren by the South Korean people, but rather, as second-class citizens.

Like many other foreign migrants, chaoxianzu have to be qualified as “highly skilled” in order to receive the F-4 visa that many other foreigners of Korean descent can obtain by simply proving their identity. Even so, there are numerous accounts of a disproportionate income gap between chaoxianzu and South Koreans doing the same work.

Perhaps because there are many more Chaoxianzu workers than people of other nationalities, negative perceptions are widespread. South Korean films often portray ethnic Koreans as either criminals or imbeciles. In 2015, six out of ten South Koreans in their twenties and thirties viewed Chaoxianzu as poor, badly mannered people to be on the guard against, according to the Korea Research Center.

“South Koreans think China is a country with millions of starving, poor wretches. That’s basically why we get treated so poorly there,” said Li Zhangyan, whose testimony aligns with accounts from non-chaoxianzu Chinese that have experienced discrimination in South Korea.

The majority of chaoxianzu identify as Chinese, not Korean. “While South Korea has all but entirely surpassed North Korea in the minds of younger Chinese Koreans, the connection with South Korea itself is a tenuous one driven by little more than a weak cultural affinity and a functional relationship,” write Steve Denney and Christopher Green in The Diplomat. Chaoxianzu go to South Korea to get jobs, or to have a real taste of the K-pop culture they have consumed on their phones. The discrimination that many of the experience in South Korea often leads to disillusionment and a stronger identification with China.  

The CCP’s core values, written in Chinese and Korean, are displayed on banners all over the Yanbian University campus. (Eduardo Baptista)

Yanbian’s chaoxianzu are also facing issues that contradict the CCP’s depiction of this prefecture as a “model” to follow. During the five days I spent in Yanbian interviewing as many chaoxianzu as I could find, it was obvious that many avoided criticizing the government, answering sensitive questions with the usual “life is good,” like many Uyghurs might in Xinjiang. There was, nevertheless, one exception.

“It’s not that South Korean TV is particularly entertaining, but it’s better than all this propaganda on Chinese TV,” said 51-year-old Piao Zhenghuan, who often watches hit South Korean reality TV show Running Man in his shop when business is slow.

Piao was by far the most talkative and open-minded person I had interviewed on this trip. He plans to leave China in a few years, Europe being his preferred destination to spend his retirement. He has never lived in South Korea, and does not regret it.

“Whenever South Korean media talks about us, it’s always the ‘Great’ Republic of Korea first, us overseas Koreans second, which is ridiculous. Such a small country always talking about how ‘great’ they are, it’s pathetic, really,” said Piao. The South Korean government operates on the theory that all overseas Koreans unconditionally yearn to return to South Korea.

Chaoxianzu who have spent a lot of time in South Korea come back different, more selfish and competitive. They seem to always be bragging about their wealth but they’re the last ones to offer a helping hand when it’s needed,” claims Piao, who notes a decline in the bonds of community between Yanji’s chaoxianzu over the past two decades.

But he also attributes this to the failures of the Chinese government to provide funding for chaoxianzu schools, which has led to a steady decline of their fluency in Korean. The other side of the linguistic coin is the concern that learning Korean has negative effect on their children’s chances of succeeding in the gaokao, China’s university entrance examination, the single most important determinant of every Chinese citizens’ career prospects.

Piao points out that while most ethnic minorities in China receive bonus points on the gaokao to compensate for the lack of educational resources they in comparison to the Han majority, some ethnicities get more points than others. Because the chaoxianzu’s average economic status is higher than that of most other ethnicities, they receive the lowest number of bonus points, between five to 15. In contrast, Uyghurs can get up to 100 bonus points.

Piao’s concerns are supported by statistics. According to the scholarly website Sino NK, there has been a drastic decline in the number of ethnic Korean schools in Yanbian since the beginning of the 1990s. In 1990, Yanbian was home to over 1,000 Korean elementary schools; by 2009, this number was down to 31. The same  trend was observed among middle and high schools. Overall, the preservation of Korean language and culture in Yanbian is in serious danger as the chaoxianzu millenials are on average much more sinicized than their parents.

“And you know what the saddest thing is? The decision of the parents, as damaging as it is to the kid’s Korean, often pays off. I’ve met a few of the young Yanji Koreans who got into universities like Tsinghua and Beida,” the top two universities in China. Their efforts no doubt deserve praise but when talking to to them, all I could think about was: Why is your Korean so bad? What have you been doing for the past 18 years?

Piao’s disappointment highlights the way many chaoxianzu become caught in the middle of their Chinese and Korean identities. The CCP’s celebration of China as a multi-ethnic country in museums and propaganda slogans hides the fact that there are too many societal incentives pushing ethnic minorities such as the chaoxianzu away from their own culture and towards that of the Han majority. But as Piao and many others observed, intermarriage between joseonjok and Han Chinese remains a rarity, which only accentuates the erosion of the chaoxianzu connection to Korean culture.

“We’re landless Koreans,” Piao concluded. “The Korean Peninsula has left us behind. But now, it feels like Yanbian is also leaving us behind.” ∎


All photos by the author.