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(photo credit: AP)
While Israel's image took a beating in the Western media during and since Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza operation elicited a very different, more positive reaction in China.
For starters, the state-sponsored China Central TV news provided context, describing the latest conflagration as a response to years of missile attacks from Gaza and the intolerable cost to the citizens of the South. This supportive attitude - in stark contrast to China's resistance to sanctions on Iran - better reflects its identification with Israel.
I was on business in Beijing when Operation Cast Lead was launched. Each day, I logged on to China's leading news Web sites, like Xinhua, China, People, Sohu and QQ, and monitored the talkbacks generated by the war coverage. The blogosphere, too, teemed with commentary. Some discussed Israel's war strategy. Others blamed the United States for making Israel its proxy to control the Middle East. Yet others speculated how China could enhance its global role via the Gaza operation. Many identified with Israel's predicament, saying they would respond in the same way if their towns, homes and schools were under persistent missile attack.
During the war, both the Israeli Embassy in Beijing and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem received e-mails from average Chinese voicing support.
All told, roughly 65 percent of all talkbacks and blog comments were favorable. The occasional anti-Semitic comments which cropped up in the blogosphere were strongly rejected by the hundreds.
Much credit for burnishing the country's image in China goes to the embassy in Beijing, which initiated numerous press conferences and whose diplomats gave many interviews highlighting Israel's perspective.
ANTICIPATING HOW Israel would be demonized for human rights violations, I turned to the embassy Web site for background on Israel's "Save a Child's Heart" program. In November 2008, Save a Child's Heart brought Israeli physicians to Hebei, one of China's largest provinces, to operate on eight children and examine 200. Since 1988, it has saved 80 Chinese children. When I forwarded this information, along with local reports, to my Chinese business partners, I was overwhelmed by their warm response.
What really touched the hearts of the Chinese was Israel's gratitude for the rescue of two Israeli students near the epicenter of the May 2008, Sichuan earthquake. The ambassador visited Sichuan a number of times to present government donations as well as private contributions. This generated tremendous support for Israel.
China's fascination with Israel owes much to the stereotypical perception of Jews as successful businesspeople and as academically adept. Indeed, over the last 10 years, Chinese books on Israel, Jews and Judaism have become best-sellers. The rush to learn more has spawned books that present the Hebrew Bible as fairy tales and that condense the Talmud into a hundred-page tome of Jewish wisdom and guidance for life.
Today, Beijing University, Nanjing University and Shandong University, among others, have established Jewish studies departments. Nanjing University's Institute of Jewish Studies, established in 1989, focuses on Jewish tradition, the secret to Jewish survival and the creation of a strong and resilient modern Jewish state. Toward this end, China also sends dozens of postgraduate students to Israel's universities. China's positive attitude is fertile ground to bolster relations that will likely generate significant bilateral diplomatic and economic payoffs.
HOW CAN Israel build on these positive trends?
First, it must provide the Chinese an easily accessible, authentic picture of the country, the Jewish people and their history by creating quality multimedia materials in Chinese. At the academic level, it must produce Jewish and Israel studies materials in Chinese.
Secondly, it should pursue joint Israeli-Chinese forums and exchange programs in the arts, sciences and government. The recently launched Israel-China Chamber of Commerce can play a very important role in strengthening business ties. Such initiatives can dramatically expand people-to-people interactions and supplement the maturing diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Thirdly, despite China's rapid modernization, the Chinese still proudly connect with their 5,000-year old tradition. They identify with and admire Israel and the Jewish people's ancient yet vibrant tradition. Israelis can foster this respect and enhance the connection by being familiar with their own ancient roots.
As China focuses beyond its borders, Israel beckons not only as a technology powerhouse, but also as a model old-new society that has successfully adapted to the challenges of rapid modernization while maintaining its unique identity. The time is ripe to capitalize on Israel's positive image and strengthen ties with China, to the benefit of both nations. If not now, when?
The writer, founder of Israel-China Resources, Communications and Exchange, is a liaison between Israeli and Chinese business ventures.