The Eastern dragon brings prosperity and good fortune; the Western dragon
breathes fire. It was a double headed beast that Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu encountered this week on his official visit to the People’s Republic
of China. On the positive side, the premier encountered a warm reception and was
able to make impressive economic ties; on the other hand, his meeting with
Chinese President Xi Jinping was preceded by the visit of Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas and the announcement of China’s “Four-point proposal for
A BA in Chinese studies and international relations does not make
me an expert. But it makes me more interested than most in what goes on in a
country so huge that at some points the traveler is closer to Jerusalem than to
My view of China is also influenced – some would no doubt say
tainted – by the fact that although I have twice visited Taiwan, the Republic of
China, I have yet to make it to The Mainland, the People’s Republic.
Chinese, a friendly nation wherever they reside, profess great admiration for
There are not many peoples with a history and culture that goes
back so many millennia.
China likes the Jewish emphasis on education and
family. It is also impressed by Israel’s technological achievements. It’s no
wonder that Start-Up Nation has been translated into Chinese. There are places
where The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is available, not as a manifestation
of anti-Semitism, but as an expression of awe for the perceived power and
influence of our tiny Hebrew-speaking tribe.
Netanyahu, on his trip this
week, rightly noted China’s role in providing a safe haven to Jews during the
Holocaust, a time when few countries offered refuge to those able to escape the
Nazis; a time when Britain turned Jews away from the shores of the promised
And the pace of development in China has been close to
As the premier told his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang at an
official ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing: “We admire China.
We have a connection with Chinese civilization, with the Chinese people. Our two
peoples are two peoples with a glorious past, a difficult in-between period and
then soaring to the future...
May I add that this is my second visit to
China. Fifteen years apart, my delegation and I are enormously impressed by what
we see here, by the spectacular success of China in so many spheres, and
understand that it’s important for us to discuss with you how we can cooperate
not only on economic and technological issues but also the pursuit of
It is hard, however, for the average Israeli to understand the
average Chinese – and not just because of the language barrier.
us living in a country about the size of New Jersey with a total population
around the eight million mark find it hard to conceive of living in a country
where the capital city alone has some 22 million.
Similarly, living in a
country where arguing about politics and complaining about the government is a
way of life, we find it difficult to imagine living under the watchful eye of a
Communist regime. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who openly cracked jokes this
week that in Netanyahu’s absence, Finance Minister Yair Lapid declared war – on
his middle-class voters.) China might have been overtaken by capitalism in
economic terms, but from a political point of view it remains
In one of the strangest photos I saw last year – so
peculiar that Reuters placed it in its “Iconic” category – photographer David
Gray captured an instructor from the Tianjiao Special Guard/Security Consultant
Co. smashing a bottle over the head of a female recruit “during a
training session for China’s first female bodyguards in Beijing, January 13,
Apparently the best trainee out of the 20 women, most of them
college graduates, would be “offered a chance to attend the International
Security Academy in Israel.”
I hope she jumped at the chance, whoever she
was. But I wonder how she would fare in a system where informality and
familiarity rule and if anyone were to even threaten a recruit with a smashed
bottle, it would be considered a form of abuse.
For here lies the rub of
a painful problem, as far as I’m concerned.
While the whole world berates
Israel for perceived human rights violations, China is the object of political
and economic pilgrimages – without any demands for reform.
abroad visiting Israel post picture after picture on Facebook – surprised by
everything they see, so different from what they were led to believe about life
in the Jewish state.
Friends in China email me apologies that they don’t
have Internet access. Nonetheless, as in places like Iran and Syria, with a
little ingenuity and a lot of care, people do find a way to be in touch with the
The biggest problem facing ordinary people in Beijing, by
the way, seems to be air pollution, which literally casts a pall over their
lives and was the subject of much international scrutiny at the time of the 2008
Olympics when the government made an intense effort to improve the situation for
the benefit of the competitors and visitors.
Energy, according to some
analysts, could be the source of China’s newfound interest in Middle Eastern
At a time when the US is growing more independent, China still
relies on imported oil.
Israel wants to develop stronger relations with
China – the potential of a country this size is self-evident – and Beijing is
keenly aware of what Israel has to offer. And China is keenly aware that its
traditional partners in the Middle East are disintegrating in the aftermath of
the Arab Spring, which could have ramifications for its own large and
occasionally restless Muslim minority.
Anyone who thinks Israel is an
apartheid state – or an ultra-Orthodox theocracy – clearly has not tried to find
a seat on Jerusalem’s crowded light rail system where Arabs and Jews – some
dressed in traditional clothing, others barely dressed at all on a hot day –
jostle for places as if playing a perverse version of musical chairs.
light rail took a decade to build – a decade that seemed to last much longer
than 10 years to Jerusalemites.
As Netanyahu proudly announced at an
event in January 2012 celebrating 20 years of diplomatic ties, the government
would like Chinese help in building a railway from the Red Sea to the
Mediterranean, to bypass the Suez Canal.
Given the amazing Chinese
logistical and technological achievements in building their own infrastructure,
the actual construction should be much quicker than Jerusalem residents were
forced to suffer.
Despite the disparity in the size of the two countries,
the cooperation projects should benefit both.
Netanyahu’s visit is a sign
that Israeli-Chinese relations could be heading in a new direction as good
business partners. But we should remember that whether you're eating with
chopsticks, silver cutlery or fingers, there is no such thing as a free
meal.The writer is the editor of
The International Jerusalem