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Israeli Perceptions of China: Implications for the United States

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Trans-Pacific View

Israeli Perceptions of China: Implications for the United States

Insights from Carice Witte.

Israeli Perceptions of China: Implications for the United States

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, looks on during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China (March 21, 2017).

Credit: Etienne Oliveau/Pool Photo via AP

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Carice Witte Founder and Executive Director of SIGNAL, the Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership, and Deputy Director of the Center for Middle East & African Studies (CMEAS) at Renmin University in Beijing – is the 149th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Briefly explain the methodology of SIGNAL’s recent report on Israeli perceptions of China.

Unlike the U.S. and most other countries, Israeli exposure to China really began just a few years ago. Prior to 2011, a few Israeli businesspeople, travelers and students spent time there. The number of Chinese students in Israel was negligible. China-related stories were not covered in Israel’s media and Chinese tourism to Israel was nonexistent. In the past few years, this has changed.

This study is the first-ever that looks at the connection between views of China and its people and a nation’s view of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Two sample groups of Israelis [a combined total of 451 Israelis] were surveyed regarding Israeli familiarity with China, its people, the BRI and related perceptions and attitudes. Both groups were ages 18+, with fluency in Hebrew. The first group of 325 had completed up to or including a BA degree while 126 Israelis who held at least a Master’s degree comprised the second group. The first question in the questionnaire, “Have you visited China?” added another comparative dimension (in addition to education) to the study.

The results were analyzed — by means of Pearson’s correlation coefficient — to assess the correlations between the comparative dimensions (having visited China and views of China).  Furthermore, the authors also used linear regression analysis to investigate whether or not perceptions of China were predictive of Israeli views of the BRI.

How do Israelis view China and Chinese people? 

The study shows that most Israelis differentiate between China and its people on one hand and the government on the other. Israelis do not believe there is freedom of speech or press in China. At the same time, Israelis tend to view Chinese culture and its people in a positive light. Education and socioeconomic characteristics of the Israelis did influence their perceptions and attitudes — however, opinions remain positive even when controlling for these variables. Aside from the Chinese political realm, Israelis reject most of the negative stereotypes often ascribed to China, particularly in relation to its culture and people. Israelis typically characterize the Chinese as friendly to foreigners rather than hostile; hardworking as opposed to lazy; and creative as opposed to obedient.

Overall, a majority consider Israel relatively important to China and vice versa. Sino-Israel relations are perceived as friendly by 100 percent of Israelis who had visited China, and more than 70 percent of those who had not. Sixty percent of respondents think that China plays a positive role in international relations.

This said, there is a large disparity between Israelis’ positive perceptions of China and their overall awareness about the country. Most have little to no knowledge of China’s role in global politics. Only 7 percent of Israelis had heard of President Xi Jinping. Phrases associated with China included “Giant,” “Superpower,” “Billion People,” “Cheap E-Bay,” “Alibaba,” “Communism,” and “the Red.” The vast majority said they wish to know more about China.

How do Israelis understand China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?

There is modest awareness about the BRI in Israel. While 80 percent of respondents had heard of China’s ancient Silk Road, 15 percent of Israelis had heard of the BRI’s existence. After it was explained that the BRI aims to build connectivity across China and Central Asia to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, about half considered it to be good for Israel. Support for the BRI increased substantially in the group who had visited China.  Less than 10 percent said they were disturbed by the BRI. Less than half have not made up their mind or noted “I don’t care.”

How do Israeli public perceptions of China differ from American public perceptions?  

The survey investigated the perceived relevance of the great powers to Israel. It looked at views regarding China’s significance to Israel in relation to Russia and America. While Israelis appreciate that Israel and China are mutually important, the U.S. is perceived as being the most relevant to the state of Israel, followed by Russia and then China. Although our study did not compare the perceptions of Israelis with those of Americans, it is worth noting comparative Pew surveys on American public perceptions of China. According to a 2017 by Pew Research Center report, “65 percent said China is either an adversary (22 percent) or a serious problem (43 percent), while only about a third (31 percent) said China is not a problem. And in a separate spring 2016 survey, a majority (55 percent) of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of their largest Asian rival.”

What are implications of possible policy implications of the report’s findings on Israel-China relations vis-à-vis the United States?

Although Israel and China have had formal diplomatic relations since 1992, interaction between the countries was narrowly limited to arms sales and intelligence. When that ended in the early 2000s there were virtually no points of connection.  Broader relations only began in 2011 when people-to-people contacts, academic exchange, tourism, and scientific cooperation started to form.

This study results may reflect the newness of China-Israel relations. It indicates the receptive nature of Israelis to unfamiliar cultures, people, and ideas. It also shows that while Israelis are generally open-minded about China and the BRI and want to learn more, their views going forward will be determined by the steps China takes. If the BRI proves to increase business opportunities and create jobs the positive view in Israel will likely remain or increase. Should the opposite occur, Israel’s views could be expected to change accordingly. China’s global footprint is growing, and the BRI is increasingly becoming a framework for China’s foreign policy. As such, it behooves Israel, the United States and others to better understand this mega-geo-economic initiative and China itself.