Many bad ideas have made their way from the West to China since the two civilisations collided in the 19th century, but until recently antisemitism wasn't one of them.
Unfortunately, it looks like this may be changing. The number of Chinese academics and media personalities recently espousing antisemitic rhetoric has become impossible to ignore. The latest example is professor Zhang Wenmu, from the prestigious Center for Strategic Studies of Beihang University, Beijing. He is a well-known political scientist and naval strategist, and also a "leftist" in the Chinese sense, in other words a conservative nationalist and statist.
In a weird bit of online commentary, translated by the excellent Israeli analyst Tuvia Gering, Prof. Zhang offered this astonishing take on events in Ukraine: "Why has Ukraine become Judaised, and why has Israel put up with it? It's because Wall Street wanted to plant a quasi-Israel in this problematic European region. Israel, like the US and UK, is a tool of Wall Street or, to put it another way, a moneymaking subsidiary of a corporation masquerading as a state. So what is the reason for Ukraine's Nazification? It was designed to sow the seeds of a world war in Europe. In the previous one, the Jews did not anticipate Hitler, whom they had helped to power, to turn on them. However Jews as people, as well as the great bulk of humanity, are merely tools for Wall Street's profits."
Zhang Wenmu is clearly no stranger to antisemitism: in August last year he wrote a rambling article which mixed conspiracies about George Soros, Covid-19 as an American biological weapon, and the Jews as a "people of usurers" who dominate the US. He even managed to throw in a few quotes from Marx's tract "on the Jewish Question", which many consider highly antisemitic.
If this sort of rhetoric were limited to Professor Zhang alone, it could be ignored as the work of a lone crank. Unfortunately, it is not. Examples abound. What is most concerning is that some of China's infamous nationalist influencers have decided to jump on the antisemitic bandwagon. The most striking example is Lu Kewen, a former factory worker whose rants have over the last few years amassed millions of followers across various Chinese social media platforms.
In May last year, Lu Kewen published an article on his WeChat account entitled "What should we make of the Jews?". The "we" in question is of course the Chinese nation. The article is pretty much a rehashing of all the world's worst antisemitic conspiracy theories, but it also claims the Jews are "enemies of China". Predictably the Jews are charged with controlling the US and its "anti-China media", but they are also held responsible for the Opium Wars, with Kewen peddling the idea that most of the opium was actually sold by Jewish merchants. It is hard to imagine a more inflammatory charge in China, and misinformation like this could do real damage if it spreads. The article, which ends with an exhortation to guard against "Jewish infiltration" of Chinese media and finance, got dozens of thousands of likes, and at least a hundred thousand clicks, possibly far more (WeChat does not allow you to see figures over a hundred thousand).
|Chinese vice-premier Wang Qishan on a visit to the Wailing Wall|
Until very recently, this kind of anti-Jewish rhetoric was virtually unheard of in China. What seems to have marked a turning point is the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas, which took place in May last year. During previous rounds of fighting in the Middle East, Chinese diplomats and spokespeople stuck to bland and neutral-sounding statements, deploring the violence and urging restraint on both sides. This is hardly surprising when you consider that the Chinese leadership walks a fine line in the region, trying to remain friends with everyone, from Iran to Saudi Arabia, from Israel to Qatar, usually with remarkable success. In fact Israel and China enjoy blooming commercial ties, much to the annoyance of several US administrations.
Last year, however, China's "wolf-warrior" diplomats took Israel's bombing of Gaza as another opportunity to publicly blast the US. The main public faces of Chinese diplomacy turned to Twitter, now the world's primary arena for this sort of "undiplomatic" diplomacy, with Hua Chunying tweeting about how America "turns a blind eye to the suffering of the Palestinians" even though it "claims to care" about the "human rights of Muslims", while Zhao Lijian tweeted a picture of an American eagle dropping a bomb on Gaza.
This shift in tone seems to have little to do with Israel or the Palestinians themselves, and everything to do with a wish to get back at the US for daring to complain about China's treatment of its Muslim citizens in Xinjiang, with American criticism now painted as hypocrisy. Attacking the US for its one-sided support of Israel is an easy card to play, and will win you a lot of sympathy in much of the world. The temptation must have been too much to resist for the champions of China's new assertive diplomacy, in spite of the risk of throwing relations with Israel under a bus.
China's English-language state-media duly followed suit, with the Global Times publishing one of its infamous editorials on how the US held "undeniable responsibility" for the Israel-Hamas conflict. The rhetoric was mainly directed at America, rather than Israel, but at one point the editorial quotes a Chinese analyst as saying that US policy in the Middle East has "long been kidnapped by its Jewish community that serves the interests of Israel".
