BEIJING — How much of a country can you know after barely three days dashing around its vast capital city? Only a very little.
How effectively can you judge the nuances of your interactions with some of its leading academics, researchers and journalists? Not terribly well.
How much of its media can you assess after three days, snatching glances at its domestic stations and, because you don’t speak a word of its language, relying on its English-language news channel? Again, of course, the answer is next-to-nothing.
So that’s where I am after three days in Beijing. But there’s a fair bit, it seems to me, that you don’t need to be a China expert to work out.
This is a country in the midst of an astounding transformation, a great power on the rise. Its capital Beijing is sprawling before our eyes like one of those fast-motion nature documentaries — the high-rises ascending, the roads and highways expanding, the swarms of bicycles replaced by swarms of cars replaced by traffic jams.
It has overtaken Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy, and is growing more confident and assertive as its international clout grows. It proudly launched its first aircraft carrier while I was here at the end of last month, the symbol of China’s arrival as a force to be reckoned with.
It has a single-party government that knows it must keep its 1.4 billion people — let’s say that again, 1.4 billion people — happy. It knows it must keep raising their standard of living, income, housing and education, or risk the kind of dissent it has watched explode across the Middle East.
The party’s raison d’être is to retain power, and it well understands that the simplest way to do so is to cater effectively to its people’s needs. It is this necessity that will primarily determine its increasingly independent international stances: how will improved diplomatic relations with this country, investments in that one, a strategic rupture in ties with the other, directly bolster its capacity to meet the practical day-to-day requirements of its people.
It seeks to influence what those 1.4 billion people know and, yes, what they think — most importantly, it wants them to think that the current party leadership is what’s best for China. To that end, it guides its media with considerable effectiveness. Its senior media figures follow guidelines — guidelines that change, subtly and dramatically, all the time. Journalistic criticism of lower-level party failures is relatively unimpeded; criticism of the national leadership is more subtle — the goal, always, being to maintain stability — unless or until a particular figure is deemed to be rising too fast, reforming too vigorously, or worth sacrificing to deflect other complaints or serve as the focus for some foul-up. There then follows nothing so crass as an orchestrated campaign against him, but rather an adjustment that allows more potent criticism to find its way into the media, and then he is gone.
The oversight extends to information flowing in from overseas. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter do not function in China, but the party was easily smart enough to institute China’s own social media platforms. The Internet is flying — more than half of Chinese are online — and foreign sites are available, unless or until they’re not, their content deemed offensive or inappropriate. Then those pages just fail to open. Still, the blocks can be bypassed, by those with the smarts to use a proxy server.
International news flows in via state TV and the state news agency Xinhua. Apart from a handful of major national dailies, Chinese newspapers may only take their international news via Xinhua. And Xinhua will only carry international news that falls within the guidelines. In recent days, the word from on high extended, for example, to how critical that flow of foreign news could be of Egypt’s newly would-be-pharaonic Mohammed Morsi; not too critical, it turns out, for now.
Bright young intelligent journalists, asked how they feel about working under these conditions — where on Monday Morsi is a good president, Tuesday he’s not quite so good, and Wednesday he could equally be good again or evil — simply don’t see a problem. “I work for the boss,” said one. “The definition of whether I’m good at my job is how well I work for the boss.” What about accuracy, integrity, his own assessments? His English was fine, but we were speaking different languages.
China is transforming, expanding, and that requires energy. China’s oil comes, in one-two-three order, from Saudi Arabia, Angola and Iran. The flow must be maintained. And that requirement is central to Chinese foreign policy.
This, on the face of it, is not so good for Israel. China is not eager to pick a fight with its third-biggest oil supplier. Yet the Chinese are emphatically determined to prevent Iran having a military nuclear program.
They think there is a place for sanctions in dissuading Iran from moving toward the bomb, but they also see a danger in overly isolating Iran, in that they fear it creates a sense for the regime that it has nothing to lose. China’s preference is for a mix of carrots and sticks: the US should ease off on sanctions and Iran should halt all uranium enrichment at 3.5 percent. Beijing recognizes, however, the immense trust deficit between the two countries, and is trying to work out how it might be able to help.
