Tensions in the Middle East have grown sharply as Israel stages air attacks (and now a ground assault) against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Compared to the high-profile reports on the crisis from the U.S. and other Western countries, China’s official comments are more low-profile and cautious. However, Chinese netizens have showed unusual passion about and interest in this distant, ongoing conflict. What is going on?
To understand netizen attitudes, we first have to understand China’s position on Israel-Palestine relations. For decades, China did not try to stay out of the conflict. Under Mao Zedong, China sided with Palestine. Former Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping had almost unconditional support for the revolutionary cause led by Yasser Arafat, who was called “an old friend of the Chinese people.” The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) obtained both funds and weapons from China.
The Palestinian case was a rare example of China directly interfering with the affairs of the Middle East. Aside from being an example of China’s idealist foreign policy during this period, support for Palestine also represented Beijing’s political calculations. As Palestine had widespread support from other Arab countries, China’s stance helped it win influence in the third world. Under these circumstances, China was unwilling to accept positive overtures from Israel. Even though Israel was the first country in the Middle East to acknowledge the founding of PRC, the two countries would not establish official diplomatic relations until 1992.
During the 1980s, China began to abandon ideologically-driven diplomacy as part of its reform and opening process. China gradually began to draw closer to Israel. The reason is quite simple: Israel’s defense technology was attractive to China. Israel’s advanced technology and investments also were a good match with China’s developmental needs. Today, China-Israel military exchanges and economic cooperation have become two major pillars for bilateral relations. At the same time, China’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed from unilateral condemnation of Israel to a neutral stance. Palestine was not happy, but had no choice but to accept the change.
Nowadays, China is still gradually revising and improving its diplomatic policies. With an increasing focus on diplomacy in the Middle East, China is increasingly called on to take a stand on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Interestingly, although the Chinese government has not taken any action regarding the current crisis, public opinion has solidified into two distinct groups. In online forums, one side (comprised mostly of Muslims) condemns Israel. They have begun a movement calling on China to be more like Western countries that freely express anger over the attack on Gaza. On the other side of the debate are netizens who support Israel (mostly non-Muslims). Their comments emphasize their deep disgust for extremism and terrorism; they have even taken to attacking anyone who opposes Israel’s military operations as a terrorist sympathizer. These two groups within China have been having an increasingly heated debate over a conflict taking place thousands of miles away in the Middle East. Israel and Palestine could never have expected this when they began their conflict.
Of course, there are also some people who occupy the middle ground, supporting Israel’s right to safeguard security while opposing excessive killing. This group’s comments match the Chinese government’s official statements on the Israel-Palestine conflict. But just as the Chinese government’s neutral voice does not play a dominant role in global media coverage on Israel-Palestine conflict, so China’s neutral commenters are not representative of internet opinion.
The online debate suggests that China has a vested interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The war of words between Chinese netizens touches on fractures within China itself.
Among the group that opposes Israel’s attack on Gaza, there have been calls for Chinese and other media outlets to provide more coverage of the disaster in Gaza. Some have even warned of a “Jewish conspiracy” that China must avoid. Some Muslim commenters further argue that all Muslims in the world should unite as one family.
By contrast, the group that supports Israel argues that the terrorist threats faced by China are controlled and implemented by extremist groups like Hamas. They believe such extremist groups are connected to Chinese terror cells, and may be responsible for luring in a small number of Chinese Muslims. They argue that Israel’s intense attack on this group will help China’s own fight against terrorism.
Though the Chinese government has tried to keep a low-profile and keep its diplomacy balanced between Israel and Palestine, China also faces threats from terrorism and extremism. Thus it cannot stay out of the conflict completely. The security of western China is closely connected with the security of the Middle East. More seriously, Chinese public opinion has already become involved in this unexpected crisis. Online comments from netizens are more than just idle talk: they represent different expectations and hopes for China’s social governance and diplomatic policies. China’s government, media, and society need to face this reality and find a way to deal with the problem.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is quite complex. The back-and-forth conflict has raged for decades and cannot be described in simplistic terms as “just” or “unjust.” It’s dangerous that Chinese public opinion has become so extreme and partisan. As a country with a large Muslim population, China needs to pay attention to public debate about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The online debate can be a starting point for understanding the underlying social issues within China itself.
China is concerned about Chinese Muslims becoming “Middle Easternized”: adopting extremist ideology wherein they believe the Middle East is their true home. Instead, China wants its citizens to think of themselves as Chinese first and Muslim second. But online comments about the crisis in Gaza show this effort hasn’t been entirely successful.
Meanwhile, China also has to avoid excessively praising Israel’s attack on terrorism. Otherwise Israel’s anti-Hamas operation might become a tool for those who wish to attack all Muslims. Anti-terrorist sentiment that goes too far and becomes anti-Muslim is dangerous for China domestically, and could also damage China’s political and economic interests in the Middle East.