Wander On, O Yidden: China and the Jewish Diaspora (II)

Part II: The Frayed Welcome Mat

In Part I of this series, I talked about why China becoming a major center of world Judaism was desirable and possible. here, in Part II, I examine the social and domestic policy challenges that are making this increasingly unlikely.

The Chinese Advance; The Foreign Retreats

When China’s reform and opening began, the dome of official xenophobia that covered China began to crack, and then shattered completely. The nation was, for a time, like a child in the world’s cultural candy shop. A foreigner coming to China was welcomed both officially and unofficially. Visa and residency requirements were challenging but not impossible to overcome unless you were incompetent or a miscreant. Over time, the visa requirements eased to the point where a visa could be had for the price of a decent dinner in the course of an afternoon. At one point, there was even talk about making permanent residency – or even citizenship – open to deserving foreigners.

And then that talk ended. At some point, the door stopped its swing opening, and it began to swing shut again.

Today the welcome mat has been worn out. Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt, perhaps there is paranoia in the Communist Party of China about non-Chinese in such great number in China serving as a destabilizing force, or perhaps xenophobia was the watchword for so long in China’s history that it remains a latent force in China’s relationship to outsiders. Either way, we have witnessed a growing official ambivalence about foreigners that sometimes gives way to outright antipathy.

The friendliness is gone. In its place is often little more than forced courtesy. Smiles from passers-by have turned into suspicious glances. Friendliness to families with one western and one Chinese spouse have turned into angry looks or contempt. Visas are getting harder to get, permanent residency is off the table, and immigration for someone who is not ethnic Chinese is a fantasy.

Foreigners are taxed as if each of us is wealthy, regardless of our true situation. And we will never be allowed to remain in China long enough to benefit from the retirement funds into which we are obliged to pay. There is the slight tang of racist politics in the air, and those of us who are not Chinese remain in the country on what increasingly feels like borrowed time.

The Large Advances; the Small Retreats

The nature of living a Jewish life and the challenges of corporate life in China make it difficult, and nearly impossible, for a moderately observant Jew to live a Jewish life and to remain employed. Socializing in non-kosher restaurants, working through the Sabbath and Holidays, and dozens of workaday challenges drive most of us to build livelihoods wherein we can set our own rules.

But China is not set up for foreign entrepreneurs. To start your own business in China is profoundly difficult, and to keep it operating under a set of commercial laws designed with massive state-owned enterprises and multi-national corporations in mind is enough to drive the most honest merchant to evasion and subterfuge. except in the case of extraordinarily accommodating multinationals – of which there are few indeed – we are offered the choice of foregoing an observant life or foregoing our metier.

If the recent direction of policy is any indication, this will not change anytime soon. Xi Jinping’s approach to sustaining the vitality of the Chinese economy is to make massive state-owned enterprises (SOEs) larger, more efficient, and more profitable. The message to small- and medium-sized business seems clear. If the government is going to protect SOEs, they mean to protect them from the competitive threat posed by smaller, more nimble players and from foreign enterprise. To be small and foreign in Xi Jinping’s economy is to be somewhere twixt a forgotten stepchild and an enemy of the State. The scope of freedom for Jews to establish our own business community seems destined to remain circumscribed.

The Institutional Roadblock

Businesses owned by Jews form the pillars of a Jewish community. Yet what forms the foundation and the crossbeams of any such community, determining its resilience, longevity, and importance, are a cluster of religious and secular institutions. Those clusters begin with one or more synagogues (usually more: we each drink our Torah in different doses). Those synagogues then give birth to schools to educate our children; publication societies to provide cultural and religious media; charities and benevolent societies to care for those of us who have fallen on hard times; protective societies to ensure we remain unmolested by society at large and federations to coordinate the varied institutions and to serve as an interface to other faiths.

China makes the creation of such institutions problematic, if not impossible. Chinese law demands government sponsorship for every civil institution and NGO, which implies the need for government involvement and approval that are anathema to a Jewish federation or charity. Establishing primary and secondary schools requires approval of and supervision by a Ministry of Education that is ambivalent – if not hostile toward – religious education. Even if this barrier is jumped, a yeshiva is all but out of the question. China retains and regularly fortifies laws keeping foreigners out of the publishing business, and a faith-based publishing house would surely subject each work to government review before it could be published, especially if it were to be published all or in part in Chinese. And as for synagogues, those that are extant in China today stay out of the government’s way because congregations are small, totally foreign, and deliberately invisible to the outside world.

Creating Jewish institutions is not impossible in China. Creating adequate institutions capable of addressing the basic needs of Jews temporarily resident in China is, however, a far cry from those born of a multi-generational community of sufficient scale to rival their counterparts in pre-1933 Europe, modern Israel and the current-day United States. This will not happen in the context of a polity that bases its ethos on suspicion of religion and its existence on the imperative to control the hearts and minds of the local people.

Next week in the final part of this essay I will talk about the macro-policy challenges that bode ill for a Chinese Jewish community, and wrap up the discussion.

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