My Word: Riding a Dragon

Performers in Beijing celebrate the Chinese New Year with a traditional dragon dance. The Chinese dragon is awe-inspiring but auspicious.

Chinese New Year in Beijing 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Chinese New Year in Beijing 390
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
It 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.
In my 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 speech.
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 year.
A growing number of students at universities around the country are learning to communicate in Chinese and even some high schools now have language programs.
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.
“One 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 Middle East.”
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 growth.”
The importance of bilateral ties echoed throughout the speeches, and reverberated in the small talk among the very diverse crowd of guests.
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 practices.
Over the years I have met a great number of Chinese journalists. All were ultimately employed by the state, which controls all the media.
An American-Israeli friend who recently taught English in China bemoaned the lack of free Internet access and Facebook.
Throughout Taiwan during my last visit I saw protesters against human rights abuses on “The Mainland.”
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 island.
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.
The Eastern 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 The International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]