A Question of Trust. Why is China not as sexy as Korea? A Romanian perspective

The problem with China’s soft-power push is that, in Romania and some other CEE countries, it simply does not generate trust.

In spring 2018, a convenience store selling Korean and Japanese products opened in central Bucharest, behind one of the city museum’s buildings. The shop sells various foods produced in South Korea, including ramyeon, nori, frozen dumplings, spring rolls, kimchi, noodles, tofu, and even Korean ice cream. It also sells Korean cosmetics – from lipstick and eyeliner to aloe vera-based skin care from Jeju Island – and K-pop albums released by various artists, as well as memorabilia.

At the entrance, before picking up a shopping basket, the customer has to pass life-size cardboard effigies of the Bang Tan Boys/BTS, one of the most successful Korean boy bands. The shop is more than a minimarket; it is designed to resemble a convenience store in Seoul, South Korea. The shop also has a food court where customers can sit and enjoy a box of freshly prepared instant ramyeon while listening to K-pop songs. 

By the summer of 2019, the shop had become already a meeting point, a ‘third place’ for K-pop fans from Bucharest and travellers from other regions of Romania who were K-pop fans and had heard about the shop on vlogs, blogs and other social media groups dedicated to Korean popular culture. 

At the beginning of 2020, there were scores of Romanian language groups and pages on social media dedicated to Korean pop bands, idols, movies and movies stars, and blogs and vlogs with news on Korean music and dramas, as well as all things Korean, including food recipes, cosmetics and how they’re used. 

Several online shops opened delivering Korean food and cosmetics, while other online shops specialised exclusively in Korean cosmetics  or in K-pop band memorabilia and music albums which otherwise could not be found in the mainstream commercial outlets.

Pop culture is not only about fashion and music, but also about political ideas, freedoms or lack of them, experience, social and moral values that a group in a distant geographical location can choose, based on its local already-existing culture, to like, adhere to, trust, digest and internalise.

Moreover, several crowdsourced websites with Asian (but predominantly Korean) movies and dramas have acquired over 200,000 followers. Community members translate drama episodes into Romanian, in real time and for free, to support their passion for Korean actors and Korean culture. 

The popularity of the Korean Wave in Romania has also spotlighted other East Asian pop cultures, including Chinese. 

C-pop, just like K-pop, means billions of dollars: China has a self-sustaining entertainment industry. Chinese internet giant Tencent’s four music platforms – QQ Music, Kugou Music, Kuwo Music and WeSing – have a combined 800 million monthly users, compared to Spotify’s 207 million at the beginning of 2019 (Russell 2018). 

Moreover, Beijing has started to invest in foreign policy research, and is currently funding several doctoral programmes at British universities that have opened campuses in China in the past few years. The main focus of these programmes is to determine how audiences in the countries of the Belt and Road Initiative react to Chinese cinema and television and the political ideas included in the Chinese pop culture project. 

C-pop has not generated the same type of soft power effect as Korean pop culture – at least not yet. According to some insiders, this is because Beijing has not yet been that interested in promoting its entertainment products outside the East and South-East Asian region, where they are already a hit (Kelley 2019). 

However in the rest of the world, where Korean popular culture is gaining ground and is able to influence foreign societies by creating a largely positive and desirable image of Korea, markets with Chinese noodles and dumplings are not becoming third places for groups of C-pop fans to put on Chinese make-up, sing Chinese pop songs and eat Chinese noodles. 

Nor do C-pop and C-drama fans gather in ‘We love China’ cultural groups to spread Chinese culture and language. Cultural activities like these have been directly backed by the Chinese state through its Confucius Institutes, but they have not won the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world. Neither have they won the hearts and minds of C-pop fans in Romania. 

So why does China have a hard time generating soft power in countries like Romania?

Soft is the new strong

In sociology, it was Pierre Bourdieu who first spoke of symbolic power, which finds its expression in cultural practices and forms which sustain unequal distribution of scarce resources (Swartz 2013). In Bourdieu’s view, power is not only a matter that should concern the political domain, but it is also linked to culture and economics, and it is present in all human relations; symbolic forms of power, capital, and violence sustain social hierarchies.

