China’s Morality

“China lost its Middle Kingdom with the end of Ming Dynasty. Lost its Han ethnicity with the conquest by the Qin Dynasty, lost its face with the Cultural Revolution, and then lost its morality with economic reform.”

Cheng Li
Senior Fellow and Director, John L. Thornton China Center
The Brookings Institution

Jerusalem Moves a Bit Closer to Beijing

Yoram Evron notes in Y.Net:

“A renewed affair has been developing for the past three years between Israel and China. About 10 years after their relationship experienced a crisis following an American demand that Israel cut its security ties with China, Beijing has begun working to renew the close relations between the two countries.”

This should come as no surprise to anyone. When your natural ally appears to turn his back on you, you begin to search for less likely friends.

Consider this, though: Israel develops innovations but lacks the capability to industrialize and then commercialize them at scale. China is challenged in innovation but can bring someone else’s innovation to market and tweak it for special customer needs faster than anyone in the world. It will go from the Technion to a Tel Aviv startup to a Shanghai factory to your shelf – or to a Chinese airbase.

This is expedience rather than preference. The Chinese are historically the most fickle allies in the world with the possible exception of the Italians. The Israelis know that. But China is buying irrigation systems, water purification technology, commercial encryption technology, fruit, avionics, and tons of services from Israel, and paying cash, all for stuff the US doesn’t buy anyway. Plus, the more hooked Israel can get China on Israeli tech, the more it hopes to influence China on Iran and Mideast policy. It is Machiavellian, a tad desperate, and made absolutely necessary by the White House.

Israel has military technology the Chinese desperately need to upgrade the People’s Liberation Army. The only throttle on that flow has been the close ties between Israel and the US. Now? Hmm.

It is possible that Mr. Obama understands that in this regard his policies toward Israel – and Iran – constitute a significant own-goal. One can only hope that he understood this risk when he reached his hands out to the Mullahs in Iran.

China and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Why China Must Pay Attention to the Israel-Palestine Conflict
Mu Chunsan

The Diplomat
July 19, 2014

Mu Chunsan makes a fair point: the Beijing cannot ignore for long a foreign policy issue that is engrossing – and dividing – a growing percentage of the Chinese people.

What Mu misses, though, is that despite the growing influence of popular politics on Chinese foreign policy, there are other factors that weigh upon China’s decision to remain aloof from the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian terrorists. China has a complex relationship with Israel (see my article here), one that is disproportionate with the latter’s size. China has defense ties with Jerusalem, depends on a flow of innovations from Israel’s booming labs, and needs Israel’s support in its stance against the growing specter of  Islamo-fascism.

Yet China cannot directly incite its Muslim population, nor thumb its nose at the Islamist countries that are a growing part of its international influence and energy supply. Closer examination suggests that Beijing has managed to strike a delicate balance with Israel that has eluded other powers. A more explicit policy on the Mideast, no matter how it might calm a domestic argument, could undermine that balance to the benefit of no one.

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

Part III: The Limits of Toleration

In part I of this series, I talked about why China becoming a major center of world Judaism was desirable and possible; in Part II, I examined the social and domestic policy challenges that are making this increasingly unlikely; here, in the third and final part of this essay, I explain how the long-term drivers of Chinese policy bode ill for Judaism in China.

The Israel Issue

China has been friendly with Israel for some time, and the two countries formalized diplomatic relations in 1992. Despite positive noises and outward evidence of friendship, however, it would be wrong to exaggerate the degree to which the countries enjoy close ties.

China and Israel remain deeply divided about the Palestianian issue: China does not recognize Hamas or Hezbollah as terrorist organizations and has continued to demonstrate a bias toward the Palestinians in any matter of contention between Israel and Palestine. China has built and retains a close relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is known to have supported, indirectly or directly, Iran’s nuclear enrichment program despite the threat it presents to Israel.

