COVID-19 generated significant anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea. Domestic elite-level narratives regarding China at the pandemic’s onset were highly polarized: conservative parties advocated border shutdowns, emphasizing China as originating the virus, while progressive parties warned that this would incite xenophobia. Did these narratives shape anti-Chinese sentiment, and what are their foreign policy effects? Using social media data, I show that despite the polarized narratives at the elite level, attitudes of both conservative and progressive voters became unfavorable toward China following COVID-19’s onset. Furthermore, statistical analyses of survey data show that this blame is strongly associated with negative perceptions of China. Although substantively not directly linked to foreign policy, blame of China is strongly associated with rejection of foreign policy alignment with China and a shift toward supporting alignment with the US. These results have implications for understanding public support of South Korea’s foreign policy amid US–China bifurcation.

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