TAIPEI, Taiwan (JTA) — Growing up as a Bukharian Jew in China, Uriah was always told by his parents to hide his Jewishness in public and to try to assimilate into the greater Chinese population.
Uriah — who asked to be identified only by his Hebrew name to ensure the safety of his family — said that when he began publicly talking about his Jewish identity, people told him that he would “never be one of us [Han Chinese].”
But Uriah had never felt physically or personally threatened until the aftermath of Oct. 7, when Hamas killed over 1,400 Israelis in an incursion, sparking a war with Israel that has killed thousands in Gaza.
Online, he saw people taunting the parents of Noa Argamani, the half-Chinese Israeli-born captive who was seen being kidnapped by Hamas in a viral video. People cursed her Chinese-born mother for asking China for help.
Then friends and acquaintances started taunting Uriah and his family members, sending them antisemitic social media posts and messages saying Argamani was rightfully captured by Hamas fighters, he said.
“Is China even going to be a safe place for, say, Jewish businessmen who are known to be Jewish? Will there be hostility verbally, or even physically? In the past, my answer was no, but now I’m not sure,” he said.
After Oct. 7, China’s internet — from message boards to video platforms to social media — suddenly flooded with viciously anti-Israel and antisemitic comments. Pointing to Israel’s actions against the Palestinians, people have said things ranging from support for Hitler and Nazi Germany to the idea that oppressed Jews have become oppressive Nazis.
Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust classic “Schindler’s List,” which has been widely loved in China, was review-bombed so heavily on the video platform Bilibili that its rating declined from 9.7 to 4.3. “Where is the Palestinian Schindler?” read one highly-rated comment.
Commenting became so intense that Israeli and German embassy accounts on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform, began filtering responses to some posts.
“We believe in the power of free speech and rational debate… But all this is not without limitations: invective that is degrading to human dignity will be deleted,” the German embassy wrote. “We also want to make it clear that those who deliberately combine the Israeli flag with Nazi symbols in their profile pictures are either ignorant idiots or shameless bastards! Such accounts will be permanently blocked by us.”
It’s not just a phenomenon on social media. State media, such as the Chinese Communist Party-backed national news broadcaster CCTV, claimed that “Jews represent just 3% of the American population but control 70% of its wealth … these factors can be used to exert incomparable influence on politics.” The CCTV video has since been removed, but the hashtag “Jews represent just 3% of the American population but control 70% of its wealth” became a “hot topic” on Weibo, and that unfounded statistic has appeared numerous times in other social media posts seeking to pin the responsibility for the current war against Hamas on a global Jewish conspiracy.
“I am deeply concerned by the spread of antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories in recent weeks, including the uptick on the largest social media platforms in the PRC [People’s Republic of China],” tweeted U.S. antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt on Wednesday. “This dramatic increase in antisemitic rhetoric is a cause for alarm.”
How “philosemitism” can turn into antisemitism
Judaism is not one of China’s five recognized religions, meaning the identity of Chinese Jews like Uriah or the historic community in Kaifeng is not recognized as legitimate. But Jews have long been revered in China, where centuries-old stereotypes are common — such as the conspiracy theory that Jews have control over American institutions from Wall Street to the media.
It’s not just about money and power: the Chinese have historically looked to Jews as a sort of mirror of themselves, a down-and-out nation that survived extreme adversity and rose to a position of power and prominence against the odds.
These stereotypes are portrayed in a positive light and are often referred to as “philosemitic.” Jews here have talked about getting everything from free taxi rides to compliments about their intelligence. Bookstores carry self-help books about how to be more like the “successful” Jews. Chinese philosemitic sentiment has been embraced by both Israeli and Chinese governments throughout the development of diplomatic relations, scholars have noted.
But the line between philo- and antisemitism can be thin. Unlike in the West, where antisemitism is a centuries-old, deeply ingrained tradition, Jewish conspiracy theories are a relatively new phenomenon in China. Even “positive” racial stereotypes have the potential to turn negative, especially in the context of heightened anti-Western sentiment in China in recent decades, says Mary J. Ainslie of the University of Nottingham at Ningbo.
As influencer Lu Kewen described in a viral 8,000-word WeChat post in 2021: “The image of Jews in China was once that of saints preparing to save the common people: firm, holy, intelligent, rich and kindhearted while full of trauma.” Though after learning more about the history of “various countries,” Lu wrote, “Jewish names kept coming up … after classifying them and analyzing their behaviors, my impression of Jews slowly changed.” His screed included passages copied and pasted from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
The free propagation of Jewish conspiracy theories despite China’s powerful censorship machine indicates an endorsement by the party-state, which has been hurling blame at the United States for the war in Israel through its state media.
“There is a notice here that stereotyping of Jewish people, particularly negative stereotyping of Jewish people, is actually quite a force online. And because conspiratorial discourses are encouraged by the state and are often actually connected to the state, this is something that [authorities are] not willing to perhaps challenge,” Ainslie said.
At a press conference last week, in response to a question on reports of antisemitism on Chinese social media, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin reiterated China’s stance on the conflict — which calls for a two-state solution — adding that “China’s laws unequivocally prohibit disseminating information on extremism, ethnic hatred, discrimination and violence via the internet.”
China-Israel ties are at a low
China has cultivated a strong economic relationship with Israel since establishing ties in 1992, often referencing the “1,000-year” friendship between the Chinese and Jewish people and the thousands of Jewish refugees who found refuge in Shanghai during World War II. China today remains Israel’s second-largest trading partner behind the United States.
In June, in a sign of warming ties, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. politicians that he planned to visit Beijing in the near future. He felt compelled to issue a statement emphasizing that “the US will always be Israel’s most vital ally and irreplaceable ally.” (That visit now seems unlikely.)
But China has historically also had a close relationship with Palestinian leaders dating back to the Mao era. The country has shown that it additionally wants to play a bigger role in the Middle East peace process in recent years.
Since Oct. 7, China has not specifically condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel or labeled it as terrorism, leading to deep disappointment and frustration from Israel. Unlike many Western nations, China does not categorize Hamas as a terrorist organization.
On Thursday, Israel’s representative to Taiwan called China’s hesitance to condemn Hamas’ attack “very disturbing.” China has also released little information about the stabbing of an Israeli diplomat’s spouse in Beijing, though police said the attacker was a foreigner.
Instead, China has repeatedly called for restraint on both sides and for a two-state solution to be reached with the help of the United Nations. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also said Israel had gone “beyond self-defense.”
China has additionally courted support in the Arab League, to the extent that several countries in it have begun rejecting international concerns about human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said the Chinese government “may be committing genocide” in the region, where the Uyghurs have reportedly been subject to mass imprisonment and forced labor.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in June that China’s actions in Xinjiang are aimed at combating terrorism and have “nothing to do with human rights” abuses.
Plenty of Chinese still support Jews and Israel
Viral social media posts do not necessarily determine the public opinion of the average Chinese, and the topic of antisemitism in China remains understudied. Condemnations of antisemitism in response to the recent phenomenon in China’s cyberspace do exist — many users have condemned Hamas’ terrorism and questioned their government’s response to the conflict.
Pro-Israel sentiment exists, too. Israel has also long been a subject of admiration in China for its rich culture and strong educational and tech sectors that many entrepreneurs have tried to buy into or replicate.
Many Chinese express their support for the Jewish state on the Israeli embassy in China’s Weibo posts. “Support Israel! Annihilate the terrorist organization!” one recent comment reads.
In a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Ping Zhang, a professor of East Asian studies at Tel Aviv University, said his attempts to explain to Israeli friends that “‘there are still many Chinese who support Israel’ basically received little response.”
“The goodwill caused by 1,000 Chinese voices friendly to Israel is not worth the damage caused by one antisemitic statement,” he wrote. “Simply put, the foundation of the good relationship built between the two sides over the past three decades has been shattered.”