Discourse Power | July 29, 2022
The racist rabbit
Today’s edition of Discourse Power gets personal.
If you haven't guessed from my name, which I share with a certain rooftop-dwelling bard, I am Jewish and a third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors. This is most likely the reason for my regrettable habit of tracking antisemitism in Chinese discourse.
Those of you who have been following my Twitter feed know that my trusty laptop has sadly become a repository for an expanding collection of egregious antisemitic statements by contemporary Chinese nationalists, including party-state media, celebrated journalists, public intellectuals, celebrities, Party theorists, diplomats, and online influencers.
Just to give you an idea, here is a short compilation of quotes from a presentation I gave last month as part of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy's (ISGAP) fantastic online series on antisemitism in Asia:
Even more disheartening is the fact that I come across these instances of hate speech by chance while browsing popular Chinese portals and social media accounts. Perhaps, this could indicate the type of content that the average Chinese netizen is exposed to.
As a matter of fact, I had no intention of writing about Chinese antisemitism for this newsletter. I was simply looking for a current photo of renowned Chinese Middle East scholar Mr. Li Shaoxian for a previous issue, when I came across a December 2020 interview he did with the notorious nationalist pundit Sima Nan mentioned above, so I had to take a look.
What a mistake. I spent the next few hours of my life following Li and Sima Nan down the rabbit hole that opens up to a universe where fantastic Jewish cabals have absolute control over global discourse power.
The topic is divided into two newsletters. The first is the following essay on the subject, which serves as a prelude to the second, in which I will present excerpts of antisemitic remarks on "Jewish discourse power" made by prominent Chinese individuals.
Since today’s edition is longer than usual, make sure you click the heading or the "view entire message" link at the bottom.
Finally, I’d like to give a big shoutout to Bill Bishop of Sinocism and Jordan Schneider of ChinaTalk for featuring Discourse Power on their highly recommended Substacks. And if you prefer listening to reading, you won't want to miss Jordan's podcast (Spotify, Apple Podcasts), in which he regularly interviews some of the smartest people in the game.
And, as always, thank you for reading,
Part I: The Racist Rabbit
If you ask Chinese diplomats stationed in Israel, they will tell you that “there is no antisemitism in China.” I personally heard the PRC ambassador to Israel repeat the phrase to a group of Israeli students and teachers in late March.
If the Chinese diplomat associates "antisemitism" with organized state-sanctioned violence he is not wrong. Chinese leaders were not involved in the inquisitions, expulsions, pogroms, massacres, ghettoizations, farhuds, or blood libels that had existed in the West and the Arab world for centuries.
The ambassador is also right to think that historically, people living in China have never engaged in "classical” antisemitism; they had never accused the Jews of killing the Massiah, betraying the Prophet, spreading the Black Plague, and wolfing down newborns for ritual purposes.
In modern times, Chinese people played no role in the persecution of my family in Europe and the murder of their relatives during the Holocaust. In fact, more than 20,000 Jews sought refuge on the mainland (in areas under Imperial Japan or Nationalist control).
The diplomat would rightly point out that before the ongoing lockdowns, an observant Jew could walk down any street to the synagogue in any major Chinese metropolis without fear of verbal or physical harassment.
I would have included the still-highly antisemitic Arab states and Iran, but most Jews had been forcibly expelled from them, limiting Jew-hatred to public discourse and repression of anyone who humanizes the Yahud.
Blink and You’ll Miss It
To those who think about racism in terms of institutionalized dehumanization, discrimination, and binary frameworks of whites and non-whites, antisemitism in China is invisible.
This school of thought predominated until the 1990s. Since then, the global understanding of racism has grown to include more subtle manifestations that take place in the realm of consciousness.
This is the nexus where grand racial ideas and conceptions meet the mundane: history, language, tradition, and religion; it is the point in our minds at which "scientific" claims about the biological variations and "cultural" distinctions among social groups are categorized, stratified, and essentialized in the sense that they become inherently distinct from one another.
Unlike the conventional understanding of racism, for which its negative effects are typically recognized and condemned in civilized environments, the covert nature of this form of racism may be imperceptible to the uninitiated or seem inconsequential. In some cases, it may even be endorsed for what appears to be a noble cause.
One such cause is the strengthening of people's sense of and identification with a distinct national consciousness, for instance, the Chinese "civilization nation." My previous essay for Discourse Power focused on the double-edged sword that the Chinese leadership drew upon by attempting to mobilize Chinese nationalism by characterizing their country as a distinct "civilization nation" with a history spanning over a “million years of human history, 10,000 years of cultural history, and more than 5,000 years of civilizational history.”
It argued that, despite well-intended efforts to use "excellent Chinese traditional culture to lay the foundation and cast the soul for national rejuvenation" and to "enhance historical consciousness, with firm cultural confidence," the PRC's Han-dominated leadership is erasing diversity and minority cultures, stifling dissent and free speech, and instilling cultural chauvinism.
This challenge is not unique to Chinese nationalism; even the world’s oldest and most diverse democracies struggle to mobilize nationalism's "healthy" effects without exacerbating its "toxic" tendencies, which are felt primarily by disadvantaged groups.
Consider the case of the United States. Few people, even among his supporters, would gainsay that the two-times-impeached-former American President, Donald Trump, did not engage in racism. Heck, die-hard MAGA nationalists admired him for that.
In the wake of the Trade War's opening salvo, other nationalist US politicians and media figures have been charged with framing discussions of China with racially charged terminology reminiscent of the "Yellow Peril." Covid made it worse.
Notable figures in China and abroad, such as former Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai have posited that America's entire China policy is racist to the core. A similar characterization was suggested in a recent interview with Wang Jisi, President of the School of International Studies at Peking University. It is easy to see why, when US State Department officials had made reprehensible racist remarks on the record.
You're Calling Me a Racist?
The murder of George Floyd has further entrenched the PRC’s notion that America is fundamentally and irrevocably a racist nation. It has permeated Chinese discourse to the point where references to “American racism,” “Anglo-Saxon brutality,” “Western barbaric invasions,” “White supremacy,” “Washingtonian Imperialism,” and even “US neo-Nazism,” are nothing to write home about.
Indeed, the role of racism in US foreign policy has been emphasized for the better part of a century, with many critical voices emanating from the US itself. The purpose of this essay is not to debate the validity of this position or to evaluate it in light of other potential variables, namely, ideological, geopolitical, or economic ones.
It seeks to build on these arguments in order to draw attention to one persistent flaw they demonstrate: The same people who point out racism in Western societies frequently neglect how it influences government policies across the globe, including in nations that are not considered "White."
To the point, they often fail to recognize the role that racism plays in PRC statecraft. The irony is that despite China exhibiting some of the most well-documented instances of systemic violence, dehumanization, and racialized discrimination against ethnic minorities, the country and its leaders are rarely called out for racism.
In their poignant article on state racism and surveillance in Xinjiang, Gerald Roche and James Leibold have pointed out how most people - including China scholars - consider the subject of racism in China as a taboo, opting instead for concepts such as "state-authoritarianism," "ethnocultural prejudice," "Han-chauvinism," or "ethnic discrimination.”
But in China, the idea of "race" - a process of classifying and contrasting groups of people based on superficial biological variations and essentialized cultural constructs - exists not only in its traditional repressive form but also at the level of consciousness.
In the seminal book on the topic, historian Frank Dikötter demonstrates how the modern construct of “racism” has been part and parcel part of Chinese nationalism since its inception in the Qing Dynasty’s twilight in the late 19th century.
The concept of “race” continued to have an impact on Chinese thinkers throughout the 20th century, and there is evidence to suggest that even today's top leaders still harbor a pervasive sense of racial nationalistic consciousness.
"Chinese [civlization] is the world's only continuous culture," General Secretary Xi Jinping corrected former US President Donald Trump. During the latter’s 2017 visit to the Forbidden City, he claimed that Egyptian "civilization" predates the Chinese by 3000 years. “We are the indigenous people of this land,” mused the host, “black hair, yellow skin - we call ourselves Descendants of the Dragon.”
Xi's lighthearted cultural reference to the 80s nationalistic anthem by Hou Dejian "Descendants of the Dragon" belies the crux of the issue, as explained by Delaware State University historian Yinghong Cheng in his monograph on racial discourse in China:
“If one group of people believe they are uniquely cultured, civilized, smart, creative, and benevolent, and has survived in the same bloodline since the beginning of evolution or civilization, then that is racism at least in cognitive terms. When you racialize yourself, it is just a matter of circumstance under which you racialize Others.”
And the Jew, as history tells us, has always been the ultimate "Other."
The plight of the Jews had been viewed as a mirror to China’s own destiny by the great Chinese reformers and thinkers who helped shape modern Chinese nationalism. Household names like Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, and Sun Yat-san, associated the Jew with anything from “national subjugation and racial extinction” 亡国灭种 to seeing the nascent Zionist movement as a model for national rejuvenation.
After decades of humiliation at the hands of foreign invaders, it was only natural to believe that China would be the most powerful nation on Earth if the Chinese were as wealthy as the Jewish Shylock; alternatively, one needed to learn how to rule the world from the Jews, or create the Chinese “New Man”; or because the Jew's love of money outweighed his love of his nation, he was damned to eternal exile, so the Chinese race should embrace nationalism.
The rising tide of nationalism tapped into scientific racism, which further entrenched the notion of Jews as an alien "homogeneous" group. Nationalists across the world are now able to model all of the desirable and unfavorable traits of their nation after the traditionally marginalized Jewish entity.
In doing so, they hope that various social and ethnic groupings within their own country would be able to recognize themselves as a cohesive, homogeneous nation, “united in diversity.”
