Biden-BTS summit fuels hope
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Biden-BTS summit fuels hope

Perhaps Joe Biden's pursuit to engage more with Asia has just started. Just days after a trip to South Korea and Japan late last month, his first visit to Asia as US president, the 79-year-old leader followed up with a message that touched the hearts of millions of Asians, particularly those living in his country.

Last Tuesday, young fans filled the streets outside the White House as the K-Pop superstars BTS sat down with Mr Biden in the Oval Office. Looking dapper in matching black suits, the band members joined the president to discuss the hard topic of the recent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes and their role "to be a little help" in raising awareness.

"A lot of our Asian American friends have been subject to real discrimination," Mr Biden said. "Hate only hides. When good people talk about it, and say how bad it is, it goes down. So, thank you."

His guests thanked the president for signing the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act into law.

"People care a lot about what you say, and what you're doing is good for all people," the president responded. "It's not just your great talent, it's the message you're communicating. It matters."

The meeting coincided with Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which ended on Tuesday. The White House livestream, not normally known for attracting large midafternoon audiences, attracted 230,000 viewers before the event even began.

"We were devastated by the recent surge of hate crimes, including Asian American hate crimes," band member Jimin said in Korean. "To put a stop to this and support the cause, we'd like to take this opportunity to voice our views once again."

"It is not wrong to be different. I think equality begins when we open up and embrace all of our differences," added his colleague Suga.

Since the advent of the Covid outbreak, hate crimes against Asians have been on the rise. Former president Donald Trump's repeated comments blaming China for the pandemic hardly helped. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, crimes against Asian Americans jumped by more than 300% last year.

Mr Biden has blasted his predecessor for using terms like the "China virus" to refer to Covid. "It's the coronavirus. Full stop," he said in March 2021 after a shooter targeted Asians, and in particular Asian women, at spas outside of Atlanta.

Hate crime investigations are now under way into two incidents last month: a shooting at a Taiwanese church in southern California that killed one and injured five, and a shooting at a Dallas salon that wounded three women of Asian descent.

BTS has been known for using their lyrics and social campaigns to empower youngsters since making their debut in 2013. Their fan base, which extends into an older demographic, wields huge social and economic clout via social media.

In June 2020, BTS fans raised about US$1 million in one day in the #MatchAMillion campaign for US social justice causes, matching the band's donation to Black Lives Matter.

Last year, BTS tweeted a statement condemning anti-Asian hate after the Atlanta attacks left eight women dead, six of them of Asian descent. They also reflected on their own experiences facing discrimination.

"We have endured expletives without reason and were mocked for the way we look," they said in a statement. "We were even asked why Asians spoke in English. … What is happening right now cannot be dissociated from our identity as Asians."

The White House said one goal of the Biden-BTS summit was to "discuss the importance of diversity and inclusion and the band's platform as youth ambassadors who spread a message of hope and positivity across the world".

Though much of the response to the BTS visit was positive, there were some outliers. Among them, not surprisingly, was Tucker Carlson, the Fox News commentator, who said the Biden administration was "trying to degrade" the US by welcoming the K-pop phenomenon. After the comments, BTS fans, who call themselves the ARMY, began to bombard Mr Carlson's Twitter account.

Of course, people like Mr Carlson are everywhere and what we have to do is recognise and embrace differences, including different opinions. Besides their iconic performances, soft power champions like BTS can do more than "advertising" their culture by spreading messages that help to eliminate hate and crimes all over the world.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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