How did a mythical creature like a dragon come to feature so prominently in
legend around the world? And why is the dragon an auspicious, benevolent figure
in the East but a fire-spewing menace destined to be slain by a chivalrous
knight in the West? This conundrum was the topic of much discussion in a group
of Western journalists with whom I visited Taiwan (the Republic of China) a
couple of years ago.
I have generally been too preoccupied with the art
of living in this part of the Middle East to give the riddle much thought since
then. If anything is going to keep me awake at night it will be the Iranian
threat, Hamas-Hezbollah missiles and global anti-Semitism rather than the
origins and nature of imaginary creatures.
Nonetheless, last week it
jumped back to mind to the metaphorical sound of clashing cymbals at the start
of the Chinese Year of the Dragon.
Not only do dragons fly; so does time.
The past few decades have witnessed incredible changes and development for both
giant China and tiny Israel, which on January 24 celebrated 20 years since the
establishment of diplomatic ties.
When, in 1982, I began my BA in Chinese
studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, my class consisted of 12
students, all considered slightly crazy by the general student body.
was the only Israeli academic institution offering Chinese-language studies at
the time and we were the butt of many jokes, neither funny nor politically
correct. The more sympathetic tried to figure out whether we were the optimists
or the pessimists compared to the students of Russian.
But that was many
years ago. Not only were diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic just a
dream, world affairs were still dictated by the Soviet-US divide.
last year of studies I had to prepare a five-minute talk in Chinese on Reagan’s
“Star Wars” initiative. I remember little of that stellar
Fortunately, I have found basic greetings like “How are you?” and
“Welcome” have served me better at winning friends and influencing native
Chinese speakers than anything I might be able to summon up from that
declamation. (My other notable student feat, learning Abraham Lincoln’s speech
in Mandarin, at least had entertainment value; most Hebrew speakers doubled up
with laughter as soon as I got going and even Mrs. Lincoln might have enjoyed
that particular show.) The Chinese in those days aspired to the Hungarian
economic model, combining Communism with progress. Chinese policy has grown even
more pragmatic, and financially driven, since then.
And, it turns out, I
was among the optimists. In 1982 we had no official ties. In 1992, bilateral
trade was worth $60 million; as we start 2012, it is now worth about $8b. a
A growing number of students at universities around the country are
learning to communicate in Chinese and even some high schools now have language
For Israelis, there is an added pleasure in doing business with
the Far East. Unlike Europe, a trip to China entails no emotional baggage when
it comes to anti-Semitism. On the contrary, China’s record of offering a refuge
to Jews escaping Nazism is heartwarming.
Mutual praise and admiration
were very evident on January 24 at the reception held in Tel Aviv by the Embassy
of the People’s Republic of China to mark the two decades of ties.
in five people in the world are either Chinese or Israeli,” quipped Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose very presence at the affair shows the level
at which Israel is actively courting the Chinese.
“Israel and China are a
successful combination because we are peoples rooted in glorious traditions that
also embrace the future,” said Netanyahu. “The rise of modern China is one of
the most important events of our time, as is the rise of modern Israel.
Millennia-old societies provide a strong basis for future cooperation in many
fields. I believe that Israel and China can act together to ensure peace in the
Ambassador Gao Yanping also noted the size of her country
and its population.
If every Israeli backpacker in the Far East were to
converge on China at the same time, their presence would barely be felt. If even
a fraction of the one billion Chinese were to collectively descend on Israel, on
the other hand, there would be nowhere to put them.
As befits the
celebratory nature of the event, the prime minister praised China’s decision to
begin to reduce oil purchases from Iran, despite the country’s need “to ensure a
regular supply of sources of energy in order to continue its impressive
The importance of bilateral ties echoed throughout the speeches,
and reverberated in the small talk among the very diverse crowd of
Although US opposition has definitely damaged military trade
between Israel and China, military attachés from different countries in their
dress uniforms stood out at the affair.
Among the journalists, diplomats
and academics, I also found signs of the blossoming non-military trade ties:
businessmen from various fields and Chinese women for whom diamonds are not just
a best friend but a vocation.
More than 1,000 Israeli companies operate
in China and there is cooperation in many fields including industrial R&D,
water, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
Proving that the global village
is full of surprises, last year ChemChina (China National Chemical Corporation)
completed its purchase from Koor of a controlling stake in Makhteshim Agan
Industries, which produces chemical pesticides. As a student, I could never have
imagined that Koor – once owned by the Histadrut trade union federation – would
find a partner in an eager-to-privatize China.
And here lies the reminder
that as important as the ties with China are, they come – like everything in the
modern world – at a price.
There is a question of whether an Israeli
company dealing in natural resources should be able to sell the control over
these assets to a foreign body, but I didn’t hear it being asked very loudly.
Most media attention in Israel focused on the threat to jobs – and the fear that
Israeli workers would suddenly have to abide by Chinese-style work
Over the years I have met a great number of Chinese
journalists. All were ultimately employed by the state, which controls all the
An American-Israeli friend who recently taught English in China
bemoaned the lack of free Internet access and Facebook.
during my last visit I saw protesters against human rights abuses on “The
Taiwan, a vibrant democracy, is constantly trying to find a
way to maintain its independence while avoiding conflict with the People’s
Republic, which still has its eyes, and missile sights, trained on the
Nonetheless, the People’s Republic is opening up to the West and
rather than running away from it in fear, it makes more sense to ride with the
dragon, and perhaps help point it in the right direction.
dragon brings with it good fortune even if its size and power are daunting. We
should enjoy the mythical creature while taking care not to be hurt by accident
as it moves its massive body.The writer is editor of
Jerusalem Post. email@example.com