China likes the Jews fine. Our ostensible intelligence, insistence on education and facility for making money are focuses not of anti-Semitism but of admiration. Why would it be any other way? China prides itself on its smarts, constantly seeks to improve its educational frameworks and is extremely interested in making money.
And the Chinese object to the Iranian regime’s constant talk of eliminating the Jewish state. They tell this to the Iranians. But they’re not absolutely convinced that Tehran is truly bent on this goal. When religion is absent from your national discourse, when you have little direct experience of religious extremism, it is hard to wrap your heads around the notion that there’s a regime out there that purports to believe God wills it to destroy the Jews.
Yet the Chinese are convinced that Israel takes the threat utterly seriously, and they know Israel has a track record of acting against hostile nuclear programs — striking Saddam’s reactor in 1981 and hitting Syria in 2007. They worry about the impact on their domestic economy of conflict between Iran and Israel — the collapse of their investments in infrastructure in the Middle East and North Africa; the constriction of the oil flow. And so, again, they’re trying to figure out what they can do to promote a solution. Days after I was here, I was told, China hosted a top Iranian national security official with responsibilities for the nuclear program.
I don’t know what the current Chinese guidelines are on media coverage of Israel. I do know that China has been extremely gracious in its dealings with Israelis of late, with many visitors shuffling to and fro, unsurprisingly focused on high-tech, innovation, environmental issues, agriculture, water, sustainable development — areas where Israeli expertise can benefit the rising superpower.
But as ever, down the decades, the 20-plus Arab ambassadors based in Beijing have been drip-feeding anti-Israel toxins into a Chinese diplomatic hierarchy that is relatively inexpert on matters Middle Eastern. Only in the last few years have three universities started small Hebrew studies programs — the number of places limited to the number of jobs available to graduates. And there were no Israel studies programs whatsoever until last year, when the small nonprofit organization SIGNAL — which works to advance China-Israel relations, and which arranged my visit to Beijing — played a central role in establishing such programs at four Chinese universities. You could probably count the Hebrew speakers in this capital of 22 million on the fingers of two hands.
A conversation with a group of very senior Chinese journalists, some of whom have spent years in the Middle East and plainly been influenced by Arab hostility to Israel, yields much warmth and politeness regarding Israel, but also — from a notably empathetic voice — the hope that “Israel should be good to the Palestinians; go back to the 1967 borders; give them their state.” And from another voice, less empathetic though still scrupulously polite, the story recalled in great detail of some Palestinians he once spoke to in Jordan who told him in clearly convincing sorrow that “we have no choice but to carry out suicide bombings. We have no army. And the Israelis stole our land.”
Younger Chinese journalists, by contrast, are less focused on Palestinian cries of victimhood, unimpressed by the underdeveloped and failing Arab states, and more excited by the innovation and creativity of Israel. Set against that, though, is the party’s traditional identification with the underdog, since China sees itself as constantly filling that role itself, whether in its relationship to the British, the West, and/or the Japanese. The Chinese recognize that Israel is tiny and outnumbered, but Israel has the US in its corner, so that leaves the Palestinians as underdogs. The IDF and the Mossad enjoy almost mythical status here, but again, that leaves the Palestinians as the weaker party.
Until recently, someone who is expert in matters Chinese-Israeli told me, the Chinese simply didn’t care about who might be right and who might be wrong in the Israeli-Arab dispute. It had no perceived direct impact in China. But this may be changing, the expert said. China’s media coverage of the latest Israel-Hamas conflict was unexpectedly charged with anti-Israel sentiment, and the Chinese diplomatic criticism of Israel was notably harsh, with the Foreign Ministry expressing “grave concern” over Israel’s military operations and strong condemnation for the civilian casualties.
On China’s CCTV English-language TV news on one of the nights that I was here, two reports on Israel followed in quick succession. Or rather, two reports in which Israel was mentioned solely in a critical context.
CCTV Correspondent One was in Gaza, surveying the bombed soccer stadium and various destroyed buildings, assessing the costs of rebuilding, detailing the death toll. There was no other side to the story at all — no rocket fire into Israel, no Hamas as terror group. Israel had simply bombed Gaza. Why? Because it is Israel, the viewer could only have concluded, and it bombs Gaza.