Eyes wide shut
This is not to argue that the Chinese people are more racist than any other nation; racism can be found in nearly every country, including mine, including yours. Nor does this suggest that the party-state openly promotes antisemitism; it does not.
On the contrary, Chinese authorities have made laudable efforts to preserve Shanghai's Jewish ghetto and to collaborate with the State of Israel and the Jewish diaspora on Holocaust remembrance.
Last week, when a car with Nazi insignia parked close to the Israeli consulate in Chengdu (the driver thought "the sticker looked cool"), the police moved quickly to detain the owner and have him peel the sticker off.
Despite their prominence, the negative examples I provide here must not overshadow the numerous Chinese scholars and journalists who condemn antisemitism and have made sincere efforts to educate the Chinese public about Judaism, Jews, and Israel.
Furthermore, in his opening remarks at the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in the spring of 2019, Xi even cited the Jewish Talmud as an example of an Asian literary classic, following the Chinese Book of Songs and The Analects of Confucius.
Nonetheless, the Chinese leadership may strike all the right notes by condemning the "clash of civilizations" theory and highlighting the open and inclusive nature of "Chinese civilization." However, one can still hear the cacophony of Han-centric ethnonationalism, with racist elements baked into the system, never acknowledged, always excused.
What is more disconcerting than the overt racial essentialism and sheer ignorance of the people on my list is that they are able to operate despite China having the most tightly regulated, censored, and controlled media environment in the world.
Thousands of social media accounts with millions of followers are suspended on a daily basis for much less, be it posting politically "misguided" commentaries on government policies or endorsing "sissy men."
Meanwhile, this distinguished cadre of individuals and institutions is given carte blanche to poison the minds of millions of Chinese netizens. Using the Jew as a mirror, a metaphor, or a cautionary tale, as long as its proponents toe the Party line, "antisemitism with Chinese characteristics" can be openly promoted.
Struthious Chinese officials and party-state media would rather bury their heads in the sand than acknowledge the existence of antisemitism. Perhaps it is too inconvenient; perhaps doing so would suggest that racism is not just a Western problem that the harmonious and benevolent “Chinese civilization” is immune to.
And it is not just antisemitism, either. As Kevin Carrico and Peter Gries contend, xenophobia and racist bigotry “target perceived enemies both near (e.g. Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Mongolians), afar (e.g. Taiwanese, Japanese and Americans) and within (hanjian 汉奸 - traitors to the Han).”
Reports of anti-Black prejudice in Guangdong province were piling up during the pandemic, but Chinese officials asserted that China has a "zero-tolerance policy" toward racism and that was the end of it. A recent BBC exposé detailing a multi-million dollar industry that exploits African men and children for “blessing videos” elicited the usual whataboutisms.
This came as no surprise to Black China professionals. More than four decades of well-documented anti-African rallies, as well as physical and verbal abuse against the "black devils" 黑鬼 have failed to effect a change. Fortunately, Western media is always willing to take the fall.
Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, where instances of racist outbursts and toxic nationalism are acknowledged by the party-state, they will be patronizingly excused as ignorance, innocence, or cultural relativism simply lost in translation, as if Chinese people were still parochially locked in a shuttered Maoist country.
Party officials and the media prefer to portray the country as the true victim, frequently attempting to rally support from countries in the Global South, as shown in the last issue of Discourse Power, which translated a recent op-ed by China's ambassador to Saudi Arabia:
“Western countries, armed with powerful ships and formidable cannons 坚船利炮, have carried out barbaric invasions 野蛮侵略 against the ancient peoples 民族 of Asia, Africa, and Latin America…It is fair to say that Sino-Arab relations serve as a model of cordial coexistence between different nations and civilizations.”
Similarly, some naysayers in China and abroad criticized my previous article about overt displays of antisemitism in China. They argued it was unrepresentative because it cited "fringe influencers" like Lu Ke, an independent media figure who in no way reflects the views of the party-state, much less the leadership.
All I have to say to them is that if they think this was a profile of some Chinese influencer, they clearly haven’t been paying attention.
For Part II: Chinese Discussions on Jewish Discourse Power
Playing in the Background
The Taiwanese singer Hou Dejian's The Descendants of the Dragon 龙的传人 was released in the late 1970s, while General Secretary Xi Jinping was still a student at Tsinghua University.
Yinghong Cheng shows in the second chapter of his book how its unprecedented commercial success, followed by Beijing's full co-optation and endorsement, sparked a Cambrian explosion of patriotic anthems that sought to appeal to a pan-Chinese identity based on shared mythology, history, culture, and "Yellow" race.
"No matter where I go, I'm very proud to say that I am Chinese," Jackie Chan wrote earlier this month in his diary. The Hong Kong Hollywood actor, singer, and martial artist was revisiting a performance he gave at a show honoring the handover of his birthplace from Britain to China 25 years ago.
And this is what he sang (English translation):
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah’s Krauthammer Fellow, specializing in Chinese security and foreign policy, and emergency and disaster management. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia