As the Israel-Hamas conflict intensifies, raising the prospect of a wider war, China has stepped up efforts to pitch itself as a neutral broker for Mideast peace.
Beijing’s top diplomat called his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts on Monday, urging restraint. A Chinese envoy is traveling in the Middle East, pledging to help avert a wider war. At the United Nations on Wednesday, China vetoed a resolution on the war that did not call for a cease-fire.
But even as China seeks to turn down the temperature diplomatically, a surge of antisemitism and anti-Israeli sentiment is proliferating across the Chinese internet and state media, undermining Beijing’s efforts to convey impartiality. China has already come under pressure from the United States and Israel for its refusal to condemn Hamas for its Oct. 7 attack that started the war.
On China’s heavily censored internet, inflammatory speech critical of Israel is rampant, with commenters seemingly emboldened by that refusal. And China’s state-run media is seizing on the conflict to accuse the United States of turning a blind eye to Israeli aggression, while perpetuating tropes of Jewish control of American politics.
China Daily,a state-run newspaper, ran an editorial on Monday declaring that the United States was on the “wrong side of history in Gaza.” It said Washington was exacerbating the conflict by “blindly backing Israel.”
Hu Xijin, an influential commentator and a former editor in chief of Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, responded to hawkish statements from an Israeli minister directed at Hezbollah, the powerful militia in Lebanon, writing on Chinese social media: “Oh, calm down, Israel. I’m worried you’ll wipe the Earth out of the solar system.”
At times, the anti-Israel comments took on a nationalist tone. In a widely viewed post, an influencer with 2.9 million followers on the Chinese social media platform Weibo said that he would opt to call Hamas a “resistance organization” instead of a “terrorist organization,” in keeping with China’s own labeling of the group. He went on to accuse Israel of being a terror organization because its airstrikes on Gaza had caused civilian casualties.
A Chinese state broadcaster recently hosted a discussion page on Weibo stating that Jews controlled a disproportionate amount of U.S. wealth. Many of the responses were replete with antisemitic stereotypes and comments downplaying the horrors of the Holocaust.
Shen Yi, a prominent professor of international relations at Fudan University, likened Israel’s attacks to acts of aggression perpetrated by Nazis. Among the comments on recent posts from the official social media account of Israel’s embassy in China were similar comparisons of Israelis to Nazis.
It is hard to say whether the anti-Israeli positions in state media and antisemitism on the Chinese internet are part of a coordinated campaign. But China’s state media rarely veers from the official position of the country’s Communist Party, and its hair-trigger internet censors are keenly attuned to the wishes of its leaders, quick to remove any content that sways public sentiment in an unwanted direction, especially on matters of such geopolitical importance.
After the family member of an Israeli diplomat was stabbed in Beijing this month, Chinese censors limited the spread of the news by restricting hashtags from search results on social media. Chinese police said the victim was stabbed by a foreign man. It was not clear why the restrictions were put in place.
“If China felt that it was dangerous and problematic to allow antisemitic comments to flourish, the censors would stop it. Clearly, the government is conveying the message that it’s tolerated,” said Carice Witte, the executive director of SIGNAL Group, an Israeli think tank focusing on China.
The official Weibo account for the German Embassy in China rebuked people posting references to Nazis, noting that “casually calling people Nazis only reveals your own stupidity.” It added that people combining the Israeli flag with Nazi symbols in their profile pictures are “either ignorant idiots or shameless bastards!”
Ms. Witte said China might see the spread of antisemitic sentiment as well as hostility toward the United States over the conflict as geopolitically useful, as it works to foster stronger ties with Arab nations and deepen its foothold in the Middle East.
In recent years, China has sought to play a bigger role in the Middle East, looking to fill a power vacuum after the reduction of U.S. troops from the region. China helped broker an agreement in March to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two archrivals that are both key trading allies for Beijing.
In June, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, met with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and offered a proposal for a two-state solution for an independent Palestinian state. China’s proposal didn’t go anywhere, but Mr. Xi did score a victory when Mr. Abbas condoned China’s repression campaign against Muslim minorities in the far western region of Xinjiang, saying in a joint statement that Beijing’s actions “had nothing to do with human rights.”
While China and Israel maintain some economic ties, Israel’s close alliance with the United States remains an obstacle to a closer relationship between the two countries, and the growing anti-Israeli sentiment in state media and on the Chinese internet will not help.
“This is likely to reduce Israel’s willingness to trust China as an ‘honest broker’ in the current war,” said Gedaliah Afterman, head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy and International Relations at Reichman University in Israel.
Mr. Afterman said that China did have the opportunity to play a big role in advancing regional stability, for instance by helping secure the release of some of the more than 200 hostages that Hamas holds.
He added that China seemed to be using the war as a way to “shape an anti-American narrative among the Chinese public,” while the online vitriol seemed partly rooted in confusion, conflating denunciations of Israel with those of the United States, and the criticism of Jews with that of Americans.
Yet when it comes to state security, China regards Israel as a model. The National Police Academy of China, in a research paper published in 2014, discussed the “success story” of Israel’s antiterror strategy. A Chinese official now holding a senior position in charge of ethnic affairs had written in a 2002 dissertation that China should to take lessons from Israel’s deployment of West Bank settlers and infrastructure in Palestinian lands for its own campaign targeting 11 million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
And Chinese authorities consider anti-Zionist speech — when made by Muslims in China — as extremist, said Darren Byler, a professor and anthropologist studying Uyghur culture and Chinese surveillance at Simon Fraser University, in Canada. Chinese courts used anti-Zionist texts as evidence in a 2018 trial involving a Kazakh Muslim in Xinjiang. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison over extremism charges.
Historically, Chinese people tended to perpetuate positive stereotypes about Jews, according to Mary Ainslie, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, a city in eastern China, who has done research on antisemitism in the country. She said they were often depicted as hard-working, influential and financially savvy. For example, the Talmud is translated into Chinese and marketed for its lessons in making money.
But in recent years, she said, the stereotypes have turned increasingly antisemitic because of rising nationalism, a growing mistrust of the West, a worsening economy, and the popularity of conspiratorial discourse on the Chinese internet.
“The current situation is giving this fuel,” she said. “And it is growing.”