Ignorance or incorrect knowledge of China can lead to extremely pro- or anti-Chinese sentiment in Israel, according to Dr. Ori Sela, a senior lecturer and associate professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Sela was one of several thought leaders speaking Sunday at the university at a conference on the relationship between China and countries in the Mediterranean. Panelists came from Turkey and Italy, among other places, and discussed China’s social, political and economic impact on Israel and its neighbors.
Sela presented two groups of people: Sinophiles, those who are “indiscriminately and at times intentionally” enthusiastic about almost everything or anything Chinese, and Sinophobes, those who reject or fear China.
In both cases, ignorance is the “coal that runs the engine,” according to Sela.
He outlined points throughout history where the phenomena of Sinophiles and Sinophobes presented themselves, including Marco Polo, the Opium Wars in the 19th century and the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong.
Sela said Israel’s “under-the-radar” military ties with China after the War of Independence helped spur Sinophile sentiment and, in modern times, this has been further enhanced. China has become a much larger player for investment in Israel, including the purchase of Israeli companies and Israeli infrastructure projects being taken on by Chinese players. In April, it was announced that a delegation of senior government and business leaders from China’s Shandong province toured Israel in search of green technology innovations.
Sela emphasized, however, that the incident last year where Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) was granted control of a Haifa port for 25 years, removing the presence of the United States Navy, has led to Sinophobic sentiment and become a “symbol of tension” for US, China and Israel relations.
“For Israel to make a sensible decision on whether or not [the Haifa Port decision] is good for Israel, it needs to understand China better,” Sela said. “It needs to understand the new world order China wishes to bring.”
He was referring to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Sela said that there is “lively discussion” regarding China and Israel in recent months but that it revolves around “stereotypes,” which causes people to misunderstand the country.
He discussed small steps people can take to improve knowledge of China, including reading the translated speeches of Chinese President Xi Jinping as opposed to an official press release, in order to become what he calls a “sinologist” – a person with large knowledge and expertise on Chinese history, government and culture.
“In a situation where understanding China seems to be of great importance to Israel, in the past couple of years, we have seen a decrease in numbers of students who study it,” he said.
Sela said that despite strong economic and strategic links Israel possesses with China, there is still work to be done.
“I think this tendency will change soon, but without a general policy to encourage it, it’s hard to make that happen,” he concluded.