Foreign Affairs: Chinese Democracy

A delegation of Israeli journalists, on an official government visit to experience the new and modern China, discovers a thriving country full of contradictions.

December 25, 2016 09:10
A NIGHTTIME view of the Shanghai skyline.

A NIGHTTIME view of the Shanghai skyline.. (photo credit: AVI MUSKAL)


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It’s midnight in Shanghai, and the rooftop “Jacuzzi” lounge at the glitzy Hyatt Hotel is packed with mostly young, well-dressed Chinese revelers.

At the expansive outdoor patio, some are sitting around the edges of, and dangling their feet into, a huge Jacuzzi that gives the bar its nickname. Selfies and pounding techno music abound, but some couples try to find a little romantic quiet time staring at the stunning Shanghai skyline from the rooftop lookout.

Two male Dutch tourists, stripped down to their underwear, submerge themselves in the Jacuzzi and tested their waterproof Samsung 7 cellphone camera. The few Israelis drinking in the bar aren’t conspicuous by their presence – they’re just more of the sprinkling of Westerners out for a good time.

But if the local patrons had known of the Israelis’ origins, chances are they would have treated the visitors from the Mediterranean to a glass of wine or Tsingtao beer.

China seems enamored with all things Israeli. By the end of 2015, according to Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, there had been in excess of $6 billion investment from China to Israel, including one third of all foreign investments in Israeli hi-tech companies. Today it is Israel’s third largest trading partner.

Chinese companies like Shanghai’s Bright Food Dairy have penetrated the Israeli market with their buyout of Tnuva; Shanghai International Port Group, the Chinese company that built and runs the world’s largest harbor for container cargo, won a tender to operate a private harbor being developed in Haifa Bay; there are dozens of hi-tech collaborations between Chinese and Israeli companies in the private sector; and Chinese tourists, with more disposable income, are increasingly flocking to Israel as one of their preferred destinations.

Of course, for most Chinese, Israel is not even on the radar. But for the upwardly mobile growing middle class, as well as government and business leaders, Israel is the real-life Start-up Nation, worthy of admiration and respect – without a whiff of alt-right leanings, “Jews are smart” is the mantra that has spread across the mainland. Can a week-long visit by a delegation of Israeli journalists do anything to change that belief?

THE JACUZZI lounge at the Hyatt probably wasn’t what the Chinese authorities had in mind when they invited the reporters from some of Israel’s leading media outlets to see their country. But it still fit their overall desire to portray the new, let-it-all-hang-out cosmopolitan China. That’s why the jam-packed itinerary included a carefully orchestrated symphony of visits to the aforementioned Bright Foods, Shanghai Port, hi-tech centers, and medical, agricultural and industrial enterprises with Israel-related business connections – all bookended by sumptuous repasts featuring an exquisitely prepared, dizzying array of food and drink, toasts to the point of giggly tipsiness, and awkward banter in the neutral language of English.

The goals of the Chinese were to expose the journalists to the modern, thriving country that China has evolved into, and to highlight the friendship and partnership that has developed with Israel.

Unless the Israelis brought it up, the term “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” was never mentioned. At a meeting inside the austere, Communist-era-designed Foreign Ministry in Beijing with Feng Biao, deputy director of the department of west Asian and North African affairs, most of the minutes were devoted to China’s economic standing and hi-tech collaborations, with only lip service paid to China’s view of Israeli and Palestinian ups and downs.

The businesslike Biao read in Chinese from a prepared text. “China is now undertaking an innovation-driven strategy, Israel is the world famous Start-up Nation, and it is the right time for cooperation,” read Biao, explaining how the urban population in the country was increasing (surpassing more than 50% for the first time in 2011), and how innovation-driven development and new ideas that Israel could provide were the more critical than ever.

His remarks continued for 20 minutes and covered generalities of free trade zones, cultural exchanges, friendship building, tourism and higher education cooperation. Even when he touched on Israel’s thorny problems with its neighbors, of which China at the UN has never voted in its favor, he vied for neutrality.

“China understands the difficulties and tragedies that the Jewish nation has experienced, and understands the national security concerns of Israel,” he added, stressing the visits to China of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and emphasizing the coming 25th anniversary of official China-Israel ties next year.