But in the case of states in the international system, the same symbolic forms of power, capital and violence, form political hierarchies. Bourdieu’s work was largely focused on the idea of the state as a holder of symbolic power on the domestic level. However, looking at the international system at any point in time, despite its de jure anarchic character, the symbolic power and capital of various states and non-state actors play a role in the de facto international hierarchic system that David A. Lake speaks of in Hierarchy in International Relations (Lake 2009). He argues that the world is made of patron/client bargained relations between dominant states that provide security or know-how and subordinate states in exchange for support or compliance.

In a decentralised world where it is increasingly easy for information to travel, the relations between states rest less on coercion and more on attraction, common values and popular culture – on soft power, rather than hard power, as American political scientist Joseph Nye, Jr. argued in his book Bound to Lead (1991), a critique of realism in international relations. 

Later he developed a theory of soft power as a means of success in international relations in a changing world where attractiveness gradually becomes more important than coercion (2004). 

According to Nye, states do not only resort to military or coercive diplomacy to exert influence or dominate other states and international institutions, but they can also ‘charm’ them into supporting certain policies or actions at the international level, or simply in order to pacify them. 

His theory is based largely on the United States and its influence over numerous states at a time of liberalism when coercion had become frowned upon in international relations (Nye 2011). 

Nye argued at the time that pop culture in itself is not necessarily soft power; soft power, he says, rests on a country’s culture, the legitimacy of its foreign policy and political values. The more its values are universal and globally shared, and its domestic policies in tune with the global trend, the greater the country’s potential (Nye 2004, p. 11). The more parochial a culture (including its political ideas and social rules), the less potential it has for soft power, even if its cultural goods are well received outside its borders. 

South Korean political scientist Lee Geun (2009) realised that his own country was being cited more and more as a model of soft power at the dawn of the 21st century, and developed a theoretical framework based on Nye’s concept. 

Lee makes the actual connection between soft power resources and the power conversion mechanism, and insists on the power of ideas, but also on the fact that soft power is more than just public diplomacy, development aid and planned cultural exchanges (Lee 2009, p. 207): it is also about changing the thinking framework of a recipient community and/or society. 

Soft resources, which he defines as ideas, images, theories, know how, education, culture, traditions or national and global symbols, are applied to a recipient in order to change their behaviour. But they only produce soft power when the attractiveness or fear they produce on a short term becomes ‘common sense’ in the recipient group/community/society, changes the way of thinking and the interpretative frameworks, and produces long-term effects. 

And, based on tens of interviews of consumers of Korean and Chinese pop culture, I argue that the key in whether pop culture becomes soft power or does not is trust.

The K in soft power 

In Korea’s case, the K is in everything that makes up the ‘Korean Wave’ – K-pop, K-drama, K-beauty, all of which are anchored in Korea. 

K-pop has been mentioned by various political scientists as a manifestation of soft power (Watson 2012) (Kim & Hogarth 2013). The association of terms is well enough established in the literature, and has grown to be a model for other East Asian countries, including China and Japan.

The penetration of Korean pop culture, especially K-pop and K-dramas, began with the East Asian markets in the late 1990s, right after the Asian Financial Crisis when the Korean economy was in shambles and the export of popular culture seemed a resource that needed to be exploited (Iwabuchi & Chua 2008). 

The rise of the ‘Korean Wave’ in the new millennium happened because of governmental and corporate support (Doobo 2008). The wave started in 1994 with government support for the domestic cinema production as a national strategic industry as an effect of the liberalisation of the media markets in East Asia and the success of US made cinema. Due to the tax incentive, the investments of chaebols (Korean business conglomerates) facilitated processes of capital accumulation in the media sector, but also attracted many talented human resources. 

The political ideas that Romanian K-drama and K-pop fans spread most when they speak of Korea are that the country is seen as a democracy, which shares freedom of speech and transparency, two values that are globally cherished and are also shared by Romanian society. It is a question of trust. 

At the same time, after the 1990s financial crisis, when Korea’s economy took a big hit and it prioritised its media industry, other East Asian countries also liberalised their media markets, making it easy for the Korean blockbusters to sell abroad and become a regional phenomenon.