Bilateral trade between Israel and China is now up to $11 billion. That may seem like a lot, but trade between Israel and the Arab world has reached nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars. If push came to shove, Israel would lose, high-tech exports notwithstanding. And push could come to shove if Sino-US relations came to a major falling out. Further, there are indications that the Jonathan Pollard case continues to cast a shadow over Sino-Israeli relations. The Mossad enjoys a legendary reputation in China, and Israel’s willingness to spy on its most important ally has ensured that a close relationship with Israel is perceived by some of China’s realists as an extant security threat

Given these factors and given the evolution of China’s broader foreign policy and defense posture, it is impossible to ignore the possibility of a major crisis or break in relations between China and Israel. A break could arise from any of a number of causes, but is probably less likely than a gradual deterioration of ties. If Israel were to become increasingly reluctant to supply high technology or military technology to China (not unlikely given China’s growing assertiveness abroad), this would slash the value of the bilateral relationship for China. The growing dependence of China on oil from Iran and Arab states, coupled with a decline in the US dependence on such oil because of hydrofracking and environmentalism, would mean that the value of the Sino-Arab relationship would grow substantially. And the need to sustain those relationships in the face of a possible crackdown in China’s Muslim interior could compel the Arab states to demand a quid-pro quo.

A falling out between China and Israel would not necessarily have dire or immediate consequences for Jews in China. It would, however, place Jews under suspicion of being spies or a dormant fifth column in the event of conflict. Thus it is difficult to imagine the rapid and continued growth of a healthy Jewish community in China in the face of any decline in Sino-Israeli relations.

The Latent Xenophobia Question

Jews are seen as foreigners in China, a status that is as much ethnic as political. Short of a significant campaign by the government to make it so, Jews will continue to be seen as foreigners. Given that the government has no compelling reason to single out Jews for preference, any rise in anti-foreign sentiment would be visited upon Jews with the same intensity that would be on non-Jewish foreigners.

As such, the question about the long-term prospects for China to be a haven for Jews rests on the larger question of whether xenophobia is likely to intensify at some point in the future. The answer, of course, is unknowable. But the threat is latent, real, and rooted in China’s evolving relationship with the United States.

China and the US are increasingly at loggerheads over a range of issues, and the two nations seem destined to a degree of political and military rivalry (if not outright conflict) in the foreseeable future. The growth of Chinese nationalism and the increasing focus on America as an active barrier to China’s global rise together thus offer a potential breeding ground for xenophobia.

To this growing powder keg needs only be added a spark in the form of an international incident in which China can claim to be the aggrieved party. The anger and ugly sentiments unleashed in the Chinese after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo, even though government stoked, offered proof of the anger that lies dormant beneath the surface of the Chinese psyche, and how easily it is whipped into violence.

It seems only a matter of time and opportunity before it returns.


When we scan across the breadth of our history as a people, we read of places that offered us refuge in our wanderings, a sequence of nations that allowed us not just to live, but to thrive in their midst. In this list of places lies another list, hidden but implied, of the nations that either murdered their Jews, chased us from their midst, oppressed us, or simply tolerated our presence with odious restrictions. We appeared to prosper in some places precisely because the other places were anything from dreary to deadly for our tribe.

Indeed, even today it is not easy to find a place where all of the conditions exist to occasion the emergence of a vibrant world center of Judaism. Even continental Europe seems determined to demonstrate that it is infertile ground for a renaissance of Yiddishkeit.

Nothing in this essay should be interpreted to suggest that there will be no Jews in China. Even in the depths of the Cultural Revolution, there were Jews in China. Short of a shooting war with the US or Israel, it is impossible to conceive of a China where Jews are rooted out and either imprisoned or expelled.

But there is a difference between mere survival and prosperity, and it now seems clear that China will ever remain a frontier outpost of the Diaspora rather than a center of Jewish society. In this, China joins a long and distinguished list.

After spending three decades studying, living in, and working in China, I have reached this conclusion with great reluctance, and relate it with a heavy heart but hopefully a clear head. And I relate it with the fervent hope that history will prove me wrong, even as I doubt it will.