The Israelis politely listened, but were itching to get to the questions. But when that time arrived, questions like “can Israel trust China in the future to have its back” were greeted with diplomatic jargon.

“We base our stance on the facts, and that doesn’t mean that we’re against the Jewish people,” said Biao. “China is not only a friend of Israel’s, we also have a longtime friendship with the Palestinian people.”

Israeli Ambassador to China Matan Vilani explained later in the trip that the Chinese reliance on Arab oil dictates that their identification with the Palestinian stance on the conflict is clear-cut.

“Beyond their economic interests with Israel, that’s still the overpowering drive for China, and despite what’s happening in Syria or Iran, it’s still the main issue in the Middle East for them,” he said one evening in the spacious living room of his residence at the Israel Embassy in Beijing.

“They didn’t vote for Israel or abstain once in the last 70 years. They always vote against us – that says it loud and clear.”

For China and Israel and their respective governments, the working relationship that has borne fruit is to agree to disagree, minimize the friction, and focus on the business and economic opportunities at hand.

The FOREIGN MINISTRY in Beijing stands in the shadows of the glitzy Galaxy Soho, a 370,000-square meter complex of shops, offices and restaurants designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Mohammad Hadid. Its inadvertent shape, resembling a woman’s ample bosom, has earned it the nickname the “bra building” by irreverent locals.

That information, relayed by a tour guide, somewhat significantly revealed that Chinese society could indeed be irreverent, and even slightly critical of its institutions.

In a land of 1.4 billion people governed by a still-omnipresent Communist Party affecting virtually every aspect of daily life, a dose of hipster self-awareness is no little accomplishment. But it’s a reminder of the outward and inward contradictions of China. The authorities can maintain a ban on Western influences that provide unfiltered information like Google, Twitter and Facebook, but the urban Chinese people are thriving – and seem prosperous – as never before.

One Israeli visitor who hadn’t been to the country since 2003 observed how much more cosmopolitan, modern and civil Chinese society was. Spitting in the streets – once an urban scourge – is no longer tolerated, with many cities having banned it with symbolic fines imposed on violators. Like Israelis who got used to not smoking on buses or in malls under the threat of monetary penalty, the Chinese have slowly internalized that using sidewalks as a spittoon is as unfashionable and unwelcome as wearing white after Labor Day.

Strolling on a balmy Friday evening on Shanghai’s Dizengoff-on-steroids East Nanjing Street, one can boomerang from traditional Chinese folk dancers in traditional garb to American Idol-style wanna- be pop stars in jeans and tailored blazers strumming acoustic guitars and crooning insipid ballads. On the way to every musical interlude along the crammed avenue are a bevy of young (and not so young) women stopping men and couples on the street, aggressively offering massages and perhaps more.

China has embraced the modern world with a vengeance. The welcome advancements in communications, health and technology have increased the quality of life, and if one is cynical, created a successful opium for the masses that the West is all too familiar with: consumerism.

The streets are packed with made-up teens in designer clothes busy texting, munching on KFC chicken nuggets and drinking Starbucks. They buy Huawei phones, shop online at Alibaba and are addicted to WeChat, the Chinese version of Whatsapp. There’s even an upscale restaurant in Beijing named for the first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, which specializes in serving whole Peking Duck expertly carved at the diners’ tables.

“The main thing that characterizes China is the contradictions that are part of life there,” explained one longtime Israeli observer who has spent many years in China. “The name brands, the stores, the cell phones – the man in the street is the man who smiles, because life is good for him. The party is concerned that he is happy. If the person in the street doesn’t feel continued prosperity, the party loses its credibility, and without the party, there will be chaos in China.”

The leadership is very sensitive to the mood of that man walking about, aware that if the street rises up, it endangers the regime. They remember Tiananmen Square in 1989 very well, when Chinese military opened fire on pro-democracy protesters, killing a still-undisclosed number.

The party has retained iron-clad control on civil disobedience ever since, and its stature and influence has grown. The most important person in a school or factory isn’t the principal or the manager – it’s the secretary of the party.

Even private companies and media outlets have a party member sitting at their head, the observer stated. Which may be why getting newsworthy information from company bigwigs and government officials was like getting a straight answer from Oren Hazan.

