As Israel's war on Gaza escalates and becomes an international diplomatic and military crisis, Global Voices wanted to explore how the conflict is perceived in the Chinese-speaking world, not just by government officials but also by public intellectuals. We interviewed Vivian Wu, a US-based Chinese journalist and editor who is exploring perceptions of the conflict in the Sinophone world.
Vivian Wu is a media industry veteran of over 20 years and leads Mighty Voice LLC, a content production firm that just launched a new multimedia platform called Da Sheng for global Sinophone and anglophone audiences. She has worked as a reporter and editor for various media, including the BBC, Initium and the South China Morning Post, and has received multiple awards for her human rights reporting.
Filip Noubel (FN): In China, there is limited freedom of information, meaning domestic public opinion, especially regarding international issues, is often shaped by the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) narrative. What is Beijing’s official stance presented to its domestic audience concerning Israel’s war on Gaza?
Vivian Wu (VW): Interestingly, Chinese state authorities have maintained a somewhat ambiguous stance, hinting at their support for Palestine. On the morning of October 8th, a spokesperson from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, ‘China is deeply concerned about the escalating tension and violence in the ongoing Israel-Palestine situation. We urge all relevant parties to remain calm and restrained, immediately cease fire, protect civilians, and prevent further deterioration of the situation.‘ The Ministry further emphasized that the persistent conflicts between Israel and Palestine highlight the fact that the protracted stagnation of the peace process is untenable. It believes the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict lies in adopting the ‘two-state solution’ and in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
For decades, the Chinese public has been exposed to official statements like these across all state-run media channels. Historically, China's official narrative regarding its relationship with Israel has been one of friendliness and goodwill. However, this time, many liberals in China have taken note of China’s ambiguity, particularly its hesitation to condemn Hamas explicitly. This may be attributed to China's strained relations with the United States. Chinese social media, which often maintains a nationalist tone to appeal to audiences and to steer clear of censorship, is rife with footage depicting Israel's retaliatory actions.
Clearly, China, while not wanting to get deeply involved in the Gaza crisis, is also cautious about its portrayal of the Israel-China relationship, given the strong Israel-US relation: its Foreign Ministry has issued numerous calls for the international community to amplify its sense of urgency, invest more in the Palestinian issue, expedite peace negotiations between both sides. Beijing also pledges its unwavering support to collaborate with the global community towards achieving this goal.
At the same time, it is worth noting that, following China's facilitation of the renewal of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March 2023, Palestine could become China's next focus to bolster its influence in the Middle East. Chinese President Xi Jinping has consistently expressed that China staunchly supports the Palestinian people in their ‘just cause to regain their rightful national rights.’
FN: What about knowledge about the conflict? If you speak only Chinese, where can you get more diverse information and points of view?
VW: This is a good question. Surprisingly, this time, there is an abundance of information related to the Gaza crisis made available. The emphasis seems to be on highlighting protests in Europe and the US. Digital platforms and online streaming sites, such as Douyin and Kuaishou, feature footage, some being translations of international news reports into Chinese, many coming with various nationalist perspectives and may contain sensationalized content. Scenes showing protests and disturbances in European countries, like Germany and France, are frequently used to underscore the importance of social stability, Xi Jinping's leitmotiv to justify his own policies in China. Certain footage also focus on the hostages taken by Hamas, but make little mention of Chinese victims of the conflict.
On platforms like Weibo and WeChat, the quality and accuracy of information can vary as disinformation and misinformation remain a real challenge, and not many individuals have the resources or inclination to fact-check, especially when it requires bypassing the Great Firewall [China's online censorship system that filters anything deemed ‘unsuitable’ from the global internet] , linguistic expertise, and a high degree of media literacy. Due to financial constraints over the years, many media institutions have also reduced their budgets for overseas reporting. As a result, the number of comprehensive, high-quality journalistic pieces from established media outlets has decreased, leading to a rise in reliance on social media as primary sources of information.
Another factor influencing perceptions is the long standing bias against Muslims and the prevailing impression that the Gaza Strip and the broader Middle East are inherently chaotic, and are also often portrayed as being manipulated by Western nations.
However, there are still many who seek a deeper understanding of the issues. Books on Muslim and Jewish histories, the intricacies of the Gaza conflict, religious and social customs, and documentaries on related topics are garnering increased attention. My team recently published an extensive list of books, movies, and relevant Twitter accounts to offer insights into the situation. This effort was well-received, as many expressed a genuine need for comprehensive reading materials and open discussions on the subject.
Da Sheng also interviewed in English Haggai Mattar, co-founder of Israeli magazine +972, one week after the beginning of the war:
FN: As a non-expert on the Middle East but a curious and open minded person, what have you learnt about this conflict in the past days? And as a journalist mostly working for global Chinese audiences, what do you plan to do next to raise awareness and knowledge of the issue?
VW: My initial apprehension about not being an expert on the Middle East was overtaken by my insatiable curiosity and the urgency to comprehend the intricacies of the ongoing crisis. To do this, I immersed myself in extensive debates, read an array of reports, and tried to discern patterns in conversations and debates. I came to understand that the Gaza crisis has deep-rooted complexities, and while there are issues on both sides, a comprehensive grasp of the intertwined history, religious narratives, ethnic identities, politics, geopolitics, and human rights is imperative. The Middle East conflict, undoubtedly, is one of the most convoluted I have encountered, and while I couldn't pinpoint a flawless resolution, it is paramount to prioritize human lives, setting aside animosity. I believe in the significance of engaging with diverse voices without rushing to judgments.
To this end, I video interviewed Ma Ju (马聚) a Hui [ethnic Chinese, sometimes intermarried with Middle Eastern traders, who converted to Islam starting in the 7th century] Muslim scholar based in the US to record his perspectives and analyses. His insights garnered polarized responses: some viewers staunchly support Israel's measures against Hamas, endorsing its military actions, while others expressing deep empathy for the Palestinian people, denounce Israel's role in the humanitarian crisis.
This debate showcases the need for a platform designed for Chinese speakers that can facilitate community activities, such as reading, discussing, content creation, and events, and amplify informed voices. This is why I called our platform Da Sheng [大聲] that translates as ‘Mighty Voice,’ a name that resonates with many. Our mission is clear: we need to foster unhindered public dialogues while upholding the tenets of quality and rationality, particularly when unpacking such complicated and emotionally charged conflicts as the one between Palestine and Israel.
Here is the video of the interview with scholar Ma Ju in Chinese with English subtitles that offers a nuanced view and explanation of reactions in the Chinese-speaking world, both inside and outside of China: