The recent escalation of Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza has incited fierce reactions around the world and put Beijing in an uncomfortable position. The latest figures show that at least 1,300 Israelis were killed by Hamas’ terrorist attack on Saturday, and at least 1,400 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli government’s retaliatory strikes, while over 338,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced. While China attempts to maintain positive relations with both Israel and Palestine (and their respective allies), its official response to the crisis garnered criticism for its non-committal tone and for the alleged pro-Palestinian bias in its state-media coverage.
After Hamas’ attack, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) released a statement: “China is deeply concerned over the current escalation of tensions and violence between Palestine and Israel. We call on relevant parties to remain calm, exercise restraint and immediately end the hostilities to protect civilians and avoid further deterioration of the situation.” The MFA statement, which neither mentioned Hamas by name nor described the attack as terrorism, also declared, “The fundamental way out of the conflict lies in implementing the two-state solution.” (The Chinese government itself has been consistently opposed to any “two-state solution” in PRC-related cases, such as Taiwan or Hong Kong, and it has lobbied other countries to support its draconian policies in Xinjiang under the guise of combatting terrorism.) In the days that followed, MFA spokespersons reiterated the same language calling for peace talks and a two-state solution to address both parties’ “legitimate concerns.”
Compared to the official response by several Western governments that offered strong support to Israel, China’s was more reserved, which was seen by many Israelis as taking the side of Hamas or Palestine. China is “clearly afraid of offending the Arab side,” said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria now with the Middle East Institute. Some analysts and journalists described the Chinese response as “toothless.” James Pomfret, Joe Cash, and Chen Lin from Reuters reported on reactions from analysts who argued that China’s muted response reveals it to be averse to real conflict mediation:
“Certainly it does poke a hole in the type of propaganda … of China being this kind of massive player in the Middle East,” said Bill Figueroa, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and an expert on China-Middle East relations.
[…] “China under Xi (Jinping) wants to be respected and admired everywhere, including in the Middle East, but it is ultimately unwilling to do what it will take to resolve the really hard regional security issues,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “It goes for the low-hanging fruits and basically stops there.”
[…] “China is very successful in a stable environment in the Middle East when it’s possible to broker reconciliation agreements between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” said Jean-Loup Samaan, Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore.
“But when it comes to conflict management, that’s a very different situation,” Samaan added. “And I don’t think China ever wanted to play that role.” [Source]
Summarizing the situation for Foreign Policy, James Palmer described the Chinese public’s divided reaction to the conflict:
In China, the public is somewhat divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the early 2000s, there was strong support within China for people in Muslim countries and the Arab world, seen as the victims of U.S. imperialism. But Islamophobia has grown among the Chinese public—with state encouragement—since major unrest in Xinjiang in 2013 and a terrorist attack the following year and as the state has adopted genocidal policies in Xinjiang. That has led to a wave of support for Israel in China.
Comments on the Weibo page for the Israeli Embassy in China were split between messages of support and attacks on Israeli policy, with some antisemitic posts mixed in. (Antisemitism has grown online in China, noticeably since 2009, when a book based on a conspiracy theory blaming Jews for the global financial crisis became a bestseller.) Almost missing from the conversation were two Chinese workers reportedly killed in the Hamas attacks. [Source]
Former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin proclaimed that the “Chinese public possesses very extensive calm and rationality over Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” On Twitter, however, VOA’s Wenhao Ma shared screenshots of other Weibo conversations held after the attack, many of which displayed blatant antisemitism:
Chinese state media also appeared to lean heavily towards a pro-Palestine position in its coverage of the conflict. Some state-media reports used Iranian news clips to spread disinformation about Israeli airstrikes, which made it to Weibo’s trending topics. CCTV news showed very few scenes of Hamas’ attacks in Israel or Israeli casualties, while sharing plenty of footage of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. In the Tuesday edition of his “CCTV Follies” Substack newsletter, Phil Cunningham tallied the distribution of CCTV coverage:
China’s TV news coverage of the violence in Gaza and Israel continues to be extremely lopsided. As with CCTV’s pro-Russian coverage of Ukraine, the politically astute TV editors (under the strict direction of the party, which is under strict direction of Xi) wear CCP’s sympathies on their sleeves. This manifests itself clearly in the images they select to air for the news, (mostly bombed buildings in Gaza) and the images they elect not to air (such as the heinous Hamas attack on a dance festival in Israel, Hamas attacks on passenger cars, Hamas attacks on various villages, and Hamas taking of hostages) despite no shortage of wire service footage.
