Standing on the banks of the Huangpu river in China's financial capital Shanghai, one cannot miss the Peace Hotel, a tall building with a green copper roof that overlooks the surrounding areas. The hotel has hosted state guests such as US Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as well as stars like Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw.
What is less well known is that the building — built by the Jewish businessman Victor Sassoon in 1929 — was called the Cathay Hotel until 1949. It was the tallest building in the city for several years.
Sassoon moved to Shanghai in the 1920s and built up a business empire there. During World War II, he supported the building of a settlement of around 2.5 square kilometers, where around 20,000 European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution found protection.
But after the war and the seizure of power in China by the communists, most Jews left Shanghai. Victor Sassoon was forced to sell his companies to the Chinese Communist Party for a pittance.
The Sassoon case highlights the disdain with which the communists treated the Jews and, later, the then newly formed state of Israel.
During the Cold War, China always declared solidarity with its Arab allies and often voted against Israel at the United Nations. Indeed, it was not until 1992 that China and Israel officially established diplomatic relations.
Trade main focus of China's ties with Israel
Since establishing formal diplomatic ties, China has viewed Israel primarily as a trading partner. Both sides have traded goods worth about $22 billion (€20.5 billion) so far this year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due to travel to China in October 2023 and the conclusion of a free trade agreement between the two sides was high on the agenda.
But the trip was postponed due to the multifront terror attacks on Israel by the Hamas militant group.
Official documents from both countries focus mostly on the economy and trade. They rarely mention the conflict in the Middle East. The official statement following Netanyahu's last visit to Beijing in 2017, for instance, merely stated that China wanted to promote joint innovations with Israel and support high-tech start-ups.
China sees Israel primarily as US ally
China also always views Israel through the prism of its ties to the US, Beijing's major geopolitical rival. Zhang Jun, China's ambassador to the UN who took over the chairmanship of the UN Security Council in November, said: "China solemnly calls on a certain major country, with special influence on the parties concerned to, put aside its self interests and geopolitical considerations, and make every effort to stop the war and restore peace."
Zhang was referring to the US, which he implicitly accused of having an interest in the ongoing war.
"Israel is a robust democracy, firmly anchored in its alliance with the United States of America," Eberhard Sandschneider, political scientist and partner at the consulting firm Berlin Global Advisors, told DW. "From a Chinese perspective, Israel is, therefore, geopolitically on the other side of what China is currently planning, namely a strengthening of the anti-Western alliance."
A relevant issue for China
The government in Beijing claims to be a neutral player in the Middle East conflict.
Still, China has criticized Israel in particular.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi has described the Israeli hostilities as "disproportionate" and said that they far exceeded the limits of self-defense. The people in Gaza should not be collectively punished, Wang stressed. In the UN Security Council, the Chinese ambassador said Beijing wanted to take into account the legitimate security interests of both warring parties and restore peace.
Beijing has no regular contact with the Islamist terror organization Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. But it does maintain links with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.
China inked a "comprehensive strategic partnership with Palestine [Palestinians]" earlier this year.
Following talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in June, the final communique stated: "China supports the establishment of a sovereign state of Palestine [Palestinians] on the basis of the 1967 border demarcation and with East Jerusalem as its capital. China supports the resumption of peace talks between Palestinians and Israel on the basis of the principle of 'land for peace,' the relevant UN resolutions and the two-state solution."
Palestinians silent on Xinjiang human rights violations
In return, the Palestinian Authority has committed itself to the "one-China policy." It has also adopted the Chinese narrative that the situation in Xinjiang, China's far-western and predominantly Muslim autonomous region, is "not about human rights issues at all, but about fighting terrorism, radicalization and separatism."
Beijing has set up a comprehensive surveillance apparatus in the province to monitor the Uyghur community there. The United Nations has slammed Beijing for committing "serious human rights violations" and accused it of possible "crimes against humanity."
China has always maintained close political ties with Palestinians, said political analyst Sandschneider. "There are historical reasons for this. Supporting liberation movements is part of the self-image of Chinese foreign policy."
However, that's not the case when it comes to Xinjiang or Taiwan, he added.
In this context, China is looking for supporters in the Arab world to defend its repression of the Uyghurs. If Beijing were to lose support in the Arab world, the separatist forces in Xinjiang could receive more backing from Muslim countries. Any uprising by an ethnic minority would be the worst-case scenario for the Communist Party leadership, for whom the unity of the country is a top priority.
China as a mediator in the Middle East
China has had a special envoy for the Middle East since 2019. The diplomat has been tasked with promoting the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors, among other things.
Since the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas, the current envoy, Zhai Jun, has been in contact with various parties and several Arab countries. He has stated that China is in favor of peace and sees "the failure to protect the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people" as the cause of the ongoing conflict. He underlined that China and Russia shared the same position on the conflict and were working together to de-escalate it.
The emphasis on proximity to Russia follows a pattern. China has increasingly focused on non-Western partners in recent years, while at the same time significantly increasing its global visibility, Sandschneider said. "China had essentially stayed out of the Middle East conflict in recent decades. But now we are seeing China positioning itself as a mediator, as it has done between Saudi Arabia and Iran."
In April 2023, China successfully mediated a rapprochement between the two Gulf rivals, making global headlines. Sandschneider believes China won't be able to repeat such a success when it comes to the war between Israel and Hamas. "China's credibility is pretty limited in this particular case between Israel and Hamas."
This article was originally written in German.
Edited by: Shamil Shams