A harrowing video that was recently posted on the Chinese social media platform Weibo shows a Chinese Israeli woman, Noa Argamani, being taken away on a motorcycle by Hamas militants. Some of the callous comments that Chinese netizens posted beneath it are difficult to read.
The one with the most “likes” – 1,861 as of October 20 – said, “I don’t want to pay attention to her!”
The second most liked comment went further: “Israeli soldiers are all Nazis, killing monsters!” (Argamani served in the Israeli military, a requirement for most Israeli citizens.)
These comments most likely do not reflect the average Chinese person’s attitude toward Argamani’s plight, but they do offer an illustration of the atmosphere on the Chinese internet. Antisemitism has always been an issue in pockets of the Chinese social media ecosystem, but the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza has brought a fresh outpouring of hate.
Since Hamas’ terrorist attack on October 7, and Israel’s ensuing bombardment of the Gaza Strip, the Chinese internet has been awash with antisemitism, including many comments that are too extreme to repeat in this article. There is also a smaller strain of anti-Palestinian content that often veers into Islamophobia.
Hateful online content is a global scourge. The Chinese information space, however, is unique in that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tightly controls the messages circulating on social media platforms through both automated and manual tools, meaning the hate speech that remains uncensored reflects the regime’s decisions. In Freedom House’s newly released Freedom on the Net 2023 report, China was ranked as having the world’s worst environment for internet freedom – for the ninth straight year.
Amid the new round of conflict, Jin Canrong, a prominent international affairs professor with 2.7 million followers on Weibo, wrote, “Israel right now is crazed with killing, the U.N. can’t be of much use this time.”
“Hitler truly knew the Jews” was the most liked comment in response to Jin’s post.
Chinese social media platforms, which are quick to delete content that the government deems politically sensitive, have done little to restrict antisemitic content that clearly violates their community standards prohibiting hate speech or speech that might incite racial discrimination or violence.
Instead of condemning antisemitism, the Chinese government, through the state media, has only exploited the conflict to play up antisemitic tropes and spread disinformation. On October 10, in a program on “uncovering the Israel element of U.S. elections in history,” the state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) alleged that “Jews, who represent 3 percent of U.S. population, control 70 percent of its wealth.” Similarly, during an outbreak of fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in May 2021, China Global Television Network (CGTN), the government’s primary foreign-language news channel, aired a program in English on Israel-U.S. relations, attributing the two countries’ close ties to the notion that “Jews dominate finance, media, and internet sectors” in the United States.
Beijing’s condoning and dissemination of antisemitic propaganda is no surprise given that Israel is a close partner of the United States, which the CCP sees as posing an existential threat to its rule of China. The regime has consistently seized on international conflicts as opportunities to undermine Washington’s standing in the global order. Many of the recent state media reports blamed U.S. imperialism as the root cause of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The CCP has historically supported the Palestinian national movement in the name of anticolonial and anti-imperialist solidarity. China was among the first states to recognize a “state of Palestine.” For its part, the Palestinian Authority, which governs a portion of the West Bank, has endorsed Beijing’s persecution of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which may constitute crimes against humanity, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
As with antisemitic content, the Chinese government and Chinese social media companies have shown little interest in addressing the spread of Islamophobic content. One netizen wrote, “Palestine has no civilians. It only has little terrorists, old terrorists, female and male terrorists, who should all be wiped out.” Chinese social media platforms, used by Chinese people inside and outside of the country, have long been vectors of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and false information.
Online hate speech – whether it is antisemitism, Islamophobia, or some other form of bigotry – is a growing threat to human rights and democracy around the world. In many countries, civil society has played a critical role in tracking and countering such material. Organizations like Freedom House have worked closely with local activists, lawmakers, and technology companies to create policies that reduce the spread of hateful and inciting content in countries where such remedial efforts are permitted.
But in China, the CCP has nearly eliminated the space for independent domestic civil society groups, and it has blocked or even criminalized interactions with foreign nongovernmental organizations. As a result, there are few in a position to challenge hate online, particularly when incendiary speech is fomented by the government itself.
In a recent essay, the well-known Chinese writer Yashalong expressed concern about the possibility that such online hate could lead to offline violence: “A breath out always follows after a breath in. Blood in word very likely becomes blood in deed.”