By 2006, Korean media products were becoming widely consumed in East and South-East Asia and started to spread across the world (Chua and Iwabuchi 2008), creating a mass of fans that not only shared the consumption of Korean media products, but also the love for South Korea as a country.

In some cases, K-culture fans become political agents promoting South Korean nationalist ideas in their own home societies, spreading knowledge and normalising the ideas spread through K-culture. 

Irina Lyan (2019) points out that non-Korean Hallyu fans in Israel, for instance, often become the voices of South Korean nationalism. By looking at who participates in and what happens in events organised on Korea Day during 2000-2010, she found that it was the local non-Korean fans that celebrated the state’s national day and spread the culture, and took on the roles of experts and educators, and even of cultural ambassadors.

She calls the phenomenon fan-nationalism: fans are mobilised by the idea of promoting a positive image of Korea in their home societies.

I have found that this happens to some extent in Romania too. 

The experience on the demand side 

What exactly makes certain groups in a distant society be attracted to a popular culture like that of South Korea; and following Lee’s theory, how does this attractiveness become soft power?

This can only be achieved by looking at culture through the lens proposed by Richard Hoggart (1957), which includes not only music, entertainment and the arts in general, but also political ideas and social behaviours which, in an age of information, can become part of pop culture. 

Pop culture is not only about fashion and music, but also about political ideas, freedoms or lack of them, experience, social and moral values that a group in a distant geographical location can choose, based on its local already-existing culture, to like, adhere to, trust, digest and internalise. 

When discussing this process of transforming pop culture into soft power, it is also imperative to not only look at states, but also at the level of the individual and their immediate surroundings and social relations. 

The body is central to post-modern geopolitics

The human body is the first territory conquered by soft power, if you look at the matter from Foucault’s perspective. At about the same time Joseph Nye came up with the idea of soft power in international relations, Michel Foucault (1990) established a theory of biopower, as opposed to the idea of sovereign power, or the power over death which ruled over society until the French Revolution.

If sovereign power was exercised by states whose ultimate expression of power was the monopoly of capital force, then biopower in fact means power over life through regulatory controls which result in the biopolitics of the population. Foucault looks at the human being – le vivant – from the relationship between the body and the surrounding tools, spaces constraining and enabling physical or mental movements. The object of the power relationship becomes the living, due to mutations in social relations in modern times. 

However, Foucault believes that the state no longer needs to be an oppressive or coercive factor on living bodies, but can also charm them into submission.

Our bodies, all of us, are, therefore, central to post-modern geopolitics. Following Foucault’s idea, the body becomes a consenting object of soft power, remaining central to the new paradigm of geopolitics. 

Falling in love with a foreign country, at the individual level, becomes a manifestation of geopolitical power when the individual starts acting as a political agent in the interest of a foreign state by replicating political ideas and social norms in their home society. 

A five-stage apprenticeship – from Netflix to political embodiment

For most of the respondents interviewed, the journey starts with one K-drama they either found by accident on Netflix or another streaming service, or they get referred to by a friend who is already a consumer and acts like an expert in ‘Korean affairs’. They like one of the actors starring in the drama, they look for more information about the celebrity in the media and also on social media, and look for other dramas he/she starred in. 

Phase 1: ‘Alice in Wonderland’

“I really want to understand more what is actually happening to me. I started to watch a couple of weeks ago and I am already hooked. I simply think about it all day and want to escape in that world, which is super-colourful, with insanely beautiful people and where everything ends happily,” one of the interviewees explained.

Phase 2: Networking

When asked, fans said that most of their knowledge of South Korea comes from the dramas themselves and, although they are aware that reality might not be the same, they are still tempted by the Korean dream and want to be transported into that fantasy world. Many K-drama fans look for other fans on social media, join groups on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, and they also join international communities.

Phase 3: Internalising the new culture

Fan group members also start using words they hear in movies when they speak to each other, or make up inside jokes with references to both the Romanian culture they have learned and embodied since childhood and the Korean popular culture they see in dramas. 

They call each other jeonha (‘majesty’ in Korean) the way they learned from historical dramas, or they say sarang-hae instead of ‘I love you’ to each other. 

They dress like K-drama characters, they order and wear Korean cosmetics, put on make-up the Korean way, they cook Korean food. 

