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  • Michael Dickson

Why China Matters

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post

Stepping out of the airport in Harbin in northeast China, you are greeted by a giant castle made completely of ice. Thankfully, relations between the State of Israel and the People's Republic of China are anything but cold, and during the past week we've been doing our bit to warm them up a little more.

In the run-up to the Chinese New Year, Harbin - the 10th-largest city in China, with 4.5 million people - hosts the International Ice and Snow Festival. Not far from this astonishing exhibition of winter art and sculpture is the synagogue that was once home to the largest Jewish community in the Far East. By the mid-1920s some 60,000 Jews had made this their home, a new railway link from Russia making the move possible - and once they did, they were received warmly and contributed hugely to the wider community. In marked contrast to their place of origin, anti-Semitism in Harbin was nonexistent.

IF ISRAEL is compiling a list of countries that count, then China ought to be pretty near the top. A money-making powerhouse and the No. 1 exporter to many countries, it is rapidly becoming the most important economy in the world. With its population numbering some 1.3 billion, it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and China's voice will be essential in the debate regarding the growing Iranian threat.

Chinese traditions, culture and society can seem baffling. Yet as our group of young Israelis interacts with different Chinese audiences, the commonalities between us become apparent. Traditional advocacy with its Western-based nuances would not work here, but a different approach, based on opening people's minds to the realities of Israel, has been extraordinarily effective.

The Chinese view of Israelis is pretty two-dimensional; they are impressed by what they perceive as an intelligent nation, yet they are bemused by the continuing conflict in the region. As in all societies where Jews are scarce and knowledge of Israel is limited, stereotypes fill the void. Public diplomacy, therefore, has an important role to play.

OUR DELEGATION in China is here to add color to this impression of the Jewish State. We are doing so via a series of lectures and materials and by bringing a photo exhibition displaying the diversity of Israeli society, culture and landscapes. Like the many successes of Israel we are showcasing, our presence here came from a simple idea. Understanding the rising prominence of China, participants of the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship have successfully organized this public diplomacy offensive, which included university lectures, academic partnerships and extensive interviews with the Chinese media. Jews have once again returned to Harbin, if only in the short-term.

This month will mark the 18th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the People's Republic and the State of Israel. Following that is the beginning of the Chinese New Year of the Tiger, traditionally heralding a turbulent and volatile time. Given the inaccurate and one-sided perception of Israel in many other parts of the world, finding new and innovative ways to reaffirm our links to China should be a diplomatic priority.

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