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.

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

Part I: Searching for the New Al-Andalus

One of the remarkable features of the history of the Jewish people is that we have spent the past three millennia watching the the center of gravity of our faith migrate across the entire breadth of western civilization. While our hearts have always been in Israel, our bodies have often found themselves far from the land that God promised our forefathers.

Babylon gave us Abraham and, much later, the great sages and the Talmud Bavli. From Spain came the flourishing of Sephardi culture and hundreds of years of our greatest post-Talmud scholars, including Rashi. Egypt and the Caliphate, whence Sephard extended, gave us an upwelling of Jewish thought, embodied by the secret reservoir of the Cairo Geniza and capped by the magisterial works of the Rambam. Eastern Europe became the home of a vibrant Yiddishkeit from which emerged the wonders of the Baal Shem Tov, Jewish mysticism, Chasidism, and the great Gaonim of Ashkenazic culture. Germany brought the Halaskah that compelled our faith to address the challenge of modernity (a struggle that continues today.)

And the United States, today the single greatest concentration of Jews in the world outside of Israel, has provided Jews the newest place where we can live according to our traditions in a manner of our own choosing.

Yet civilizations move through cycles of their own, and if there is but one lesson that we must take from our history, it is that while a civilization on the rise makes a comfortable place for Jews to live, once the decline begins in earnest, we are well-advised to go and find ourselves another home.

A (Jewish) Star Rises in the East?

As I write these words, the United States appears to be in relative decline, but has not yet entered the absolute decline that would signal the end of a civilization. Yet history moves fast, and we are always wise to be on the lookout for where we would go if the tides of time once again turned against us: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union offer us two very recent, very cautionary examples of why it is always important to have at least one place to which we can run.

For a long time, I believed that China would be that next place, the home of the new Jewish diaspora, a new refuge from which Yiddishkeit could grow. The signs seemed very good: the country served as a refuge for Jews from around the world in the tumultuous years between the two world wars; there is an abiding respect for Jews that runs deep in the Chinese culture; China has all the marks of a civilization on the rise; there are natural points of commonality between the cultures; and both observant and liberal Jews were working together to build communities and set down roots.

In these signs I saw I put my money where my mouth was: for eighteen years I lived in China, owned property, built a business, and contributed as I could to the creation of a Jewish community. In those years I saw many hopeful signs: the arrival of Chabad; the growing crowds at Shabbat services; the appointment of Beijing’s Chabad rabbi (and de-facto chief rabbi of Beijing) by the organizers of the Beijing Olympics as the rabbi to Jewish athletes and officials at the games; the kashering of the kitchens at the Great Hall of the People when Israeli officials came on a state visit.

Since those days, though, a change has taken place. While I believe that there will always be a Jewish community in China, I have come to despair of the notion that China is the next center of the Jewish diaspora.

In installments over the coming weeks, I will attempt to explain why this is the case.

Thank You, Chabad Beijing!

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (...
Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m incredibly grateful for the remarkable warmth, and love with which I was welcomed (back) into the Chabad Beijing community. Yom Kippur away from these wonderful people is, after over a decade in their fold, unimaginable. I will definitely have to arrange to come back every year — and, of course, many times in between.

Thank you to Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, Rebbetzin Dini Freundlich, Rabbi Nosson Rodin, the wise and learned Zalman Lipskar, and the entire Rawack family. Teshuvah never felt so comforting!

Chinese Studying Jews

Jewish studies flourish in China
David N. Myers

The Jewish Journal
August 15, 2012

A fascinating look at the growing field of Jewish studies in China, and the author’s experience lecturing at the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies in the ancient capital city of Kaifeng.

My favorite quote:

The Confucian ideal, parallel to the Jewish precept of “kevod ha-moreh,” is alive and well today. Unlike the consumerist approach to education in the United States, where students demand attractively presented products from their teachers, students in China feel happy to receive the pearls of wisdom that issue from their teachers’ mouths. At times, this leads to a certain passivity in the classroom on the students’ part. But the overall effect, especially for a short-term visitor from America, is wondrous.

