Chinese Ambassador to Israel Du Wei was found dead in his home on Sunday, sparking rumors and an avalanche of media coverage.
There is no evidence that anything but natural causes was involved. However, the death of the ambassador of a high-profile state like China at this complex time – amid the coronavirus pandemic and in the wake of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit, with stories about US pressure on Israel regarding China relations – feeds online conspiracy theories.
First of all, the story spread widely throughout international media, from Hebrew media to reports at the BBC, CNN and other outlets.
The ambassador was found in the morning at his Herzliya apartment, and no official statement was made immediately. Du Wei had only arrived in Israel in February when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its height in his home country.
He arrived to an Israel that was already putting in place regulations regarding travel from affected countries. He was 52 years old and taking over from the previous ambassador, who had worked hard on Israel-China relations.
But the US was increasingly concerned about China’s role in Haifa Port and a desalination plant.
Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan had come in October 2019, the most high-profile visit by a Chinese official, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of the growing friendship with China. This comes as China is touting its Belt and Road Initiative for the Middle East.
The level of conspiracies and anti-China comments after the death of the ambassador reached a crescendo on Sunday afternoon.
Some wrote that China should be “sent packing,” and another said, “Something smells fishy here.”
Some thought a spy movie was coming after Pompeo’s critique.
“A long list of suspects,” wrote one person. “Sounds like CSI,” a reference to the US murder investigative show.
Others postulated that the ambassador died of COVID-19. More reasonable comments on Tweeter and Facebook included assertions that the “optics do not look good.” Others expressed condolences and sadness.
The rumor-mill conspiracy theories posited that Du Wei’s former posting in Ukraine somehow overshadowed his mission in Israel. Russia has been accused of assassinations in Ukraine. For instance, Ukrainian authorities accused Russia of trying to recruit assassins to target journalist Arkady Babchenko.
A bomb wounded a politician in 2017 in Kiev. It is not clear why that would have any impact on a Chinese ambassador in Ukraine, since Russia and China have good relations.
Among the responses to a tweet by Israeli journalist Barak Ravid were comments such as: “China taking care of loose ends,” “I heard he was recently reassigned to Israel from Ukraine,” and “I’m not being a conspiracist but it’s rather odd to hear this news soon after Pompeo’s visit.”
Then there are those who blame Israel, with comments about how China must respond “very strongly” to Israel. “Someone trying to stir tensions between Israel and China.” And, of course, “[sounds like] a script written by Stephen King.”
The allegations that Pompeo had someone to do with the death seem to be the most common.
“If you remember the Pompeo visit, you can connect the dots,” or “Pompeo visit was successful I guess.”
Some suggested that the death had more to do with COVID-19, with one person mentioning Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist who died on February 7 after speaking out about the coronavirus outbreak.
The death of a high-profile ambassador while on the job is relatively rare. Some ambassadors have been assassinated, such as Russia’s Andrei Karlov, who was killed in Turkey by a policeman in 2016.
Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin died of heart failure in New York City in 2017. Russian ambassador to Sudan Migayas Shirinskiy died in 2017. Russian diplomats in India and Greece also died in 2017.
Chinese diplomats and ambassadors have been in the news increasingly lately because of the recent pandemic and Beijing’s decision to take an active approach to dealing with criticism of China.
That has meant that diplomats, such as Chinese Ambassador to Australia Jingye Cheng, have received tough criticism. He was called “downright despicable” after a controversy about Chinese economic pressure on Australia.
Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai wrote an op-ed to respond to US “always blame China” attacks.
In April, France summoned China’s ambassador over a controversy in which France was accused of abandoning nursing-home residents.
Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming accused US politicians of harming relations with China during the pandemic.
China’s ambassador to Zimbabwe Zhao Baogang also took a robust approach to discussing the pandemic and came under criticism for comments in Harare.
Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi was slammed for comments about Taiwan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian became well known over the last two months for wading into these online arguments.
Du Wei was quick to become involved with Israel’s media during the pandemic, and he published an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on March 13.
The Chinese Embassy spokesperson also ran an op-ed in the Post that appeared online on Friday. Wei, like his counterparts in other countries, needed to confront the criticism of China and the discussions about US pressure on Israel relating to Chinese investment as well as other challenges.
China, a country that generally stayed out of the limelight during its rapid economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s, has found itself increasingly at a crossroads in terms of how it will respond to criticism and sensitive issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet.
In 2008, Chinese athletes faced aggressive protests in Paris in the lead-up to the Olympics. China’s recent more-muscular approach – including an unprecedented military parade last year, with new hi-tech weapons systems – represents a very different face Beijing is showing the world.
Inevitably, that has fed into some of the current controversies, including those surrounding the death of the ambassador.
Reports based on Pentagon war games that the US would “lose Pacific war with China” appeared on Saturday in international media.
The US is increasing military pressure on China, CNN reported. China was attempting to use focus on COVID-19 to assert its interests, US Navy Capt. Michael Kafka said. The recent US National Defense Strategy set its sights on China openly and said China is a competitor.
Gone are the days of the US speaking nicely. US President Donald Trump, who launched a trade war with China last year, bragged on Friday about a new missile the US could use to confront China and Russia.
The pressure from the US visit by Pompeo toward Israel regarding China was clear. The US is playing for keeps and wants Israel to distance itself from Beijing.
Washington is adamant about no more deals between Israel and China that could jeopardize US security ties. The Chinese Embassy in Israel took Pompeo’s trip seriously and rebutted his accusations.
That the ambassador died soon after was bound to feed conspiracies and rumors. These are tense times, and ambassadors currently are playing a larger role in China’s worldwide efforts.