In China, measuring the fate of the Jews

Reporter's Notebook: China, like the Jewish people, has also changed fundamentally over the last 70 years.

Kippah and Chinese band Bibi in China 370 (photo credit: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
Kippah and Chinese band Bibi in China 370
(photo credit: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
BEIJING – The fate of the Jewish people has changed fundamentally over the last 70 years, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in Shanghai on Tuesday, visiting the quarter to which some 18,000 Jewish refugees from Europe fled before and during the Holocaust.
The degree of that change was on full display Wednesday in Beijing, where Li Keqiang, the prime minister of the most populous nation in the world, received with full, colorful, cannon-blasting honors the prime minister of the tiny State of Israel.
In the 1930s a few thousand Jews came knocking on Shanghai’s door, begging for entry. In 2013, Israel’s prime minister waltzed proudly through China’s front door, greeted by an honor guard of Chinese soldiers, variously in crisp green, white or blue uniforms.
Netanyahu was met in the plaza just below the enormous, marble-pillared Great Hall of the People by a Chinese military marching band playing “Hatikva,” as cannon blasts from across Tianamen Square sounded in an unexpected and stirring salute.
When the first cannon blast sounded, some looked around, not knowing exactly what was happening. The same was true when the honor guard marched off the scene, letting loose a startling and unexpected Chinese cry.
China, like the Jewish people, has also changed fundamentally over the last 70 years. Moreover, it has changed dramatically over the last 41 years, since US President Richard Nixon made his groundbreaking trip to Beijing in 1972.
The China that I am visiting now for the first time to cover the Netanyahu visit is not the China of my youth. That China, known only from reports and clips on Walter Cronkite’s nightly news show or photo essays in Life magazine, was a dreary, uninspiring, gloomy, bicycle-peddling, Mao-cap-wearing military state.
The China I flew to on Monday was markedly different.
Shanghai, the country’s financial hub and Netanyahu’s first stop, has energy, excitement and spectacular skyscrapers.
Whereas in New York huge billboards illuminate the night sky, in Shanghai the buildings themselves become the billboards. Walking the upscale and bustling W. Nanjing Road, looking at the stores, gazing at the skyscrapers, one could easily conjure up Manhattan.
But, as one colleague put it, “It may look like New York, and even feel like New York, but don’t be fooled, it ain’t New York.”
One sure giveaway: social media – Facebook and Twitter – cannot be accessed, blocked by government decree.
Beijing, to which Netanyahu and his entourage flew on Wednesday, is not sparkling Shanghai. The massive marble-pillared Great Hall of the People, across from Mao’s Mausoleum and the tiered roof from the Forbidden City, makes Beijing “feel” more like the China I learned about in seventh grade social studies, the China I grew up with as a boy.
Walking in the Great Hall of the People, I could picture US President Richard Nixon in the hall at that famous state dinner with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, getting lessons from his Chinese hosts on how to use chop sticks.
I never dreamed that some day I would be running, literally, over the red carpets of that hall in pursuit of the Israeli prime minister. Nor did I ever imagine that inside one of the building’s massive meeting rooms – bedecked by a stunning red, green and blue mural of the Great Wall of China meandering through fairy-tale countryside – one of Zhou’s successors would be treating the Israeli prime minister with all the pomp and ceremony fit for a visiting emperor.