Of course, the degree of open Talmudic discourse between teacher and students is missing in China, and that needs to change. Nonetheless, the point about the American “consumerist” approach to education is spot-on.

Bill Bishop Wonders about China’s Latent Anti-Semitism

Today’s China Readings May 24, 2012 | Sinocism.

On his excellent Sinocism blog, the thoughtful and prolific Bill Bishop examines whether China Central Television‘s (CCTV) talk show host is an anti-Semite, a subject broached by the Shanghaiist editorial staff.

While he reaches no conclusion either way, Bishop, whom I do not believe is a member of the Tribe, approaches the topic with tact and care.

When asked how Jews are perceived in China, I always fall back on the words of Rebbetzin Dini Freundlich of Chabad of Beijing, who once said, “Chinese say the same [stereotypical] things about Jews that everybody else in the world says. The difference is that they say it with respect.”

My experience over 17 years living in China and ten years traveling here before that is that most Chinese have a healthy admiration for Jewish people, albeit one based too much on hearsay for my comfort. (After all, a positive reputation based on hearsay can turn into a negative one when the hearsay changes, all without reference to the facts.)

It behooves every Jew with the ability to visit China to do so, and to make no effort to hide your Judaism, any more than an American should hide his origins. If the Chinese are to know us, they must know who we are, and I believe that the more they know us, the better we’ll be liked. (Especially if we act according to Torah in the process.)

Is China in a Spiritual Crisis?

An interesting article in the BBC Magazine today talks about the matter of the growing number of Chinese who are turning to faith. The story echoes many points I have made here, so it is worth quoting at length.

What must unsettle the authorities most is the reason why so many are turning to the churches.

I heard people talking again and again of a “spiritual crisis” in China – a phrase that has even been used by the Premier Wen Jiao Bao. The old have seen the old certainties of Marxism-Leninism transmute into the most visceral capitalist society on earth.

For the young, in the stampede to get rich, trust in institutions, between individuals, between the generations, is breaking down.

As one of China’s most eminent philosophers of religion – Professor He Guanghu, at Renmin University in Beijing put it to me: “The worship of Mammon… has become many people’s life purpose.

“I think it is very natural that many other people will not be satisfied… will seek some meaning for their lives so that when Christianity falls into their lives, they will seize it very tightly.”

via BBC News – Christians in China: Is the country in spiritual crisis?.

I cannot disagree. What it means, though, is that the Party is going to have to come to an accommodation with religion in the same way it did with capital.

What the story tactfully avoided was telltale stories about the slow disintegration of ethics and morality in China. While those would have been illustrative and entertaining, such apocrypha merely serve to remind us that ethical rot and moral decline are not limited to a single society, but are, indeed, pervasive.

Men Without Chests

Peter Wehner quotes C.S. Lewis in Commentary:

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

China in a nutshell.

Quote of the Week

From The Wall Street Journal, quoting billionaire Chinese developer Zhang Xin, who co-founded the Soho Group with her husband:

“We’ve put too much confidence in that materialistic abundance will bring along better education, which will in turn facilitate progresses in civilization,” she wrote on Sina Weibo, a microblogging service where she has more than 1.4 million followers. “But China’s development has smashed our illusion.”

Ms. Zhang is, I would wager, the leading edge of a growing wave of China’s prosperous who have reached the top only to ask “is that all there is?”

The Sino-Hebraic Connection

Adam Daniel Mezei asks via Twitter:

What’s your read on the connections between Chinese and Jews. Beyond obvious factors, what do you think our connections are?

After wondering aloud if I could answer that in 140 characters, I though about it and gave him this precis of an answer.

I think Chinese and Jews look each other in the eye and see something comforting and familiar. It comes not necessarily from a shared set of values, but of common experience: each is the ancient and seminal culture of a civilization, has endured unspeakable hardship/persecution, and each has emerged from the crucible of history with great depth beneath the hardened exterior shared by all survivors.

