China’s Rising Anti-Semitism
A wave of anti-religious sentiment in China is Party-orchestrated.
Most of us wouldn’t think to associate anti-Semitism with a country like China, where the Jewish population, never very large, is currently estimated to be 2,500. Which makes it all the more difficult to explain the past two months, during which China’s internet has been flooded with anti-Jewish rhetoric. A video of Noa Argamani, an Israeli woman with a Chinese mother, who was kidnapped by Hamas on October 7, draws only contempt: she is, for instance, called a “Nazi” in a post drawing thousands of likes. Influencers with millions of followers describe the entire state of Israel as a “terror organization.” Memes merging the Star of David with a swastika are now so common that the German Embassy in Beijing has been roused to vigorously comment.
Meanwhile, the Holocaust itself is celebrated. A blogger with thousands of followers wrote, “The Germans have since long seen through the true nature and character of the Jewish people.” A poster responded to the story of an Israeli family murdered in their home by writing, “Auschwitz misses you.” Netizens have swamped video platform Bilibili with negative reviews of Schindler’s List, dragging its rating from 9.6 all the way down to 4.3. Maybe most ominously of all, in October, the name “Israel” simply vanished from digital maps hosted by top Chinese tech companies.
And anti-Semitism has begun leaking from the cyber-realm into the real world. A member of staff at the Israeli embassy in Beijing was stabbed in the street by a masked individual. He survived the attack; the news was censored in China.
“I don’t understand what’s the matter with the Chinese,” said one mainland acquaintance of mine. “We don’t even believe in the Bible here.” Her implication was that Jewishness surely means little to the average Chinese mainlander, who had no particular reason for viewing Jews negatively. Another Chinese acquaintance had no such confusion or qualms, writing, in a WeChat post, “Israel and the US are the cancer of the earth!” But while that specific post appeared to represent a genuine opinion, all may not be as it seems. There are many reasons to believe that this wave of anti-Semitism was manufactured.
The Party expends huge effort in controlling online sentiment, and it is largely successful. Even today, many Chinese know nothing at all of the Tiananmen Square massacre until they travel overseas—the result of a blanket censorship of any mention of the event. If anti-Semitism proliferates on the internet, we can be certain that the authorities want it there. And they are not merely passive observers. The Party has form when it comes to inventing public opinion.
Sometime around 2019 (when ProPublica first started tracking the story), 10,000 fake Twitter accounts with ties to the Chinese government were created, which were then later utilized to counteract negative international views of China after the Covid outbreak. In fact, government agencies routinely use software that produces comments, upvotes, likes, and shares, all in the service of the Party narrative. In 2020, according to documents obtained by ChinaFile, the Beijing High People’s Court asked a vendor to provide 30,000 new accounts on the platforms Weibo, Sina, Tencent, and NetEase. The request stipulated that these accounts would need to appear as if they came from 10 different provinces and 40 different cities across China. The request, which ChinaFile called “a particularly extreme example of Internet commenting practices,” indicated the court’s clear indication to disseminate propaganda from the accounts at industrial scale: 5,000 posts per hour, 50,000 forwarded comments per day.
Once a sentiment like anti-Semitism is sufficiently widespread, then citizens like my misguided acquaintance can be counted on to adopt the new majority opinion, helping the campaign to perpetuate itself. There is plenty of unfocused rage lying around the place in communist China. People are angry, for both political and economic reasons, so the Party diligently finds a target for them: frequently Japan, and lately Israel.
Israel is a proxy, from the CCP’s perspective: a way to hurt Washington while endearing Beijing to the Global South, particularly the Gulf States. Those states, of course, supply around half of China’s crude oil, with Saudi Arabia as the country’s top supplier. In this sense, the manufacture of anti-Semitism can be understood purely as cynical geopolitics.
A certain idealism exists alongside cynicism, however. The Party, in its Communist roots, has always viewed religion as its natural enemy. Judaism has the tiniest of presences in China, which allowed it to remain under Beijing’s radar for many years, but today the old ideology is reasserting itself. This is the age of Xi Jinping and intense religious persecution. It is the age of church demolitions; of coercive re-education and servitude in Tibet; of “unconscionable cruelty, depravity, and inhumanity” against many hundreds of thousands of Uighurs; of an 84% decline in population growth rates across parts of Muslim China.
The attempted eradication of Islam within the western province of Xinjiang has been exhaustively documented; less well-known is the beginning of the same process across the rest of China. Almost two thousand of the country’s mosques have been altered, stripped, or destroyed over the past five years. The alterations remove Islamic motifs and add Party slogans and surveillance cameras. And it’s not just the architecture that is changing. “Now, whenever a prayer starts, it’s not the words of Allah in the Qur’an,” one Hui Muslim in China’s northwest told The Financial Times. “It’s a long speech by the imam on how the Communist Party is the single legitimate source of power.” In some parts of the country, under-18s have even been banned from entering religious sites or practicing religion. (The CCP hopes to hack away at the childhood roots of religious belief).
Judaism was bound to be caught up in the intensification of anti-religious fervor. Accordingly, anti-Semitic tropes can now be found at all levels of society. Former Vice-President Wang Qishan insisted that members of his staff read a book called Currency Wars, a best-seller in China, which argues that the global economy is controlled by a cabal of Jewish bankers who manipulate currencies to increase their personal wealth.
Anti-Semitism, then, achieves both realist and idealist goals for Beijing. Like much of popular sentiment in China—from the loathing of Japan and the United States to the lauding of quasi-mythical war hero Lei Feng—it was deliberately contrived and then executed on a vast scale. At the same time, this anti-Semitism exists within the context of the broader antagonism towards religion (any religion) that the Party has always exhibited. If it subsides in the future, both the nation of Israel and Jews in general would still do well to recall the tide of hatred that China’s leaders so efficiently unleashed. It’s unlikely that this will be the last spasm of anti-Semitism in China.
Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield, currently focusing on China and the CCP.
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