As a reporter, I have been focused on Israel and the Middle East for almost two decades – which makes me unique among Chinese journalists. Since 2006, I have been checking Israeli and Gulf media outlets for news almost every day, even during the Chinese New Year.
During this Gaza war, the outpouring of interest from people in China has been unprecedented. I have not seen so many Chinese people so interested in the conflict between Palestine and Israel at any point in the past 20 years.
I write articles and shoot videos every day to share with Chinese netizens about the war and provide my analysis. The forwards, comments, and likes below each article and video usually range in the few hundred or thousands, sometimes even more than 10,000. The level of interest feels similar to when the war in Ukraine began.
Russia is a de facto ally of China, so it is natural for Chinese people to care about its war in Ukraine. But why are Chinese people paying so much attention to the Gaza war?
One answer is the obvious: The October 7 attack on Israel was the largest such attack in recent memory, with the heaviest casualties in decades. Of course it attracts the attention of the whole world, including Chinese people – even those who don’t typically follow foreign affairs.
But there are also reasons for the intense level of interest that are unique to China.
International Affairs, Domestic Issues
First, Chinese people do not have enough room for expressing opinions on the streets, in public forums, and other occasions. Only social media gives them rare, limited, opportunities for freer expression. In the context of China, many Chinese people regard internet discussions on international issues as a metaphor for domestic issues.
For example, many netizens posted messages like: “The Chinese government did not label Hamas as a terrorist group, so I agree. I will keep my view with the Chinese government.”
Some others believe that China should condemn Hamas’ attack as terrorism. After all, it has abducted civilians from more than 10 countries and killed more than 260 young people who were attending a music festival. This brutality is not aimed at Israel, but at all humans. If China does not condemn Hamas, it may affect China’s image.
We can say that these different views on Hamas and Israel actually reflect their different attitudes toward China’s internal and foreign policies. On the surface, these netizens are talking about the Middle East issue, but they are actually discussing Chinese policy.
An Educational Gap
Second, the Chinese generally lack deeper education about the European theater of World War II, with their education emphasizing the Anti-Japanese War. Yes, middle school history books mention the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust, but it is a very brief and simple examination. As a result, most Chinese people do not understand clearly the history of the Jews, nor their historical connection with the Middle East.
Many Chinese netizens are paying attention to the Gaza war in part because they are curious about Israel, Arab countries, and the Middle East. Reading news about the current conflict is a window into a deeper understanding of a key part of the world. Chinese people are also actively looking for information about Jews, World War II, and the Middle East. It is as if a sizable chunk of China’s online population is taking a crash course in Israeli and Jewish history.
Over the past week, the Weibo account of Israel’s Embassy in China, which posts content about the Hamas attacks every day, has become the focus of netizens’ attention. It has great influence on the Chinese internet, which is searching for knowledge about the Middle East to the Chinese ordinary people.
But the Israeli Embassy’s posts also attract a lot of negative comments from Chinese people, which reflect the wider lack of understanding.
For example, a lot of comments from nationalists compare Hamas’ attack against Israel to Chinese resistance against Japanese aggression. Some posts even expressed a wish that the Chinese fighters of more than 90 years ago could have learned from Hamas’ tactics.
There are also some netizens who can’t distinguish between Hamas and Palestine. Many Chinese people think Hamas represents all of Palestine, all Palestinians. Others with a more nuanced understanding refute this and try to explain: Palestine’s mainstream hopes to coexist with Israel in the framework of a “two-state solution,” while Hamas wants to destroy Israel. Hamas does not represent Palestine at all.
But some simply dismiss all attempts at nuanced explanation. All land in Israel used to be Palestinian before, and Israeli are just foreign immigrants, these netizens argue, again showing the lack of base knowledge. Like social media users around the world, some simply don’t want to be educated.
Room for Conspiracy Theories
Third, most Chinese people do not understand foreign languages and rarely come into contact with foreigners. Most Chinese people will not meet a Jewish person or an Arab person in their whole lifetime. Under these circumstances, it is easy to be brainwashed by conspiracy theories flowing freely on the internet.
For example, a distressing number of Chinese people believe that Jews control the United States. During this Gaza war, many Chinese netizens are still spreading such antisemitic rumors. Of course, the Chinese government and state-owned media steer clear of these conspiracy theories, but the vast Chinese censorship network usually does not bother to delete such rumors.
Similarly, there are negative remarks about Arab people in general and Palestinians in particular on the internet. In contrast to the comments about Jewish people, however, these are generally not grand conspiracy theories; they are usually jeers belittling Arabs or reflecting insulting stereotypes. These comments will also not be deleted by Chinese network censors because these remarks are not seen as harming the interests of the Chinese government.
However, these stereotypes have a great impact on the Chinese netizens’ understanding of the world. If there could be more reliable information, it may change some people’s views.
I try my best to introduce the Middle East and the Gaza war with an objective attitude in my articles and videos. That has won me support from many netizens, and some have trusted me with personal information, such as reports about friends injured or killed by Hamas in Israel. In some cases I have gotten such news earlier than Chinese officials.
In this way, I can see that more and more Chinese people do not believe in the information they receive through Chinese media. When people start to notice the external world more actively than before, they begin seeking more information from other sources.
The U.S. Looms Large
Fourth, in this issue and many others, Chinese netizens think of the United States at all times. In any war or conflict occurring around the world, Chinese people will find a connection to the United States. This has become the mainstream public opinion in China.
The same is true for this Gaza war. Many Chinese think that if Israel collapses, the U.S. influence in the Middle East will be completely over, so they support Hamas without any hesitation. After all, the United States is the biggest supporter of Israel, so many Chinese automatically assume they should take the other side, whatever it is.
It sometime seems that the United States is unaware of this dynamic. As the Gaza war broke out, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Chuck Schumer, happened to be on a long-planned trip to China. He took advantage of the timing to press the Chinese government to support Israel.
After the Chinese media published this news, some Chinese netizens lambasted Schumer in the comments, expressing disbelief that he was encouraging China to support Israel. How can China stand on the U.S. side? netizens asked.
However, others suggest that China and the United States can find common ground on the Gaza war, because they are both concerned about civilian casualties and dislike Hamas, and they agree a two-state solution is the only way toward peace in the Middle East.
Of course, some Chinese believe that only the United States can bring peace to the Middle East in the future and China’s vague policy on Palestine and Israel cannot change that reality. For example, I have noticed some making the argument that if Hamas is eliminated, there will be more hope for peace. For that, they add, the United States needs to give Israel more help.
In short, the Gaza war has split Chinese public opinion, revealing a variety of schisms in attitudes toward foreign policy, the United States, and even the Chinese government itself. Chinese people will continue to watch the unfolding conflict, as will the rest of the world.