In the same week that China handed Israel a major diplomatic victory by agreeing to allow the isssue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program to be reported to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions, China’s leading scholar of Judaic studies urged Jews and Jewish organizations to seek a stronger relationship with China.
Xu Xin, one of China’s first scholars of Judaic studies and founder of the Center for Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, said that while the notion of stronger ties between Jews and China has been discussed and praised, he has seen little activity.
“We need people to endorse programs,” he told the Forward. “They should take action.”
Xu’s remarks come at a time when Sino-Israeli relations are shifting in the wake of China’s agreement to apply diplomatic pressure on Iran. The move surprised some observers who had assumed that China’s dependence on Iran’s oil would dissuade it from supporting diplomatic pressure on the nuclear issue.
China’s rise as an economic, political and military power has led to increasing tensions with the United States. At the same time, this increasing profile on the world stage has brought some Chinese interests into harmony with those of Israel and Jews worldwide. In addition to China’s growing concern about the dangers of Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons, Beijing has begun pointing to ties between Al Qaeda and Muslim separatist groups in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. According to Xu, although the Chinese government would not say so openly, Beijing believes that “Israel is not a threat. Islamic fundamentalism is a threat.”
Xu has been pushing for efforts to capitalize on the growing points of agreement between China and Israel. Shalom Salmon Wald’s 2004 strategy paper, titled “China and the Jewish People,” drew heavily on Xu’s expertise. The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank established by the Jewish Agency for Israel, commissioned the paper.
The document urged the world’s Jewish communities to cultivate an independent relationship with China as Jews, separate from American and Israeli interests. The paper makes a number of policy recommendations, including a permanent delegation in China representing world Jewry, greater distribution of Jewish materials through books, television and the Internet and greater support for Jewish scholarship in China.
Xu endorsed the findings of the paper, particularly the call for greater support for such Judaic studies programs as his own.
Xu said that while some Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Congress, had cultivated contacts with government officials, they had done little to promote Jewish studies in China.
“Political policy can be changed at any time, for any event,” Xu said. Scholarly efforts, he added, would “lay a better foundation” for Chinese-Jewish relations.
During a recent visit to the United States, Xu spoke at a session of the Proshansky Jewish Studies Seminar Series at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In his remarks, he described the history of China’s attitude toward Jews and Judaism.
Though a small Jewish community lived in the city of Kaifeng from the 12th through the 19th century, he said, the Chinese had little awareness of the Jews as a group until the 19th century, when the country was forcibly opened to Western influences. At that point the Chinese began to develop a positive image of Jews. They viewed the Jews as a minority that was, like China, oppressed by the Western powers but that had nonetheless registered great achievements as intellectuals, a minority that wielded impressive economic and financial power.
In the early 20th century, as China sought to modernize, various Chinese intellectuals turned to the Jews for inspiration. Many Chinese writers pointed to Yiddish literature as a model for the development of a vernacular, and Sun Yat-sen, modern China’s nationalist hero, praised the Zionist movement as an exemplar of a popular quest for independence. In 1920, Sun wrote to the Shanghai Zionist Association in support of the Balfour Declaration.
China’s contact with Jews persisted through World War II, as the cities of Shanghai, Harbin and Tianjin became home to thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe. Contact with the Jewish world largely ceased after the Communist Party took control of the country in 1949. However, interest in Jews was revived following the visit of Henry Kissinger, then assistant to President Nixon for national security affairs, in 1971 and the 1978 visit of Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal, who had been a refugee in Shanghai during World War II.
China has historically favored Arab countries over Israel in the Middle East. But Beijing and Jerusalem still have managed to develop an extensive and, at times, mutually beneficial relationship.
Israel formally recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1950, though China did not extended full diplomatic recognition to Israel until 1992 — a move that Xu suggests was an attempt by China to improve its international image in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Starting in the early 1990s, Israel began supplying military weapons and technology to China for more than a decade. Then, in 2000, the United States blocked Israel from selling Phalcon radar equipment to China. Israeli-American tensions over China flared up again in 2004, when Washington pressured Jerusalem not to return Harpy attack drones that China had sent to Israel for upgrading.
Xu described a recent political cartoon that depicted Israel’s military industry surrounded by a gate, with America holding the key.
In the wake of these incidents, the relationship between Israel and China has shifted away from military cooperation and toward technological and financial partnerships. Xu said that the Israeli consulate in Shanghai now announces on an almost weekly basis new agreements worth more than $100 million for Israeli investments in China, joint venture projects, new factories and other economic development projects. o frequent and so lucrative are the agreements that, according to Xu, it’s as if “less than $100 million doesn’t count.”
Xu said that critical Chinese media coverage of the second intifada has had a negative effect on the image in China of Jews and Israel (the two are often conflated, he explained).
However, according to Xu, Israel and Israeli leaders still have a great deal of support in China. He noted that in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s decision to break with the Likud, online polls in China showed 90% support for the leader, who was praised as “great hero” and a “real man.”
Though China ceased to view Jews as victims after the formation of the State of Israel, Xu said that most Chinese continue to have a positive view of Jews, though not always an accurate one. Many Chinese wish to emulate the success of Jews in the realms of science, technology, business and finance. Some even see the power of American Jewish lobbying groups as a model for their own efforts to influence American policy.
Xu said he hopes that, in turn, the major Jewish organizations will recognize the long-term importance of establishing contacts in Chinese society beyond the government level, particularly in reaching out to Chinese scholars.
“If you have a better foundation, you can stand any kind of shocks,” he said. “I hope people in empowered positions realize it.”