There is a remarkable amount of interest in China about Israel and Jews, as I
discovered during a trip to China sponsored by the Sino-Israel Global Network
and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) and the Bar- Ilan University Asia project.
What’s really interesting is how important this is and why it is so.
most obvious answer is that the Chinese perceive that Israel in particular and
the Jewish people in general have been success stories. Ten or 20 years ago this
would have been less salient. But now, sad to say, it stands out more because
the United States and Europe, perhaps only temporarily, are not working very
OF COURSE, on a strategic level, Israel and China have some
differing interests, but these are less important than they may appear to
China wants to have commerce with everyone, including Iran, and is
protecting Syria in the international framework. Yet China has significantly
reduced energy imports from Iran in order to show support for the international
efforts against Iran’s nuclear drive and clear signals have been sent to Tehran.
Clearly, Chinese interests don’t benefit from Tehran having a nuclear arsenal
and being a destabilizing force in the region. As for Syria, Israel’s own
position on whether the current regime should be overthrown has not been
Having said this, Israel and China have many parallel
interests, among them the desire for stability in the Middle East and the hope
that revolutionary Islamism doesn’t spread. And China’s policy of dealing with
all other countries has another side, since it will not let its relationships
with Israel be interfered with by any possible Arab or Iranian
Another factor which should not be underestimated is the lack of
prejudice toward Jews and prejudgment against Israel that has become such a huge
obstacle in Israel’s dealings with the West.
Most important of all is the
emphasis on economic and social development, the priority on raising living
standards and achieving national success rather than such typically regrettable
goals as expanding territory, getting revenge for past grievances, and
preferring pragmatic solutions to imposing ideological rigidity on
There is a huge amount of cooperation, far more than many
people realize, on joint projects. While hi-tech is the most obvious area of
such activity, there are many others. Energy issues are equally paramount. China
shares with Israel a great interest in finding alternative energy sources, not
so much due to environmental considerations but to financial and security ones.
Some impressive ideas and pilot programs are underway that seem more imaginative
and likely to succeed than what I’ve seen in the American debate.
Israel and Jewish programs have opened in various Chinese universities; students
are studying Hebrew and other relevant topics; Chinese bookstores contain
multiple volumes about Jewish and Israeli achievements without – unlike some
other Asian countries – exhibiting anti-Semitism. Obviously, those interested in
these things are only a tiny fraction of the world’s most populous country. But
this sector has reached a size significant enough to sustain itself and to
influence the broader society.
On a humorous level, when a Chinese
colleague told me (accurately or otherwise) that his people’s culture entailed
always being optimistic and believing in a better future, I responded that the
Israeli and Jewish characteristic was to be pessimistic and then make jokes
Seriously, though, there are a number of important points –
certainly seen as such by those Chinese who think about it – in common. Among
the points that figure on this list are a mutual experience of a long history of
civilization, wide dispersion, emphasis on the importance of education,
readiness to work hard, focus on family, and suffering persecution. If
contemporary Jews and Israelis have lost some of these values, perhaps we can
learn something from China.
Of course, we can have criticisms of
contemporary Chinese politics and policies but it is also important not to cling
to outdated notions. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on China – though I
once thought seriously of pursuing that career path – but my visits to the
country go back to 1974, when the word totalitarian could accurately have been
BUT CHINA is no longer the country of the Cultural Revolution
and the time of great repression. It has turned toward capitalism and opened up
a much wider margin of freedom. The real power of personal initiative has been
unleashed and the results have been awesome.
I doubt whether any country
in history has made such rapid progress in social and economic
But here’s an equally important point. While these changes
are theoretically reversible, I – and a lot of Chinese people – don’t think this
is going to happen. A course seems set in which freedoms will continue to expand
in the decades to come. Equally, there seems to be a genuine appreciation – as
there has been in the West but certainly hasn’t been in the Middle East – that
the old strategies of war to seize territory and empirebuilding abroad are
An Egyptian friend visited China a few years ago and asked a
counterpart, “China has been the victim of so much oppression and imperialism.
How do you deal with that?” The response was, “We got over it.”
Egyptian was astonished, but as a liberal Arab he realized that his own society
would be far better off if it eschewed the politics of revenge, bitter hatred,
and the angry assertion of superiority on the basis of an inferiority complex.
Of course, the Arabic-speaking world has unfortunately been moving in the
opposite direction with predictably terrible results.
then, is to work with this process of events in China rather than to pretend it
isn’t happening or focus on a negative side that is becoming smaller over time.
Yet there is something very big for our change of attitudes as well. It is easy
to say that Israel should become increasingly oriented toward Asia in comparison
with Europe. Yet given Europe’s regrettable decline and hostility – which should
not be overestimated but must be seriously evaluated – a growing willingness to
look east should be something discussed most seriously.
The writer is the
director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. He also
publishes the Rubin Report blog and is the author of Israel: An Introduction.