The dust from the last K-pop controversy had barely settled when the wildly popular girl group Blackpink was dragged into the spotlight for the wrong reason — again.
The cause of the furor? A baby panda named Fu Bao.
Fu Bao’s name means “lucky treasure,” but the 3-month-old giant panda cub — the first to be born in South Korea — had the opposite effect when the members of the group were filmed cuddling him in a video clip teaser on Nov. 5 for an upcoming episode of their online reality show, “24/365 With Blackpink.”
The seemingly innocuous cuddling of a baby panda at a zoo near Seoul has drawn a sustained flurry of criticism from Chinese internet users who accused the band of putting a “national treasure” at risk. Only trained professionals, who generally wear gloves, masks and other protective gear, are allowed to handle the animals, which are classified as a vulnerable group, according to wildlife organizations.
One Chinese newspaper accused the band of putting the cub in harm’s way because of “a risk of transmitting zoonotic infections as some of the members own pet dogs and cats.”
Commentators on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, were even aghast that members of the band were wearing makeup while touching Fu Bao and did not wear gloves when touching the snout of an adult panda, which some news outlets said was the cub’s mother.
“They didn’t explain why they touched the baby panda with heavy makeup!” one user wrote.
The hashtag “Korean artists wrongly handled panda cubs” has been viewed millions of times and received tens of thousands of comments.
Blackpink quickly removed the video from its YouTube channel and said in a statement that the band would delay the release of the next episode of its online show. The group noted that all members had worn gloves, masks and protective clothing when handling the panda cub.
The occasional eruptions of outrage against perceived flubs by K-pop stars tend to involve not only K-pop fandom — an army of fiercely loyal followers who have sometimes turned to political activism — but also internet users in China, who are fiercely protective of the nation’s image and history.
Last month, Blackpink — Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé and Lisa (real names Ji-soo Kim, Jennie Kim, Roseanne Park and Lalisa Manoban) — swiftly re-edited a music video after one member was shown wearing a nurse’s costume and high heels, drawing criticism that the band was sexualizing the profession, according to local news reports. And in July, the group faced a backlash from Indian fans after including an image of the Hindu god Ganesha in a music video. That scene, too, was quickly excised.
The boy band BTS was excoriated by Chinese social media users last month for not recognizing the sacrifices of Chinese soldiers who fought on the side of North Korea during the Korean War, while honoring the shared suffering of Americans and Koreans. Some K-pop fans were befuddled about why a South Korean band would acknowledge members of an army that fought on the opposing side.
In the case of Fu Bao, commentators were quick to point out the fact that the baby panda was the offspring of two giant pandas lent to South Korea by China in 2016 as part of a global “panda diplomacy,” which the country uses to strengthen diplomatic ties. China retains ownership of the pandas, even those born overseas.
“I like Blackpink, but pandas are our national treasure,” one Weibo user wrote. “In South Korea they were tortured like this, not properly raised. Please send them back.”
Others on Twitter were incredulous that the group’s interaction with the animals could raise such a fuss. “Never thought I would live to see the day people will get mad at Blackpink interacting with pandas,” one person commented.
The situation escalated when the China Wildlife Conservation Association announced that it had formally written to the Everland Zoo, where the pandas are on loan, requesting that it “immediately stop allowing nonprofessionals to have contact with panda cubs.”
The association said the zoo had “violated the professional requirements for the protection of giant pandas by organizing performance-related personnel to have close contact with giant panda cubs and producing entertainment programs.”
For K-pop bands, the cycle of controversy has become par for the course and does not seem to dent their bottom lines or disturb the groups’ fan base.
After Chinese news outlets published critical articles about BTS and a flurry of multinational companies including Samsung, Fila and Hyundai distanced themselves or scrubbed the group from their Chinese marketing, BTS never publicly responded.
A few days later, some of the articles were quietly removed online.
In October, BTS’s management company, Big Hit Entertainment, raised more than $800 million in South Korea’s largest initial public offering since 2017.
And the K-pop beat goes on.