As confirmed cases of COVID-19 surge in South Korea, several Chinese local authorities are tightening measures against South Korean nationals by imposing an entry ban or forcibly quarantining them. Weihai in Shandong province and Nanjing in Jiangsu province isolated people who arrived from South Korea on Tuesday and Wednesday, while some South Koreans living in China have red signs on their doors that read “Sealed,” a forced quarantine that lasts 14 days.
In response to criticism, the Chinese ambassador to South Korea explained these measures were put in place not by the central government but by local governments. “The Chinese government has never taken any measure against South Korean nationals, and the measures imposed by local authorities apply to everyone as well as South Koreans,” the Chinese ambassador said.
However, this is nothing but a lame excuse that the Chinese government uses to avoid responsibility. An entry ban is a matter of sovereignty, which means it cannot be enforced without the approval of the central government. China’s one-party system under the Communist Party of China does not allow autonomy for local governments, and imposing an entry ban requires a level of consent. The Chinese government had also used the same excuse for the THAAD retaliation four years ago.
When the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak occurred, South Korea, public and private alike, provided humanitarian aid instead of banning Chinese people from entering the country unlike other numerous nations. However, China has banned entry for South Koreans as the infection spread quickly in the country. The South Korean government considers diplomacy and the economy as well as contamination when formulating a policy, but the Chinese government does not. On a phone call with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Wednesday, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said, “Controlling the movement is critical in containing the outbreak,” dismissing Kang’s request to not impose excessive measures against South Korean nationals. It is a reminder of the Chinese hegemony that only cares about what serves them best.
Nevertheless, a source from the South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said China’s measures were not taken by the central government while Minister Kang said, “The government cannot meddle in the decisions made by foreign countries.” They are sitting by and watching their people being ostracized in China. What is more important than protecting its people?
The South Korean government argues that it needs to consider trade relations with China, which seems to have a point, but it is a narrow view. Containing the spread of the highly infectious virus should be the foremost priority as it is directly linked to people’s lives. The government should be more stern and systematic in handling the issues related to the recent measures imposed by the Chinese government. Seoul’s lukewarm responses will only grow people’s widespread suspicion that the South Korean government cares too much about what the Chinese government thinks.