CGTN, China's main outward-facing propaganda channel, then published a short video entitled "Why does the US act as a diplomatic shield for Israel?" During the video, the presenter says "some believe that US pro-Israel policy is traceable to the influence of wealthy Jews and the Jewish lobby". He goes on to explain, in a pedagogical fashion, that there are, indeed, many rich Jews in the US, and that "Jews dominate finance, media and internet sectors". He adds "So do they have powerful lobbies like some say? Possible." But he then explains that the real reason for US support of Israel is not the power of American Jewry, but rather the fact that Israel serves the US's geopolitical interests as its main "beachhead" in the Middle East.
In spite of this conclusion, the video presents American Jews' control of the economy as a fact. It is likely that the people who made it simply did not realise how inflammatory it can be to talk about Jews "dominating finance". After the Israeli embassy in Beijing issued a strong complaint, the video was removed from CGTN's website.
The antisemitic tone of this sort of commentary may be unintentional, but it probably helped deliver the message to nationalist academics and bloggers like Lu and Zhang that the Jews are now fair game for their vitriol. It is no coincidence that Lu Kewen's rant came out in late May 2021, just after Israel's war with Hamas was over.
|What the synagogue in Kaifeng used to look like before it was destroyed in the 19th century.|
All of this is all particularly unfortunate because China often used to seem strangely impervious to antisemitism, especially when compared to other forms of racist discourse from abroad.
There is no native Chinese tradition of antisemitism, unsurprisingly for a culture so far removed from the monotheistic world-view. China's one and only "native" Jewish community, based in Kaifeng, was historically left alone until it assimilated of its own accord. European Jews who found refuge in Shanghai in the 1930s are said to have got along well with the locals, and Republic of China diplomat Ho Feng-Shan was later recognised for saving thousands of Austrian Jews from the Holocaust by issuing them humanitarian visas for Shanghai. Jews have never seen China as a hostile country, and with good reason.
In fact, over the past century China has developed an odd kind of "philosemitism". Many of the reformers and intellectuals of the early twentieth century, for instance Liang Qichao, admired the Jews as a resourceful people who had done well for themselves in spite of lacking a homeland and being persecuted. Many of them seemed to have believed exaggerated tales of Jewish wealth and influence that they heard from Europeans, but this did not cause them to resent the Jews. Instead, they wondered what the Chinese might learn from them. Sun Yatsen himself admired the Jews and sympathised with the Zionist movement.
This Chinese philosemitism is still alive today. On the (rare) occasions when I have brought up my Jewish roots in conversation with local people in China, I have often been told something along the lines that Jews are known to be "very intelligent". The Jews' presumed superior intelligence and education seems, in fact, to be the single most well-known "fact" about them in China. The stereotype of Jews being good at business also survives, but it is not seen as something negative, just as further proof of their smartness. These attitudes have given rise to an entire cottage industry of cheesy self-help books purporting to uncover the secrets of how Jews do business or how they educate their children to be so successful.
In spite of the Mao-era support for the Arabs, Israel has also sometimes attracted admiration in China. The Israelis are seen as a tough bunch who take no nonsense from anyone, look after their own and create first-rate technology, qualities highly prized by Chinese nationalists. There is no tradition of opposition to Zionism, a term that is not particularly well-known in China, either in English or in its Chinese translation (犹太复国主义, or "ideology of recreating the Jewish nation").
Of course, a philosemitism which is not based on any genuine understanding can easily turn into something darker, especially once you throw in the eternal stereotype of the Jew as a shrewd businessman. One only needs to see the CGTN video linked above, or the way that Fudan University historian Wen Yang, another egregious nationalist, responded to David P. Goldman's arguments on China's potential global economic hegemony: apparently Goldman (who is a secular American Jew) was "revealing his Jewish mindset that everything is commercial", and projecting the Jews' "parasitic business model" onto China.
The bottom line is that relations between China and the US are at their lowest ebb since the death of Mao, and the Chinese leadership has abandoned its long-held attitude of being guarded and non-confrontational in international affairs. Israel is obviously a strong US ally (although it manages to maintain decent ties with Russia and China), and sooner or later this was bound to be reflected in Chinese attitudes towards it and towards Jews in general, especially when it comes to the anti-Western nationalists who have the upper hand in public discourse. Unless there is a general improvement in China's relationship with the US and with the West, we may well see more of this "antisemitism with Chinese characteristics" in the future.