The Struggle with China: Jews, Israel, and the International Community

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
January 8, 2014
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Globalization divides as much as it unites…What appears as globalization for some means localization for others; signaling a new freedom for some, upon many others it descends as an uninvited and cruel fate.” -Zygmunt Bauman (Globalization: The Human Consequences, p. 2, 1998)

There was a time when Jews, locked in ghettoes, were forced to only consider survival and protection. We find ourselves in a very different position in the 21st century with our own nation-state, more security in the diaspora, and the opportunity to build strategic global partnerships. Of all such partnerships, our relationship with China has been one of the most complicated.

Although Jews have resided in China for more than 1,300 years, there are only about 2,500 Jews residing in China today — almost all in Shanghai. Many Chinese have a positive view of Jews (unlike other peoples, who may be subject to racism), due to the perceived shared respect for family and education. In addition, unlike many Christian sects, Jews do not actively seek to convert the Chinese, which is seen as a positive by the general population and also by a government that is suspicious of outside groups that may compete for loyalty. And although the stereotypical perception that Jews are good at making money has led to our persecution in other societies, the Chinese view this as a positive Jewish attribute, and admire us for it.

While the relationship between Israel and China was a bit rocky from the start — Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the PRC (The People’s Republic of China) in October 1949, but China did not recognize Israel until January 1992[1] — today, Israel and China have a very significant and mutually beneficial relationship, with Sino-Israeli trade annually exceeding $7.65 billion US dollars. As China’s second largest supplier of arms, Israel has provided China access to advanced weapons technology, intelligence, and communications that the United States and Europe have refused to provide. Israel has also raised the number of visiting, Chinese scholarship students to 250 and China, for its part, has offered to help Israel upgrade its transportation system with its expertise in high-speed trains.

With signs of increased collaboration between Israel and China — consider, for example, the recent 130 million dollar donation to Israel’s Technion University from Chinese Billionaire Li Ka-Shing — many Israelis are hopeful that the ideas and technology of the “start-up nation” can combine with the manufacturing might of China to maximize economic growth for both nations. In fact,  this past May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to China to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to further plan and implement economic and technological cooperation between the two nations. The visit was deemed a success by all parties involved, with Netanyahu remarking that Chinese and Israeli officials, “… work[ed] out a strategic plan to enable the highest level of cooperation between Israeli technologists, businesspeople, and experts and all facets of the Chinese economy.”

Given that China, according to World Bank data from 2012, is the world’s second-largest economy with growth averaging 10 percent annually, it makes sense that Israel would want to seize upon the many economic opportunities ripe for collaboration, including agriculture, renewable energy, biomedicine, electronics, communications, manufacturing, and security. However, in its dealings with China, Israel must also be careful to not seem as if it is condoning the nefarious actions, behaviors, and human rights abuses that the Chinese government regularly employs.

According to the group, Human Rights Watch, China continues to exercise authoritarian control and censorship throughout its society with an internal suppression budget — called “social stability maintenance” — that now surpasses its military budget. Over 100,000 political opponents are being “re-educated through labor,” and human rights activists, like Chen Guangcheng and Liu Xiaobo, are routinely subject to harassment and violence, and are held under house arrest for indefinite periods of time. Even worse, many political dissenters, civil rights activists, and human rights activists simply “disappear” and are never heard from again.

China’s power to control individual lives is further epitomized in its one-child only policy, which has often been brutally applied by forcing women into having abortions. Recently, however, China announced it would ease this policy and the implementation of “re-education through labor” camps. Yet the 60 reforms that Beijing has promised have been left ambiguous in terms of how they’ll be implemented.

China’s rapid growth as a world power has also come at a cost to its own people. While 500 million of its 1.3 billion people have risen out of poverty, nearly 130 million people still earn less than the equivalent of $1.80 daily — only India has a larger population of poor people. And just as England industrialized through brutal methods such as the Enclosure Movement, and the Soviet Union industrialized with Stalin’s brutal 5-Year Plans, so too has China employed brutal methods of industrialization through its own version of the 5-Year Plan in the form of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.” This has resulted in social and economic upheaval; with tens of millions of people having died, and millions more being displaced as whole cities were transplanted to provide ready labor for new factories.

