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Arab, Jew and Chinese

Jul
30
2006

J-e-w.

It’s not typed on my resume currently. But were I applying for a job with a Chinese employer, I might consider adding it. Seriously. Right at the top of the page, where young Chinese grads customarily note their ethnic background, whether Han, Hui, Hakka or one of the 50-odd other official minorities, anyway. Tell them you’re a youtai ren (Jew), and it’s a bit like dropping casual mention of your M.B.A. from Harvard.
Jews, from what many well-educated Chinese have heard, are smart, well-off, and in proportion to their numbers, highly influential in international politics, media and business. Yes, their knowledge of the youtai ren is often limited to those “stereotypes”, as we call them. But it’s best not to take this penchant for profiling too personally, insofar as, until recently, few Chinese really grasped our concept of stereotypes, or the political incorrectness we attach to them. Chinese have never made much pretense of color-blindness.

And so the knowing masses of the Middle Kingdom, who over the millennia leading up to the humiliations that began with the Opium Wars rated themselves and their achievements unrivalled, have in recent decades developed a special affinity for that tiny minority of people who call themselves “chosen”. The Confucian and Judaic traditions, educated Chinese are often quick to note, share certain priorities: education, family, a zest for debate, and a spirit of entrepreneurship. Some older Chinese fondly recall how during the Holocaust, when the whole world closed its ports to Jews fleeing Hitler, Shanghai took in an estimated 50,000. In several cities on the eastern seaboard today, China’s best-travelled merchants hold competing claims to the moniker “Jews of the East”. Speaking before a crowd of 100 at my nuptials a few years ago, my father-in-law, who’s Chinese, could not contain his pride in my heritage. “Jonathan, as you all know, is a Jew,” he kvelled. “And Einstein was a Jew,” he added. “And Oppenheimer was a Jew,” he went on. “And my wife and I, as Communist Party members, also have a Jewish ancestor – Marx!”

So does that mythic status of Jews in China translate into sympathy for Israel? Not necessarily. With respect to the current conflict with Hezbollah, the answer would increasingly seem to be “no.” Particularly after a Chinese observer with the UN was felled by an Israeli bomb which the U.N. Security Council did not condemn. A day afterward, a long litany of Israel-bashing by readers at the popular Chinese news portal, sina.com, read like this: Sina.com today:

“I recommend that China send arms to Lebanon via a third country, like Iran.”

“What is Israel? Before World War II, was there such a country as Israel? All of the land in the current nation of Israel was seized from Arab countries?”

“If Lebanon doesn’t resist as a nation, why are groups formed among the populus called terrorists?”

And in response to a letter home by a journalist from the Global Times, a hawkish tabloid published by the Communist Party flagship People’s Daily, the 50,000-plus messages posted included this one:

“The Chinese people have a new enemy – Israel.”

Of course, such venom reflects the extreme patriotic impulses that take over when the loss of Chinese lives bring a faraway conflict home. One anonymous commentator blamed it on the “angry youths” who often dominate opinion on China’s electronic bulletin boards.
Until last week, in fact, popular opinion was not nearly so one-sided. The state media airwaves and news wires, trained to take the anti-imperialist diplomatic cues of the Chinese government, concentrated on the ugliness of the fighting and the suffering of Lebanese and Palestinians, but without strong partisanship or opinions on how resolve the issue. And an early sampling of the reaction to daily dispatches suggests that the Chinese actually leaned, more than the country’s leadership, toward Israel. “Israel is the epitome of righteousness. Long live the people of Israel,” read one message repeated over and again. Others wrote soliloquies on Israel’s commitment to save the lives of just a few soldiers, or remembered the aid Israel provided after the Tangshan earthquake of 1976.

Interestingly, people have plenty of news to form informed opinions, more than ever. Much of the original Chinese-language news comes straight off the Xinhua news agency, but certain press and Web outlets can get away with translating local news reports or even using their own correspondents. Censors are considerably more relaxed than they are, say, when it comes to the North Korean nuke issue, since Beijing is not directly involved in the Middle East conflict and has little direct role to play outside of the United Nations Security Council. China’s government shares an Cold War-era bond with the Arab world and an old pang for the Palestinian plight, dating to Arafat’s visits with Mao. But it has bolstered ties with Israel too. While it pipes in oil from Iran and sells Tehran military technology, it also deals in all sorts Israeli tech, from dairy to ordinance. Only U.S. opposition prevents it from buying Israeli arms. In contrast to the hardcore Marxist days, current Chinese diplomacy with its emphasis on non-intervention, is chiefly a defense of its economic interests. To do business with everybody and ensure its energy security, all China really wants here is to end the violence.

Hence the multimedia melodrama, which appears bound to become at least a low-fi repeat of coverage of second Gulf War in Iraq (a breakthrough in Chinese central television history). Beijing was outwardly opposed to that war, and turned it into a kind of win-win on propaganda. The media got a chance to run the footage of everyone from CNN to al-Arabya, and for officialdom, the propaganda effect was supposed to be cathartic. Here it is too. Chinese are made to witness for themselves the gory ravages of war – mostly on the Lebanese side of the border, mind you – so that they’ll support the government’s catch-all policy objective: peace and stability.

But do they? Certain Chinese pundits are grappling more critically with the question of how long-term peace can be achieved. Last week in The Beijing News, Zhou Qing’an, a Tsinghua journalism doctorate and frequent writer on international affairs for that newspaper, made the underappreciated point this is an epic conflict pitting Israel against much of the Arab world, particularly Iran and Syria (China’s allies). “In a land that has lost the hope of peace,” he asked, “who can keep watch at night? Who can jot down a friendly, peaceful stroke in the history of the Middle East?”

Of their many contentious views, one that does enjoy broad-based support is that the people of Lebanon should decide their own fate. That much is clear from the featured blog on Sina.com’s. Eyeonlebanon is a first-hand diary written by the wife of a Chinese doctor working in Lebanon. Her impressions are emotionally raw, analytically sharp yet ultimately, quite well-balanced. Over the weekend of July 22, for instance, she noted that Lebanese people want the same concessions out of Hezbollah as does Israel. “From the Lebanese government down to the common people, everyone dares to despise at Hezbollah but dares not speak out.” Hezbollah, she continued, pays no electricity or water bills to the Lebanese government, is better armed than the Lebanese army, and threatens Lebanese officials. “Thus a lot of Lebanese people very much support the present war. They call it ‘scraping off a sarcoma’.” But then she describes why the Lebanese cannot act on this impulse – just the opposite. She quotes a Lebanese soldier: “’Israel, first you say the Lebanese army should not fight back, and then you come and hit us!’” On July 26, when Lebanese president announced the country’s army would mobilize in the event of an Israeli ground invasion, Eyeonlebanon termed it a political “show”.

The next day, her compatriots online erupted over the death of a countryman. And her blog was understandably silent.

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