The imitation can also go as far as making gestures considered polite in Korea, but adapting them to Romanian society. The culture they see and absorb from dramas becomes embodied in the way they relate to other people in their own society.

The K-culture consumed and metabolised from K-drama also impacts their physical and social bodies, as well as material culture: they bow to people when they say hello, or use both hands to offer an object, as is polite in Korean culture. 

Last but not least, the demand for Korean language classes has increased dramatically during the past ten years in Romania: Korean-language programmes in universities are receiving higher numbers of applicants, and some private universities have set up Korean-language classes with native teachers, regularly host Korean professors as guest lecturers, and send more students on exchange programmes to Korea. 

Phase 4: Experts on all things Korea

The first result of this embodied hybrid Korean popular culture in groups of fans in Romania is that they become agents who spread Korean cultural and social ideas, values, and become experts in everything Korean. 

While going through their lists of favourite actors, many of the fans interviewed (mostly women) became interested in Korean history and researched the characters portrayed by the favourite actors, read English-language Korean media and started looking for more in-depth information about government and society in the country. 

Romanian K-pop and K-drama consumers, especially if they visit Korea for a vacation or have studied for a few months in Korea, act like experts on Korean society and often explain it to friends. Several conversations I have had with K-drama and K-pop fans have turned into long hours of explainers on what Korean popular culture is about, social pressures in Korea, gender issues, expat issues, as well as the way the Korean government handled the coronavirus pandemic without imposing restrictions, as well as how the society reacts to corruption, the culture of protesting for labour rights, and the political class. 

However, when members of the Romanian fan base act like experts, it is the political ideas contained in the Korean popular culture that they first express about Korea and spread among friends and Romanian society in general, rather than their preferences in terms of music or dramas. 

Phase 5: Economic and political entrepreneurship 

After the K-drama and K-apprenticeship phase, some K-culture fans become Korea fans and seek to boost their link to Korea more than simply by reading and expressing their expertise and views and comparing their home society to that of Korea. 

Some become K-entrepreneurs: they establish businesses that sell Korean products (mostly food and cosmetics). Others become social and/or political entrepreneurs. 

Most countries use cultural diplomacy as a tool to spread their culture and their political messages to other states, but most of the cultural institutes are usually funded by governments, and are managed by their ministries of Foreign Affairs. South Korea does not need to advertise its cultural activities in Romania too much. 

The association that serves as a Korean cultural institute is founded and operated by Romanians who act as local cultural ambassadors: they organise cultural events such as Korean movie festivals (twice a year) with some backing from the Korean embassy, run stands at Asian cultural festivals around the year, offer Korean language classes and organise Korean speech contests or karaoke contests for K-pop fans. They also participate in events organised by the Korean embassy in Bucharest on various occasions, including Korea Day. They also publish a magazine about all things Korean. 

These activities, together with a number of personal blogs and the social media presence of many ‘experts in all things Korea’, promote and generalise the idea that South Korea is a “cool and interesting country”.

However, there is a catch. Not just any country with a huge entertainment industry can follow in South Korea’s steps. 

So why is China not that attractive? 

It is not really attractive to Romanians in particular; and it is indeed about the political culture that Beijing infuses its media content with – which it does too obviously for this particular audience. 

Most K-culture fans I interviewed and observed during months of research consumed both Chinese and Korean pop culture. However, in the case of most Chinese productions, they say they feel the intervention of the state-driven political propaganda and the government’s grip on social relations, as well as individual freedoms. 

The political ideas that Romanian K-drama and K-pop fans spread most when they speak of Korea are that the country is seen as a democracy, which shares freedom of speech and transparency, two values that are globally cherished and are also shared by Romanian society. It is a question of trust. 

“The fact that I know that China is not a democracy, and I know how people live in a Communist country, because we lived through that before 1989 in Romania makes me distrust Chinese movies to a certain extent,” one fan bluntly put it. 

Young K-pop fans explained that they felt that in the Chinese media they consumed there was a certain amount of Communist propaganda, conservatism and censorship which they defined as ‘a certain degree of fake’. They said that Korean products were closer to Western culture and they could identify more with them, especially because they did not feel there was any political infringement of individual liberty. 

