Written by Harry Chen.
Last year, while researching a feature article at the China Daily in Beijing, I stumbled across a unique-sounding institute which, as it turned out, was located just across my newsroom on a college campus. My fresh understanding on China’s roles in Israel and Palestine starts there.
Days after the inauguration of the Chinese Institute of Jewish Economy and Culture at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) in mid-2012, the college sent a delegation to Israel, aiming to jumpstart diverse collaborative initiatives with Israeli entities. According to a lengthy school newsletter, this long-distance visit paid off in several ways. It stated that UIBE piloted academic partnerships with four colleges and universities, such as Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University of Tel Aviv, and established bilateral communications with Israeli research institutes specializing in local culture, economy and public policies. The delegation also made a pilgrimage to the office of MK David Rotem, an Israeli parliament heavyweight who ranks among the core ideologues of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. Curiously, the Chinese entourage was accompanied by several top bureaucrats from the Chinese diplomatic mission to Tel Aviv, who consulted the school officials on subject matters like commerce, educations and technology.
Overall, this multi-purpose five-day trip, which was initiated by a renowned Chinese university with the assistance of local consular workers, encapsulated the intertwined relationship between the State of Israel and the People’s Republic of China in recent years. The detailed itinerary in the newsletter highlighted key agendas in higher education, economy and rubber-stamp diplomacy, which along with military intelligence and materiel exchanges, are essential to the rapport between the two states today.
Traveling to Israel is a relatively smooth process for Chinese people nowadays. A passport with a clean record, a convincing reason of visit and a tentative itinerary would usually make for a smooth visa application. As the Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat liked to say before foreign crowds, “I would like to see all of you next year in Jerusalem.” Israel has endeavored to paint itself as a glittering oasis on the Mediterranean seaside, with majestic natural wonders and a full-fledged tourism industry ready to please anyone with money to spend. On the other hand, because of tight traveling restrictions to Palestine, and the lack of any civilian airport, the pleasure-seeking Chinese are required to enter the West Bank or Gaza from Israel and process separate entry documents from there. In an era when Chinese tourists favor destinations in Western Europe, America and Southeastern Asia, it is natural that Israel processed only about 30,000 visas in 2013, an embarrassingly low figure in light of over 100 million Chinese overseas trips during the same period, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Predictably, Chinese tourist visits to Palestine were negligible.
Israel and Palestine both operate embassies in Beijing; their locations a telltale symbol of relative standing. Whereas the Israeli embassy in Beijing lives under the shadow of the hulking American embassy in a premium zone reserved for several “high-interest” foreign countries, the Palestinian embassy, sitting next door to the Sudanese and miles away from the U.S. and Israel structures, is a nondescript building amid a dense diplomatic forest of developing countries. While the Israeli embassy regularly coordinates intercultural events and processes visas for foreign travelers, its Palestinian counterpart serves almost entirely as a nominal consular service for Palestinian expats in distress.
My hometown, the city of Chengdu in southwest China, unveiled its new Israeli consulate-general last November, raising the number of diplomatic missions in mainland China to four. The strategic distribution of these consulates, inland and along the eastern coast, marks Israel’s diplomatic strength in China. By comparison, the lonesome Palestinian embassy in the capital appears abandoned in view of the ballooning Sino-Israeli bilateral relationship.
Thanks to the country’s history and its charismatic leaders, Israel has created a positive impression among the Chinese. When its long-serving president, Shimon Peres, visited China last year in his advanced age, the nation greeted him with extraordinary hospitality. Legions of Chinese social media users showered this avuncular statesman with “likes” and “friend requests.” As of late February, Mr. Peres has a whopping 440,000 fans on Sina Weibo, putting his popularity on par with many contemporary writers and social activists in the country. Most recently, Peres posted a 38-second holiday-season video, in which he delivered a blessing to the Middle Kingdom on the 2015 Lunar New Year.
As Israel honeymoons with China through both formal diplomacy and informal “cultural handshakes,” Palestine has been transmogrified into something that China is loath to see. Generally speaking, the largest hurdle to China’s amity with Palestine is China’s grave anxiety about its internal security at present. The binary relationship between Israel and Palestine, ironically, is a reminder of China’s perennial resolve to implement stability maintenance at all cost. In this framework, the sitting Israeli administration became a model for China’s quest for tranquility in the wake of a riptide of lethal attacks in recent years, ranging from a car-plowing attack in Tiananmen Square to a gangster-like stabbing rage at a railway station in Kunming to the discharge of homemade explosives at a street market in Urumqi. According to state investigations, the perpetrators of these assaults were found to be ethnic Uyghurs from Xinjiang, the Turkic-speaking Chinese minority who historically follow moderate Sunni Islam. State narratives suggest that some sections of the Uyghur population have become radicalized in recent years due to separatist drives and the emergence of pan-Islamic religious movements.
Thousands of miles away in the Middle East, the so-called Palestinian “lone-wolf attacks” against Israeli civilians followed similar executions methods, including plowing vehicles into waiting crowds and indiscriminate stabbing in public areas. Although it is impossible to determine the attitude of the Chinese leadership on recent escalations between Israel and Palestine as it rarely comments on diplomatic relationships between foreign countries, it is barely surprising that many Chinese sympathize with the Jewish state. Conversely, the inability for the Palestinian Authority to forestall murderous plots of its citizens and the suspicion of “martyr payments” to the families of imprisoned Palestinians harmed China’s confidence in Palestine’s vow of peaceful nation-building.
The crippling sanctions on the Palestinian Authority imposed by Israel, along with mounting political pressures from the United States, also make the widening of Sino-Palestine cooperation an unpalatable gamble. I suspect that from the views of the Chinese mainstream, the Fatah-Hamas unity government bespeaks ineffectiveness and stagnation. By signing big-ticket trade agreements with Russia and America and investing tremendous capital and labour in Africa, China is pivoting to both the advanced economies and the developing world. However, the Palestine issue seems too difficult for China to achieve any major mutually beneficial breakthroughs.
Today, the mere mention of Israel and Palestine evokes vastly different reactions among the Chinese. Thanks to the ancient literature of the people of Israel sanctified in the Torah, many Chinese often look at Israel through rose-colored glasses, despite its perpetuation of oft-cited human rights violations recognized by the international community. From thousands of miles away, these supporters are so enamored by the fabled past of the Jewish people that Israel has effectively become an intangible myth, pregnant with transcendental truths. Worse still, they often attempt to weave the state establishment and the biblical legends together, much to the delight of influential religious Zionists today. Such widespread mythologization among the Chinese public constitutes a silver lining in evaluating Israel, which renders cool-headed judgment all but impossible.
The State of Palestine, in comparison, is a far more amorphous entity among the 1.3 billion Chinese. Granted, many of them grew up with news about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the state-owned broadcast channel CCTV, and neither Chinese academia nor media spent time or energy in communicating the Palestinian narratives. As a result, the discussions about Palestinian leaders and people are based overwhelmingly on populist polemics, such as Yasser Arafat as revolutionary martyr or unrepentant terrorist.
Pertaining to Israel and Palestine today, the Chinese leadership and the society are befuddled by the fog of political expediency, legends and myths and romanticized stage personae of the many statesmen. In my view, it is only through an impartial and comprehensive re-examination of Chinese public diplomacy with the two countries that China could hopefully recover perspective and balance. The Chinese media need to follow suit by correcting their un-focus lens too.
Harry Chen is a journalism and Jewish studies student at Penn State University. Image credit: CC by premasagar/Flickr.