This year marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of Israel and the 26th year of diplomatic ties between it and China.
Historically, the Chinese and the Jews have enjoyed good relations for more than 1,000 years, when the first Jews, from what is now Iraq, settled in China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
After the first Opium War (1839-42), Jewish communities were established in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin, Harbin and other cities in Northeast China. After World War II, most Jews left the Chinese mainland — but, since the start of the opening-up in the late 1970s, many have returned to live and work in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The Jewish community in Hong Kong, numbering about 5,000, has been the longest lasting in the modern era, with a continued presence since the 1840s. An estimated 10,000 Jews live in the Chinese mainland today.
As early as January 1950, the young state of Israel announced that it had decided to recognize the People’s Republic of China. But Chairman Mao Zedong supported the Arab and revolutionary causes, so diplomatic relations could not be implemented during his era.
It was not until January 1992 that Israel and China signed the agreement, in Beijing, to normalize diplomatic relations. Since then, economic and other ties have blossomed, especially in the last five years.
China has become one of the largest foreign investors in Israel, with an estimated $16 billion invested in 2016, much of it in startups in which the country is a world leader.
One of the earliest Chinese investors in Israel technology companies was Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing. He also donated $130 million to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the MIT of Israel — the largest donation it has ever received.
In response, it has helped to establish the Guangdong Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a joint venture between the institute and Shantou University, founded in 1981 with a donation by Li. The new institute was officially inaugurated on Dec 19, 2017.
Last September, healthcare company Sisram Medical, formerly Alma Lasers, completed its initial public offering on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, raising $112 million, the first Israeli high-tech company to list on a Chinese stock market. More will follow.
On Jan 6, an article on the economic outlook for 2018 in the Jerusalem Post said that, while Americans remained the biggest foreign investors in the Jewish state, Chinese investments into Israel might overtake the United States in a few years.
One of the reasons for the special millennial friendship between Jews and Chinese might lie in familial and school education. Especially, both cultures stress the importance of loving relationship within the family, beginning with great respect for one’s parents and teachers.
Most remarkably, unlike their experience in Europe, Russia and many other Christian and Muslim countries in the world, the Jews have never experienced discrimination or prejudice in China.
For instance, a Jew can walk the streets of the Chinese mainland or Hong Kong with a kippah (skullcap), a sign of his faith, without fear of being attacked or insulted.
Rabbi Asher Oser of the Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong described it poetically: “I believe in God and the hand of providence. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we can see God’s guiding hand, and the story of the Jews in China is one of those lucky times. We see God’s guiding hand, we have seen providence”.
Thus, with the Chinese government and among its citizens, the view has been that Jews are generally gifted, friendly, and hard-working people.
Taken together, the Chinese-Israeli connection promises to be an important vehicle to achieve the Belt and Road Initiative and the Chinese Dream.
Dominic Man-Kit Lam is chairman of the World Eye Organization and the World Culture Organization. Mark O’Neill is an author who has lived in Asia since 1978. He has written eight books on Chinese history.