And Correspondent Two — an Israeli-American with whose previous work for Al-Jazeera’s English network I am familiar — was in Ramallah, reporting on the exhumation of Yasser Arafat’s remains. His report asserted that the French doctors who treated the late Palestinian leader in 2004 had not established the cause of his death — the publicly available French records in fact show Arafat died of a stroke caused by a bleeding disorder, and indicate that poisoning was highly unlikely, an assessment recently confirmed to The Times of Israel by a doctor who lectures at the hospital — but informed viewers that Palestinians think they know exactly who was to blame. This CCTV reporter did at least find a couple of seconds to mention Israel’s denial of responsibility. But viewers, again, would reasonably have concluded that the Israeli denial was empty, since no other potential explanation for Arafat’s death was offered.
Still, Chinese-language TV, I was told, gave briefer coverage of both those stories, and was far from positive in its reporting on Hamas.
China and Israel just marked 20 years of diplomatic relations. Military cooperation is deepening; Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited last year, and various Chinese military and naval dignitaries have visited Israel in the past year and a half.
Economic ties are deepening too; the Chinese are doing more and more business with Israel.
China thirsts for innovations that can serve the interests of its vast population. Chinese regional delegations visit Israel all the time. Of 300,000 copies sold worldwide of the Dan Senor and Saul Singer bestseller “Start-Up Nation,” 100,000 of them are of the Chinese version. Notes Singer: “Their current five-year plan has a major plank on innovation. They know that they will soon become the world’s largest economy, but to be the world’s leading economy they have to move from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Made by China.’ That means innovation, so they are very interested in how Israel succeeded in building the largest start-up sector outside of Silicon Valley.”
In fact, according to one source, more officials have come to China in 2012 from Israel than from any other country. I have no way to confirm this, but it’s an extraordinary statistic if true. And the flourishing of these relationships comes as a snub to Arab countries, some of whose officials have urged China to keep its Israel ties on a far lower level.
China is a growing force to be reckoned with internationally, and Israel has an immense interest in its orientation. It knows very little about Israel, and we know all too little about it.
The work of SIGNAL, which has rapidly established a network of academics, scholars and officials — bringing some of them to Israel, and bringing Israeli scholars to meet them in Beijing — underlines the potential. “People question whether it’s possible to have much real impact in a country of 1.4 billion people,” says SIGNAL’s Executive-Director Carice Witte. “But with a true understanding of Chinese culture and society, it’s very feasible to have a significant impact — precisely because it’s such a top-down society. You don’t have to move the masses, just the key decision-makers. That’s absolutely doable. We know it’s the case because we’re making progress, and we’ve only been around for two years.”
Three days in China were enough to indicate that Israel’s cause is not lost here, but that we could and should be advancing it more effectively. There is no vacuum. We have much to offer. But countries that wish us ill have been active here for decades.
When General Chen Bingde, Chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department, arrived for an official visit to Israel in August 2011, the chief of the IDF General Staff, Benny Gantz, arranged an honor guard to welcome him in style at the Kirya IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. When the respected academic I found myself sitting next to at the conference I attended here visited Israel just recently, by contrast, he was stopped by security at the airport and questioned for 20 minutes about why he had stamps from the Arab world and Malaysia in his passport, what he had done there, and why he was coming to Israel. “Endless questions,” he told me. Did they at least explain the security concerns, I asked? “I was so angry by the end of the ordeal, it didn’t matter what they said at that point,” he answered.
In 2007, prime minister Ehud Olmert recognized the need to personalize Israel’s desire for warm relations and made a state visit to Beijing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to do likewise in June. He canceled because of a political crisis — remember, we were supposed to have early elections? The Chinese have been dragging their feet on rescheduling the visit ever since — the one negative gesture in relations that may reflect their sense of insult, but also may be designed to offset all the positive interactions with Israel they have pursued over Arab objections.
International relations revolve around priorities. For Israel, building bridges to Beijing should be a lot nearer the top of the list. I don’t know much after only three days in China, but I’m pretty certain of that imperative, and pretty certain that it’s achievable too.