One the one hand, they are gung ho on advancing entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, touting “big data” and showcasing their technological developments.

The Chinese newly minted badge of honor is that they’ve joined – and are at the forefront – of global development.

But that forward outlook still butts up against the old-world rigid norms that decades of Communist rule has wrought.

The Chinese notion of full disclosure is showcasing a sparkling visitors’ center with a feel-good video overview filled with jargon like “innovation,” “inspiration” and “achievement.”

To a scoop-hungry, savvy bunch of Israeli journalists, the disconnect sometimes led to a short circuit. Case in point was the visit to sprawling Shanghai headquarters of Bright Food, the huge Chinese conglomerate that bought Israel’s largest food producer Tnuva last year. Great idea, the journalists thought, we can find out why they bought the company and what they think of the 40% drop in its value amid sagging profits and market shares.

However, after the visitors center’s shiny, happy video, and a pleasant tour of the mostly automatized facilities given by plant manager assistant Brandon – replete with samples of pineapple-flavored yogurt drinks – it became apparent that no Bright Food representative was going to talk about Tnuva, or had even any information about the company. The Channel 1, 2, and 10 crews salvaged the situation by filming stand-ups of the group enjoying their Chinese Yoplaits.

Faring better was the visit to the head office of Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG), the company that last year won the tender (they were the only applicant) to run the revamped Haifa Port beginning in 2021.

The $1 billion expansion includes dredging some 18 million cubic meters of sand to allow access for the largest modern ships and increased capacity.

“It’s an expression of confidence in the State of Israel on the part of a superpower, which has decided to invest billions of shekels in Israel and turn it into an international cargo center for all the world,” Transportation Minister Israel Katz said at the time.

The Shanghai Port, which SIPG runs, is the world’s most active over the last six years. Built on an island outside the city, it is a virtual city of cargo containers and cranes, accessed via the stunning 30 km. Donghai Bridge – a marvel of Chinese know-how.

After entering a conference room and repeating the ceremonial two-handed exchange of business cards that had been repeated throughout the trip, the journalist sat across a row of SIPG executives in identically tapered suits, headed by company VP Fang Huaijin.

“China and Israel have huge potential for cooperation in all kinds of business, not just infrastructure,” Fang read from his script. “We’re impressed by Israeli innovation culture.”

In answer to a question why the company bid for the Haifa tender, Fang said that the Chinese feel that the Israeli economy has very bright future.

“We have confidence in Israel’s economic growth, that’s why we invested in the country,” said Fang, providing the film crews some sound bites before bringing them to an amazing hilltop view of the port and the East China Sea.

LIKE JACKIE Mason’s shtick of Jews entering a restaurant, getting a table, and immediately beginning to rearrange the chairs, move the table and making themselves comfortable, the Israeli delegation began tinkering with, amending and attempting to change the fixed itinerary soon after realizing the limitations of the plethora of meetings the Chinese had arranged.

The Israelis wanted to meet “the real China” and “feel the vibe” of the street.

“They took almost the whole way to the promised land, and then they closed the door,” commented a member of the Israeli entourage.

The hosts, however, had their aforementioned agenda – and therefore seemed to be taken aback not only with the perceived slight at questioning the carefully conceived program, but also at the frustration the journalists felt more than once over not being able to get to the riveting story that was waiting to be told.

It led to a handful of awkward encounters, but they were overshadowed by the essence of the visit: an enchanting afternoon at the Forbidden City in Beijing, an early morning visit to Tiananmen Square, and a trip-closing adventure to the awe-inspiring Great Wall. Any tension or potential for a mini-crisis in Israel-China ties receded in favor of détente, appreciation and marvel at the intricacies and complexities of the Red Dragon, with the help of shared experiences of beauty, history and grandeur – not to mention that late-night Jacuzzi bar.

Still, the contradictions of the new China cut through the tenderest of duck.

They have astutely realized that while they have the technological chops to compete and thrive in the global economy, Israeli collaborations are providing them with that X-Factor of innovation and thinking-out-of-the-box chutzpah that is still lacking on the mainland. It’s ironic that the Chinese were not quite ready to exploit those same qualities among the guests they hosted with such generosity and elegance.

The writer was a guest of the Chinese government.

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