Economic ties between China and Israel have undeniably picked up in recent years. In addition to commercial links, the Israeli lobby has also been working hard to forge stronger political and cultural interaction between the two.
Israel’s growing socio-cultural influence on China started with the development of commercial relations. However, the fact that many institutions with Israeli origins have begun to interact with Chinese society could be considered a step towards political intimacy with China. The primary motivation for this ever-deepening relationship comes from Israel’s ability to show itself as an attraction factor for China. Capitalizing on the qualities that make it a “Startup Nation” in many fields, Israel enjoys high prestige in the Chinese market thanks to its high technology and value-added services.
Jews in China
Many traces of Judaism can be found in ancient Chinese history. The Jews who settled in China from the 8th century on and whose numbers are smaller compared to many other ethnic/religious groups in the country were initially assimilated even though they were homogeneous at the beginning of their migration. Jews, who were assimilated into the Chinese society between the 8th and 19th centuries, became more visible in the daily social life of China thanks to the Jewish merchants who came to Hong Kong and Shanghai ports and Harbin via the trans-Siberian railway line beginning from the mid-19th century. When we add to this picture the Jews escaping from the Russian pogroms of the early 1900s and the Bolshevik Revolution, we can say that the Jewish population in China increased quantitatively at the beginning of the 20th century, when China was a safe haven for Jews. It is useful to state at this point that Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the founding leader of the Republic of China, had sympathy for political Zionism. What largely contributed to this sympathy were Sun Yat-Sen’s close ties with the American Protestant missionaries of the period and the influence of Christian Zionism.
This relationship can, on the other hand, be interpreted as Sun Yat-Sen’s search for an alliance in that he wanted to break the colonial pressure in China and sought full independence. His words about political Zionism were a significant reference for the Chinese approach to Jewish nationalism in the first quarter of the 20th century: “Despite the disappearance of their homeland, the Jewish people have existed until today. Zionism is one of the most significant social movements of today. Not all democracy lovers can help this movement, but they have to have sympathy and sincerity towards it.”
Until the middle of the 20th century, the number of Jews in China increased sporadically. After the Second World War, for example, 18,000 European Jews settled there, taking advantage of Shanghai’s applying no immigration restrictions. And in total, the number of Jews who immigrated to China from 1845 to 1950 was roughly 40,000.
However, this situation of a growing Jewish population reversed after the 1950s. The end of the Second World War, the establishment of the State of Israel (1948) and the People’s Republic of China (1949) prompted a reverse Jewish migration from China to Israel, which kept growing gradually.
In conjunction with the course of the diplomatic relations between Israel and China, the Chinese Jewish community has helped to develop the overall ties between the two countries. The Jewish population is mainly concentrated in Beijing and Shanghai. China’s diplomatic recognition of Israel in 1992 once again increased the influence of the Jewish diaspora. Although the Jews living in China today number no more than 2,500, they have a direct impact on Israeli-Chinese relations.
Current Israeli cultural impact on China
It is difficult for us to say that Israel’s lobbying activities in China and the field of academic/cultural diplomacy are just a unilateral propaganda activity. China is enthusiastic about improving its relations with Israel due to its national interests. Israel’s desire that its technologies be used by China economically and militarily causes the Chinese side to have a favorable view of these lobbying activities. Moreover, Israel is becoming a shining star in China’s Middle East policy. China, which has established good relations with Arab countries and Iran for many years, has diversified its Middle Eastern policies by making Israel an important station of the Maritime Silk Road Project. This high level of interaction has brought cultural and academic partnerships. Israel has increased its investments in China by utilizing this smooth atmosphere.
Educational and cultural activities are elements that increase Israel’s effectiveness in China and mobilize cultural interaction independent of its diaspora. Developments in areas such as student exchange programs, academic education programs and touristic activities have affected the cooperation between the two countries positively. Having made many strides in education in China, Israel has encouraged the opening of many academic programs to introduce itself. Departments and centers on Israeli, Judaic and Hebrew studies have been opened in prestigious academic institutions in China, such as Nanjing University, Henan University and Shandong University. Furthermore, in addition to 100 post-doctoral fellowships per year at Israeli educational institutions, 350 undergraduate scholarships are allocated exclusively to Chinese and Indian students. According to numbers in 2017, there were 1,000 Chinese exchange students taking classes in Israel.
On the other hand, Israeli educational institutions are expanding their campuses into China. In 2014, Tel Aviv University established an innovative research and education center with Tsinghua University. In 2015, Technion University, one of the leading universities in the field of engineering in Israel and the world, became the second institution with an independent education program in China by establishing the Guangdong Technion–Israel Institute of Technology University, after Moscow State University. In 2016, Ben-Gurion University opened a joint entrepreneurship and innovation center with Jilin University, while Haifa University built a joint laboratory in the fields of ecology, big data, biomedical and neurobiology at East China Normal University.
In addition to educational activities, tourism volume is another factor that increases Israel’s cultural appeal. Tourism mobility improves Israel’s relations with the Chinese community across borders. In 2017, the number of Chinese tourists to Israel was around 123,000. There are also direct flights from Tel Aviv to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu via different airline firms.
The rising graph of economic relations leads to cultural interaction. The Jewish culture highlighted by the Jewish population, which has been present in China for centuries, and Israel can be considered among those trends in China with rising popularity. Although the economic and political partnership between Israel and China prompted reactions from the U.S., the two countries are continuing their investments.