Today’s Gaza/Israel crisis clips:
-20 shots of Gaza being bombed
-2 shots of Israeli tanks on the move
-3 “victim” shots of rocket contrails over Israel
-2 shots of Sergei Lavrov talking peace [Source]
On the Global Times website, almost all of the articles about the conflict restated the official Chinese government position, chastised the U.S. and the West for escalating tensions, and criticized U.S.-backed infrastructure projects in the region. Some headlines included, “US, West urged to end neglect of Palestine issue as tension simmers,” and “GT Voice: Who stands to profit from Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” The latter argued that “the US military-industrial complex stands to gain the most again from a Middle East conflict” and that the “US response is always to escalate the violence instead of encouraging peace.” Similar articles appeared on the China Daily website, which generally stuck to covering the casualties of the conflict, but focused slightly more on deaths in Gaza.
Several Chinese citizens witnessed the Hamas attack first-hand. Some Chinese students in Israel shared videos with sounds of shooting and explosions close to their apartments. One Chinese worker was seriously wounded by rocket shrapnel, and a Beijing-born Chinese-Israeli woman, 25-year-old Noa Argamani, was kidnapped by Hamas, as seen in a video that circulated on social media. The Chinese embassy in Israel confirmed that Argamani had been “dragged from Israel to Gaza.” Reportedly, the hashtag “Israel says a mixed Chinese Israeli girl has been kidnapped” was censored on Weibo. One Global Times article quoted a Chinese citizen who managed to fly back to Beijing with Hainan Airlines: “When we landed in the capital, the entire cabin erupted in enthusiastic applause.” Other Chinese citizens were not so lucky, and allegedly did not receive much support from the embassy:
Carice Witte, head of the SIGNAL Group, a China-focused think tank based in Israel, shared with China Talk her view of the Chinese official response to the conflict, as seen through private and public Chinese commentary:
I’ve been in touch with scores of Chinese government and party policy advisors, experts, and academics over the last few days. Every single one of them, on a one-on-one basis, has offered heartfelt support, standing with Israel and supporting the people.
[…] Many Chinese people, I understand, are getting a lot of misinformation and disinformation, which is common — but it means that government censorship is allowing that misinformation to become rampant on Weibo and other social media.
[…] China’s interpretation is very much seen through the lens of, from what I can tell, the standard competition with the United States — the fear of US strength and its ability to cultivate strong alliances. That rhetoric is guiding the interpretation of what has happened here. [Source]
Kawala Xie for the South China Morning Post described how China’s reaction to the conflict may harm its relationship with Israel:
The current crisis may also hit China’s relationship with Israel. Beijing has long tried to adopt a balanced position, by supporting Palestinian statehood while also maintaining strong economic ties with Israel.
Galia Lavi, a specialist in the Belt and Road Initiative and China-Israel relations at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said Israel had been disappointed by China’s “lax response” to the Hamas attacks.
[…] “At times of need, true friends are revealed. While the US provided Israel with verbal and practical support and is currently sending an aircraft carrier to the region to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from escalating the situation, China has not even expressed sympathy. This is very unfortunate,” Lavi said. [Source]
China’s growing engagement in the Middle East makes it an important actor amid this conflict. In June, Xi Jinping hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing and called for Palestine to become a “full member” of the U.N. In March, China helped broker a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As the largest oil importer from both of those countries, China “is highly exposed to the current instability in the Middle East, especially if it escalates,” said Philip Andrews-Speed, a longtime specialist in China’s oil policies at the National University of Singapore. China is also one of very few countries to have positive relations with Iran, and given Iran’s historical ties to Hamas and alleged involvement in the latest attack, many have called on China to exert its influence on Iran to contain the conflict. On Twitter, analysts assessed the link between China’s regional influence and appetite for mediation:
Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to make a visit to Beijing later this year, but the trip will likely be postponed. On Sunday, Israel’s deputy ambassador to China criticized the official Chinese response: “[T]his is not the time to call for a two-state solution.” Despite some reports of the Weibo account of the Israeli embassy in China being briefly deleted from search results, the account is currently searchable on Weibo. The embassy has also enabled manual comment filtering on its Weibo account, but this form of comment filtering is commonly used by many embassies in China in response to negative comment flooding.