Chinese travellers outraged after being identified with yellow badges at South Korean airport

Chinese citizens took photos of these yellow badges given to them upon arrival at the Incheon Airport in early January.
Chinese citizens took photos of these yellow badges given to them upon arrival at the Incheon Airport in early January. © Weibo @shazhouyue / Video Sina

Images showing Chinese tourists wearing yellow badges around their necks as they arrive in South Korea have elicited outrage online, among widespread accusations of discrimination related to Covid-19 travel restrictions. The yellow badges, however, are not a new protocol at Incheon Airport.

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As China experiences a surge in Covid-19 cases, a number of countries have imposed new restrictions and sanitary procedures directed at Chinese travellers. Among them, neighbouring South Korea has been harshly criticised online, even accused of targeted discrimination.

The accusations come after the country began requiring a PCR test on departure and arrival for those from China in January. Those who test positive are required to go to a quarantine centre. The measure currently only applies to travellers coming from China. 

The restriction has attracted controversy at a time when Chinese people are experiencing more freedom of movement linked to the end of Covid-19 restrictions in the country. It also coincides with the approach of the Lunar New Year holiday period. 

Outrage from Chinese travellers online was stoked by a post that has been circulating widely on Weibo (China's equivalent of Twitter) since January 10. It showed several photos of Chinese travellers at Seoul's Incheon Airport wearing yellow badges around their necks.

Screenshot of a post that has been circulated on Weibo.
Screenshot of a post that has been circulated on Weibo. © Weibo / @shazhouyue

The screenshot above shows a yellow badge in a plastic pouch. It reads "Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency" in English and Korean. 

The caption states, "As soon as you get off the plane, you are given a yellow badge that you have to wear around your neck [...] Then, the Korean army will show you where to collect your luggage, do the PCR test and quarantine."

Other images of travellers wearing the same yellow badges have been shared on Weibo, Douyin (China's equivalent of TikTok) and other social networks, blogs and Chinese media outlets.

Screenshot of a video shared on Weibo. The video was taken on January 10 in Incheon Airport, according to the caption written in Mandarin.
Screenshot of a video shared on Weibo. The video was taken on January 10 in Incheon Airport, according to the caption written in Mandarin. © Weibo / Sina Video

These badges were at the forefront of online discourse on January 10 and 11. Chinese nationals online called the badges "degrading", likening them to "dog collars" or "license plates". 

Badges used to guide arriving passengers to testing zones

The FRANCE 24 Observers team reached out to the Korean Cultural Centre in Paris, which has been in contact with the Incheon Airport. A representative told us that these badges were given to passengers arriving from China in order to direct them to the correct testing area. 

There are different types of badges depending on travellers' visas. However, the Korean Cultural Centre in Paris was unable to say which badge corresponded to which visa status.

Some Chinese people online posted pictures of differently coloured badges.

A photo published on Weibo shows a badge with the same text as the yellow one. In the caption, this Weibo user writes: "The most stringent country for China."
A photo published on Weibo shows a badge with the same text as the yellow one. In the caption, this Weibo user writes: "The most stringent country for China." © Weibo

According to the Korean Cultural Centre in Paris, this practice is not a new protocol imposed on Chinese travellers. We found other evidence that showed that yellow badges had been distributed to passengers of other nationalities upon arrival in the past. 

In April 2020, a researcher for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) based in the US wrote about the experience of travelling to Korea during the pandemic. 

[T]he officer told me matter-of-factly I would be transported to a quarantine facility. I presented my Isolation Exemption Certificate and the officer said I could leave it with her. She gave me a lanyard with a badge that contained a yellow card in the plastic sleeve. She told me this would allow airport staff to guide me through various checkpoints. This lanyard is only given to foreigners. There were other colors (blue, red, maybe more). I believe yellow may have been designated for “short-term” foreigners while other colors were reserved for “long-term” foreigners, but I can’t be sure.

But this yellow badge isn't the only thing that Chinese travellers accuse of being discriminatory. They've also criticised the living conditions in quarantine hotels and the high cost of PCR tests in South Korea. 

Images of a South Korean quarantine centre have circulated among Chinese nationals who claim to be on strike for better conditions. Pictured here in Jeju Island, South Korea.
At the same time, Chinese citizens contrast the welcome they received in South Korea with that given to them in Thailand.

In retaliation, the Chinese embassy in Seoul said on January 10 that they would stop issuing certain short-term visas for South Koreans. The measure, in place until January 31, will be reviewed subject to South Korea lifting "discriminatory entry restrictions" on Chinese citizens. 

The United States, Japan and several EU countries have also been criticised for imposing restrictions on people travelling from China.