Therein, I believe, lies the heart of the mutual respect and admiration – and in my household affection – between the two great cultures.


A Better China

Success of the Rule of Law depends on two factors:

  • Fair and effective enforcement of the laws, and
  • A population that is morally and ethically healthy.

China has neither.

Our quest must be to change that, not through evangelism, but by quietly demonstrating success does not need entail legal chicanery or moral bankruptcy. That’s a lot tougher than preaching, but it is the only way that will really work.

Karl Marx, Secular Humanist

Karl Marx 1882 (edited)
Image via Wikipedia

Whatever the failings of the system of political economy that bears his name, in calling religion “the opiate of the masses,” Karl Marx has endeared himself to a century of religious skeptics. Religion, Marx tells us, is a means used by the upper classes to keep down the proletariat. And in rejecting his own religious background in the quest for a reason-based ethos, he is the prototypical secular humanist.

Even a cursory study of Marx’s writings on the topic reveals his incomplete understanding of its social functions. This is unsurprising: Marx was a political economist, not a theologian or a sociologist. In this, he saw religion as the Second Estate, a political and economic force rather than a moral one.

He was also cynically disingenuous, if not hypocritical, in his condemnation of religion. Marx’s writings, The Communist Manifesto in particular, do not so much eliminate religion as substitute a political credo and doctrine for established faiths. This paleo-humanist Cult of the Proletariat took on the political and economic functions of religion and was no less (and I would argue even more) focused on anesthetizing the masses than even the most organized of faiths.

Yet even if we ascribe to Mr. Marx the purest of motives, we must concede that at best he failed to understand the inherent weakness of a rationalist ethos once it needed to guide the day-to-day lives of the proletariat. He seemed to reject out-of-hand the need for a moral code, much less one that was more than a mere human construct. As a secular humanist Marx believed – overoptimistically, as it turned out, that man is a moral beast, in need of no code to guide his way.

History and human nature beg to differ.

Whether Marx was cynical or hopeful in rejecting the importance of a moral ethos, that rejection has wrought confusion and havoc among the Chinese populace. Having cast off Confucianism in 1911, religion in 1949, and Marxism/Leninism/Maoism with Deng’s Southern Trip in 1992, the Chinese people seem to have been left with two laws uttered by Deng: “to get rich is glorious,” and “it matters not whether the cat black or white is as long as it catches mice.”

The result for China has been the emergence of an Amoral Oligarchy, a nation where self-interest prevails and where material success comes upon the rejection of any residual behavioral strictures. For many of those who have attained the pinnacle of success, that is enough.

Yet there is a small but growing number of prosperous Chinese who are dissatisfied. They have their jobs, their cars, their houses, their families, food in their bellies, liquor in the cabinet, mistresses in town, and they ask “is that all there is?”

These people are particularly vulnerable to quack religions and cults of the variety that invite demagogues and exploitation. And therein lies danger.

What is unclear is whether China’s leaders, well acquainted as they are with the failings of Marxist economics, are similarly attuned to the failure of Marxist morality. Hu Jintao’s call for a Harmonious Society does not seem to ask whether Chinese are good or evil: it asks them only to “get along.”

Over the next ten years, there will inevitably be efforts to attack the symptoms of moral decay: prosecuting the corrupt, enhancing law enforcement, and propaganda campaigns that call for a more genteel society. The best indicator of whether China’s leaders comprehend the cause of the problem will be the actions and leadership of the State Administration for Religious Affairs in the wake of Xi Jinping‘s ascent to the Presidency.

For what must precede a truly Harmonious Society is a Moral Society, wherein the first line of behavioral enforcement – the individual – successfully takes from the police the greater burden over personal behavior. As Marx failed to learn, states must be prepared to cleave the spiritual life of the nation from its political or economic life. The answer is either a return to faith or the introduction of a supra-human code of behavior that can guide both man and state.

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