Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City after Israeli warplanes targeted the Palestinian enclave early on May 17, 2021. Armed groups had launched rockets into the Jewish state from the Gaza Strip. Photo: AFP / Anas Baba

China often portrays the US as biased against the Palestinians, while positioning itself as the ideal mediator to regional conflicts. Indeed, China did contribute a balanced voice in the early days of the Gaza conflict, based on statements from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state media.

As the operation intensified, however, China began to criticize Israel, and strangely enough, Israel was almost never mentioned. The US was the main target of their polemics, as if it were bombing Palestinians. 

China made it clear that it saw the military operation as an opening to tarnish the international image of its strategic rival, who also happens to be Israel’s most important ally. The United States’ claims that China perpetrated crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslims in Xinjiang made Israel Defense Forces actions in Gaza the ideal battering ram for Beijing’s whataboutisms

As in the Chinese proverb “to point to the mulberry tree and curse the carob tree,” China was eager to throw Israel under the bus if it meant running over the US. Slamming Israel to get in with the predominantly anti-Zionist Muslim countries was only the icing on the cake.

To begin, China supported the biased UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) decision to establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate Israeli “violations in the occupied Palestinian territory.” While Jerusalem had “grown accustomed” to China routinely voting against it under UN frameworks, this time China not only supported but was also one of the meeting’s co-sponsors.

Second, China had pushed the UN Security Council to hold three emergency sessions on the Palestine-Israel conflict in the span of a week. Absent US vetoes, the UNSC would have issued a statement condemning Israel.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also used the meetings to deliver a broadside at the US, claiming it “stands on the opposite side of international justice.” Drawing on this logic, Israel’s right to protect its civilians from deliberate attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad is unjust.

Third, Chinese criticisms were laced with anti-Semitic overtones. During the operation, an English-speaking presenter from China Global TV Network made egregiously anti-Semitic statements, claiming, among other things, that “Jews dominate [US] finance, media, and Internet sectors.” 

Chinese diplomats active on Twitter have often shared anti-Zionist and at times anti-Semitic posts. For example, China’s UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, shared a series of posts with his 10,000 followers that justified Palestinian violence and accused Israel of “crimes against humanity” and being a “occupying power” in its own country.

Former Chinese ambassadors to Israel would frequently declare, “there is no anti-Semitism in China.” Even if this were true in the past, it is no longer the case; such remarks are regularly broadcast on national  platforms, not to mention the thousands of anti-Semitic articles and comments posted daily on personal blogs and popular nationalist sites.

They instill hatred of Jews and the Jewish state in a new generation of Chinese people and contribute to the spread of global anti-Semitism.

The 4,000 projectiles fired at civilians by the Gazan terror groups led to swift condemnations by foreign ambassadors to Israel, country leaders, and even the UN. At the same time, Chinese Ambassador Cai Run, who had only presented his credentials a month before, chose not to comment on the rocket fire (which also forced him and his staff to run in the middle of the night to the bomb shelter).

An anti-Semitic caricature posted by the Chinese Embassy in Japan on April 29, showing the Israeli flag on the Grim Reaper’s scythe. The post was deleted a couple of hours later at the request of the Israeli Embassy in Japan Source: Twitter screengrab

On the other hand, his Chinese equivalent in Ramallah, Guo Wei, gave exclusive interviews on at least three occasions to Palestinian media, in which he expressed empathy for the Palestinian people’s suffering. Furthermore, he echoed China’s foreign minister, who faulted Israel for the new cycle of violence and demanded immediate “restraint” and an end to Israeli “hostilities.”

This raises the question of how China would react if one of its 14 bordering countries launched a barrage of rockets at Beijing on PRC National Day, followed by thousands of additional projectiles exploding across the country.

To conclude, the current mood in Jerusalem toward China following the operation is unfavorable. Beijing’s actions have eroded Israel’s trust in its ability to comprehend the complex realities of the conflict. 

To make matters worse, all of this occurred in the context of Beijing’s unwavering support for the Iran nuclear deal and its 25-year cooperation agreement with the regime that openly calls for Israel’s destruction and arms its adversaries.

Israel values its long-standing ties with China, and the two countries will soon mark 30 years of diplomatic relations. Israel and China are “comprehensive innovation partners,” and their leaders meet each year for an innovation conference – a remarkable diplomatic feat that demonstrates the importance they place on the bilateral ties. 

China became Israel’s largest source of imports in 2020, with US$9.44 billion in goods, and a record number of 156,100 Chinese tourists visited the country prior to the global pandemic in 2019. Investment, tourism, education, medicine, science and technology, and other areas of cooperation between the two countries flourished.

On June 8, President Xi Jinping called Israeli President Isaac Herzog to congratulate him on his election. Xi expressed his desire to strengthen mutual trust and cooperation and to take the China-Israel Comprehensive Innovation Partnership to a new level.

China has stated its willingness to assist in the resolution of the conflict and has offered to host Palestinian and Israeli officials for peace talks on two occasions. It has the resources and clout to stand by Arab states that have normalized relations with Israel and to persuade others to join them, all while contributing to regional stability, development, and prosperity.

But to achieve genuine breakthroughs, China must be more objective, address Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and respect its historic and strong alliance with the US. 

Tuvia Gering

Tuvia Gering is a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation’s Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Israel, a non-resident fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah Fund’s Krauthammer fellow based in Jerusalem. Follow hin on Twitter @geringtuvia.