China has sympathized with the Palestinian cause since Chinese Communist Party founder Mao Zedong sent weapons to Palestinians in support of their liberation movement against Israel.
Since then, China and Israel have developed a multibillion-dollar trading relationship with a free trade agreement under discussion. But after the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, anti-Israel and antisemitic comments have flooded China’s tightly controlled internet and the online accounts of Israel’s embassy in Beijing.
And in his speech at a virtual summit on the Israel-Hamas war by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group on Nov. 21, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “The fundamental reason for the Israeli-Palestinian situation today is that the Palestinian people's rights to statehood, survival and return have long been disregarded.”
Irit Ben-Abba Vitale, the Israeli ambassador in Beijing, spoke with VOA Mandarin in a telephone interview on Nov. 23, to discuss her nation’s views on China's official stance, Israel-China relations and the current antisemitic rhetoric in China.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: China appears to support the Palestinians and advocates for a two-state solution. How does this color Beijing’s position on the current conflict?
Irit Ben-Abba Vitale, Israeli Ambassador to China: Almost from the establishment of the People's Republic of China, (the two-state solution) has been the policy of the leadership here. We view the war as the Hamas-Israel war. The Chinese side looks at it more as part of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Since they don't recognize Hamas as being a terrorist organization, they also don't mention, Hamas is the entity or the organization that Israel is fighting.
We try to position our views; we listen to the Chinese views. We see the Chinese engage by sending their special envoy to the Middle East, to several countries. And there's this shuttle diplomacy that the special envoy from China is doing in the region. We are briefed, and we again present our positions. We also told the Chinese government that we were disappointed by their official statement that came on the eighth of October.
VOA: Have Israel-China relations changed because of the conflict between Israel and Hamas? Will Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still plan to visit China?
Vitale: I don't think relations have changed. (China) doesn't recognize (Hamas) as a terrorist organization. We disagree on that. Nevertheless, we have very good relations with China. We hope that very soon we can continue with our normal bilateral relations and promote economic and trade ties and we can still disagree on political issues.
The prime minister, of course, his visit had to be postponed because of the war.
VOA: Chinese officials use the term “Palestine-Israel” conflict rather than “Israel-Hamas” war. Have you ever suggested they change that narrative?
Vitale: China looks at it with a much broader perspective, yes, this is part of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. They don't look at it as a war against the terrorist organization that has to be dismantled from its military capabilities and administrative capabilities. This is the target of this war, [it] is very precise, and we made it very, very clear. We are trying to explain our position to the Chinese side, we say it's not a war against the Palestinians.
VOA: Antisemitism is surging in China online and in state media. What is your response?
Vitale: The antisemitic, anti-Israel discourse that we saw quite intensively in the last month has subsided. What we have seen in the last month was a global kind of trend. So, this definitely was never a phenomenon in China. I would even say the contrary is true, what we have seen all these years in China is a very positive kind of attitude to Jews and to Israelis. There’s always been quite an admiration even — Israel is such a small country, in a very short time, in a very difficult environment managed to be so successful developing our economy and high technologies — This (admiration) is something that we heard a lot.
VOA: Responding to antisemitic comments on Chinese social media, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a press briefing last month, that Chinese law stipulates it is forbidden to use the Internet to promote extremism, ethnic hatred and discriminatory and violent information.
Vitale: The Chinese side had to come up and say something like this to remind the people here that it's against the Chinese law to discriminate, (to spread) hatred discourse and violence in the social media, the internet. This was a very important message to the general public.
(VOA Mandarin has found the Israeli Embassy’s account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, continues to be overwhelmed with antisemitic and anti-Israeli messages such as one posted on Nov. 22: “We have to do what Israel says. If we don't do what Israel says, we are antisemitic, complicit, and will be hit by force!”)
VOA: Have you considered engaging with the local community on Israel’s stance of the war?
Vitale: Since the beginning of the war, there was no coverage at all of the massacre on the seventh of October. Because immediately, the Chinese media started only covering Israel retaliation attacks in Gaza. So, what would they know? We were trying to balance it, explaining to our Chinese followers, look, we were brutally attacked, murdered, butchered, beheaded on the seventh of October. So, this is why we are now (saying) it's self-defense. It's a retaliation to what happened in Israel on the seventh of October.