My Word: The China conundrum

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu encounters doubled headed beast this week on his official visit to the People’s Republic of China.

Chinese honor guard blurry 370 (photo credit: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
Chinese honor guard blurry 370
(photo credit: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
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 peace.”
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 Beijing.
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.
The Chinese, a friendly nation wherever they reside, profess great admiration for the Jews.
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 Jewish homeland.
And the pace of development in China has been close to miraculous.
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 peace.”
It is hard, however, for the average Israeli to understand the average Chinese – and not just because of the language barrier.
Those of 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 totalitarian.
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 Ltd.
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, 2012.”
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.
Friends from 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 outside world.
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 politics.
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.
The 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 Post.
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