In a public discourse that tends to applaud anything that the United States opposes (remember the online expressions of pleasure after 9/11 on the Chinese Internet!), the general pro-Israeli sentiment is an interesting exception. Partly, it is due to the popular trope of identifying Chinese with Jews as nations with common values and fates (which is not that new; see Zhou Xun’s book Youtai); partly to the spreading fear of Islam (which is new, and, curiously, perhaps first came to prominence in the reactions to the anti-Chinese pogroms in Indonesia in 1998); and partly to Israel’s good relations with China (which notably include the sale of arms, something both the EU and the US refuse to allow). At the same time (see, again, Zhou Xun’s book), Chinese philosemitic discourse is a mirror-image of Western antisemitic discourse, with all the essential attributes (and the equation of Jews with Israel) the same. But because the Israel topic is a bit of an anomaly — i.e. there is no clear “guiding opinion” in the mainstream discourse, as the government officially maintains a neutral position (Hamas’ missiles are made in China!) — there is also a more even-handed debate on it, so that it is a good gauge of the diversity and originality of thinking in the Chinese cyberpublic sphere.
On Tianya (the most popular Chinese online forum, if this needs reminding), a debate was triggered by a post on 5 January (i.e. at the beginning of the conflict) by dumoxing entitled “Zhou Xiaozheng, you’re a traitor (hanjian), a running dog of Israel, a slave girll” 周孝正,你是汉奸,以色列的走狗,你是奴才. Dumoxing posted what seemed to be part of a lecture by Zhou Xiaozheng, a Chinese People’s University professor of sociology, in which Zhou declares that “Israel is a good country.” This is based primarily on two arguments: that Israel compensated the families of Chinese construction workers in Israel who died in a terror attack (and, according to Zhou, received no assistance from the Chinese government) and that Israel spared no effort and money to recover the bodies of Israeli mountaineers who died in an accident in China. (Zhou seems to have a particular interest in labour injury compensation, a major topic in China, which may partly explain his enthusiasm.) He then adds other, common arguments in Israel’s/the Jews’ favour: that they have given the world many great men (from Einstein and Freud to Soros — this is interesting because Soros, as the putative mastermind of the “Asian financial crisis,” got some negative and partly anti-Semitic publicity in China at the time) and that the Jews are good not only at business but also at learning (“the people who read and collect most books on average in the world are the Israelis”).
Interestingly, dumoxing denounced Zhou as a “traitor” and “running dog” not because of anything to do with Gaza, but because he claimed that it was not true that the Israeli government compensated the families of the dead Chinese workers. Dumoxing did not explain why Zhou was a “traitor” — another sign that this term has become a generic expletive on the Chinese Internet, little to do with a person’s putative patriotism.
The post did not generate too many responses by Tianya standards — only a thousand or so. What is interesting is that the vast majority of respondents expressed their criticism for the post (some indeed called dunoxing a traitor and a supporter of terrorism) and their support for Israel. Their reasons varied. One respondent mentioned the long suffering of the Jewish people in the course of history and their right to their own state. But this argument, so common in the West, was not echoed by anyone else. More respondents said they supported Israel (or at least opposed Hamas) because Hamas was a terrorist group (and as one comment added, of one ilk with the East Turkestan separatists). And 一种情感 wrote that Israel was “a liberal democracy surrounded by evil.” Yet others presented arguments that had to do with China, either directly (i.e. Israel’s friendly relations with China) or by analogy, as a proxy for China itself (an ancient civilization, fighting against the odds to maintain its territorial integrity in the face of separatists and a hostile world): “I support Israel because it is one of the world’s three great superior races” (他是世界三大优秀人种). (glmctyg, 5 January) It is not clear what the other two are, but I bet the Chinese are among them. “Is Gaza Israel’s, or is it the Palestinians’? Is Xinjiang China’s, or is it the East Turkestan [separatists’]?” (lismallfish, 5 January) 色CAT wrote that “The Jews are a great nation/race (民族),” adding that s/he “remembers how cruelly those Chinese died under the knives of the Muslims on the photos of the Indonesian massacre” (i.e. the 1998 pogroms). Perhaps the most telling is cybersnow’s comment: “Personally, I support Israel. The spirit of strengthening itself tirelessly and treasuring its people’s life chances deserves our admiration. Not like some countries that treat Westerners as masters.” Surprisingly for the Western reader, some Chinese see Israel (rather than Arab countries) as standing up doggedly for its self-interest against Western pressure!
A few comments were generically Islamophobic, such as this one by se7en1985:
I extremely dislike the little white Muslim skullcaps. The Xinjiang thieves [there is a stereotype of Uyghurs as criminals in urban China], the Indonesian anti-Chinese elements, the East Turkestan separatists, they’re all fucking little white skullcaps [i.e. Muslims].
Or the one by 斯洛伐克三百勇士 (writing, to judge by the nickname, from Slovakia): “A running dog of Israel is still a humdred times better than a running dog of the raghead heretics.” Or another by jhd801215, reflecting the popular social Darwinist view that the Jews (like the Europeans and the Chinese) are superior nation-races, while others are inferior: “Yes, Israel has done well to teach those low-class Arab nations a lesson!” Yet these comments remained a minority, unlike for example in much more heated discussions of Indonesia on the same forum, where calls for violent action were much more commonplace.
Some other respondents — they became more numerous later on in the debate, but clearly remained a minority — were critical of Israel. badteeth, for example, wrote: “With an American godfather, African natives could make their own country in the Middle East too.” 孙惟声明 wrote that although s/he “rather supported Israel, they should try and avoid civilian deaths.” Several others commented that Israel was occupying other people’s land and killing innocent civilians who had nothing to do with the terrorism of Hamas. Other criticism used China as a yardstick in the same way as many positive comments did. wjwenoch wrote that “Hamas are guerrillas, but what are ordinary people in Gaza guilty of? … Why do Israelis have to kill those children? At the time when the Chinese defeated the Japanese, they even took care of the orphans they left behind.” 美驸马 wrote that the situation was complicated and reminded readers of an Israeli athlete who had called China “shit” and of a Chinese-language newspaper editor in Israel who had got into trouble.
Overall, a diversity of arguments, drawing both international (anti-terrorist, anti-Islamic, post-Holocaust, humanitarian and human-rights) discourses and the philosemitic ones peculiar to China (national sovereignty. It is very interesting, though, that unlike in discussions of most other international conflicts, America (or “the West”) as a “black hand” appears only in one comment, and while the idea of “Islam” as a general threat does come up, this view is not dominant. In other words, unlike in much of the West where the conflict is seen as a proxy for perceived larger battles, the Chinese discussion generally sees it in local terms.