They shared the idea that South Korean pop bands, despite the fact that they knew the artists are subjected to a strict regimen that is sometimes abusive, were not submitted to censorship by an explicit political actor (i.e. a government institution). “In the Chinese dramas, however cool the topics are, you just see people acting really awkward and naïve. Koreans are simply more genuine,” a 17-year-old respondent said.

The problem with China’s soft-power push is that, in Romania and some other Central and Eastern European countries, it simply does not generate trust. 

Most Chinese period dramas portray a mythical Chinese society, with fantastic heroes and well-designed costumes, Taoist cultivators of immortality, or historical heroes that conquer kingdoms. However, when in the middle of an episode of a drama about demi-gods and fairies such as Ashes of Love, one peripheral character says, “Don’t trust the fairies, they are as unreliable as Hong Kong”, an eastern European audience may not see it as a very good joke, but as a clear sign of state censorship. 

Western European consumers of Chinese movies, novels, videogames are more inclined to absorb the idea of mythical historical China as a great civilisation, and more readily dismiss the topics of authoritarianism, Communism and China’s human rights problems.

Western European interviewees who consume Chinese pop culture and who absorb cultural ideas much more quickly become fans of Taoism, and they begin to study the language and history – which also creates a more fertile ground for receiving political ideas and norms. In some Western societies the mythical representation of China as the world’s greatest civilisation in pop-culture (movies, music, web novels, animation, or video games) is a niche hobby which is more successfully accepted by the youth. 

As opposed to Eastern European consumers of mainland Chinese popular culture, Western European consumers of Chinese movies, novels, videogames are more inclined to absorb the idea of mythical historical China as a great civilisation, and more readily dismiss the topics of authoritarianism, Communism and China’s human rights problems.

But in the former Communist bloc, consumers of pop culture are already skilled at detecting state pressure on media and individual freedoms and can smell government enforced censorship from afar. In societies like Romania it is difficult for China to rely on its charm based on an image constructed on the idea of its mythical civilisation, because the trauma of having survived Communist rule is greater than the fascination for cosmeticised Chinese cultural products. The C-culture consumers who also admire the Chinese political model are a tiny minority in comparison with the K-pop and K-drama ‘armies’. 


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard University Press.

Chua, Beng Huat, and Koichi Iwabuchi. 2008. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. 

Doobo, Shim. 2008. ‘The Growth of Korean Cultural Industries and the Korean Wave’ in East Asian Pop Culture: Analyzing the Korean Wave, by Chua Beng Huat and Koich Iwabuchi, 15-31. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. History of Sexuality. New York : Random House

Hoggart, Richard. 1957. The uses of literacy. Transaction publishers.

Holyk, Gregory G. 2013. ‘Paper Tiger? Chinese Soft Power in East Asia’, Political Science Quarterly 223- 254.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. 2010. ‘Globalization, East Asian media cultures and their publics.” Asian Journal of Communication 197-212.

Iwabuchi, Koichi, and Chua Beng Huat. 2008. “East Asian TV Dramas: Identifications, Sentiments and Effects.” In East Asian Pop Culture: Analyzing the Korean Wave, by Chua Beng Huat & Koichi Iwabuchi ed., 1-13. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Nye, Joseph Jr. 2004. Power in the Global Information Age: From Realism to Globalization. New York: Routledge.

Kim. 2016. “Korea’s Cultural Juggernaut is a Soft-Power Strategy Worth Copying’, National Interest, 14 August.

Kuwahara, Yasue. 2014. The Korean Wave. Korean Popular Culture in Global Context. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 

Lake, David A. 2009. Hierarchy and International Relations. Cornell University Press. 

Lee, Geun. 2009. ‘A theory of soft power and Korea’s soft power strategy’, The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 205-2018.

Lyan, Irina. 2019. ‘Welcome to Korea Day’, International Journal of Communication 3764–3780. 

Lyan, Irina, and Nissim Otmazgin. 2019. ‘Fan entrepreneurship. Fandom, Agency, and the Marketing of Hallyu in Israel’, Kritika Kultura 289–307.

Nye, Joseph Jr. 1991. Bound To Lead: The Changing Nature Of American Power. New York: Ingram Publisher Services. 

Nye, Joseph. 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs.Swartz, David L. 2013. Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals: The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.