On the global stage, the results of China’s industrialization have been mixed. On the one hand, every American consumer knows that many of the items used in daily life ­— from clothing, to computers and office supplies, to children’s toys — are cheaply available, because they are manufactured in China where labor is both plentiful and inexpensive. On the other hand, in order for these goods to be cheap and abundant, inhumane working conditions and unscrupulous methods of production are routinely employed. Consider, for example, that when Americans needed building materials after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, they imported a great deal of drywall and appliances from China. Unfortunately, the poorly manufactured drywall produced foul smells and caused severe respiratory problems and other health ailments. Furthermore, air conditioners and other major appliances that were imported functioned improperly and/or failed to work at all because of defective, Chinese materials.

In another incident in 2008, it was discovered that 20 Chinese companies had added melamine, a chemical used in laminates and adhesives, to 70 products, in order to produce a higher protein content in tests. Tragically, these melamine-contaminated products killed 6 infants and affected at least 294,000 others (many developed kidney stones) before the scandal broke. Of course, what can be expected of the poor quality control when the workers in Chinese manufacturing facilities are often children subjected to horrible working conditions, absurdly low pay, no benefits, and constant abuse?

China’s unrestricted economic expansion has also had severely detrimental and exacting consequences on the environment. China is, by far, the world’s worst polluter. With its greenhouse gas emissions accounting for over 30% of the world’s total, China, since 2000, has been responsible for two-thirds of the global growth in carbon-dioxide emissions (this is mostly due to uncontrolled coal burning, followed by vehicle emissions). In October, the city of Harbin (with a population greater than 10 million) was enveloped in impenetrable smog that literally brought the city to a halt for 2 days. This was not an isolated incident as similar occasions have been reported in other major Chinese cities, including Beijing in January; in fact, the World Bank estimates that 16 of the world’s most polluted cities are located in China. In 2010, air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China and in 2012, smog-related economic losses totaled over $1 billion in four major Chinese cities.

Fortunately, China’s 2011-2015 5-Year Plan envisions a less robust economic growth (7 percent) with an increased focus on pollution control and better education and health care. China has also  started to invest heavily in green energy and is now ranked as the world’s largest investor in the field. By 2017, China says it will spend $817 billion to drastically cut pollution and by 2020, the Chinese government aims to get 20% of its energy from renewable energy sources.

Many approaches taken by the Chinese leadership should give us pause to consider our global response. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about the importance of bringing our core values to shape the development of globalization.

There can be no doubt that some of the economic surplus of the advanced economies of the world should be invested in developing countries to help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal education, combat treatable disease, reduce infant mortality, improve work conditions, and reconstruct failing economies. As with tzedakah, the aim should be to restore dignity and independence to nations as well as individuals. Whether this is done in the name of compassion, social justice, or human solidarity it has now become a compelling imperative. The globalization of communications, trade, and culture globalizes human responsibility likewise. The freedom of the few must not be purchased at the price of the enslavement of the many to poverty, ignorance, and disease, (“Global Covenant: A Jewish Perspective on Globalization,” Making Globalization Good, 224).

As Israel and the Jewish people decide how to proceed with the emerging superpower that is China, it is of particular importance that we hold ourselves and others to high moral and ethical standards whenever possible. Of course, Israel must build strategic relationships with major nations for its own political and economic interests. But it should also be a model state for just practices.

The huge population, geographic size, and rapid economic growth of China ensure it will be a superpower to contend with, and Jews have a crucial role to play in understanding and engaging with this country. With our many shared values of texts, traditions, education, and family, the Jewish people can play a role not only in ensuring our survival and success, but also in perpetuating our values of life, dignity, and freedom.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

[1] This can be explained in part due to China’s Cold War allegiance with the Soviet Union, whose eventual downfall cleared the path for relations between Israel and China to form.


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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Insitute. Rav Shmuly completed his Masters at Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, a Masters at Harvard in Moral Psychology and a Doctorate at Columbia in Epistemology and Moral Development. Rav Shmuly is the author of Jewish Ethics and Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century and his second book was Epistemic Development in Talmud Study.

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