Tea Leaf Nation

Netanyahu, Shanghai, and the Communist Party’s Forbidden History

How the Israeli embassy just waded into one of China's most controversial wartime debates.


On Aug. 26, the Israeli Embassy in China posted a one-minute video to its official account on Weibo, China’s huge microblogging platform, thanking the coastal Chinese city of Shanghai for its role sheltering roughly 20,000 Jews fleeing persecution before and during World War II. The sleek bilingual video seemed intended as an emotive tribute as well as an astute diplomatic gesture — China, a big buyer of Israel’s military technology, has recently solicited greater international recognition for its wartime contributions. Titled “Thank You, Shanghai,” the video showed some of the elderly Jews who had found safe haven in Shanghai — including Haifa mayor Yona Yahav and Nobel Prize recipient Robert Yisrael Aumann  — posing with their children and grandchildren and holding signs in English, Chinese, and Hebrew that read “Thank you.” The video concluded with a personal message from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said in English with Chinese subtitles, “We are eternally grateful and we will never forget. Thank you.”

The video was an instant hit on the Chinese web. Articles lauding the video quickly appeared on the websites of Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, state news agency Xinhua, state-run Global Times, and many other news outlets, also making a splash on Chinese military fanboy website Iron and Blood. The Israeli embassy’s original Weibo post was shared more than 13,000 times and garnered over 2,800 comments within 24 hours.

The Israeli embassy, however, may have unwittingly waded into a fierce debate within China over who deserves credit for wartime events — a debate that extends far beyond Jews who fled to Shanghai more than 70 years ago. China is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, often referred to in China as the War Against Japanese Aggression, with particular gusto. Beijing has invited dozens of heads of state around the world to attend a massive military parade in the capital on Sept. 3; the government has even declared the day a national holiday so that everyone can take part in the celebrations.

But the war — or specifically, who gets the accolades for winning it — remains controversial, due in no small part to heavy government propaganda. Since the ruling Chinese Communist Party defeated the Nationalists and their leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in a bloody civil war that ended in 1949, the party has maintained that Chiang and the Nationalists played little role in defeating the invading Japanese. But many in China — as well as most Western historians — don’t buy that, viewing such claims as a party attempt to appropriate for its own political ends a struggle that belonged to Chinese of every ideological bent.

“You should thank the government of the Republic of China,” read one highly up-voted comment, referring to China’s official name while under the control of the Nationalist Party. “We also want to thank you for not forgetting this part of history,” wrote another user, continuing with a veiled criticism of party propaganda: “Some people in our country have completely forgotten the support that the United States” — which provided military and other aid to the Nationalist war effort — “gave to us during the war.” In a reference to Taiwan, where Chiang and his Nationalists fled after losing the civil war, another user wrote, “The people who should be thanked are right across the water.” But others disagreed. “They are thanking the people of Shanghai, not such-and-such government,” retorted one user in a popular comment. “Mentioning something like Taiwan–you didn’t do your middle school homework, did you?” “Party or belief doesn’t matter,” wrote another. “This is a friendship between two people groups.”

To be sure, not everyone attempted to use the video to score political points. Many Chinese web users expressed warmth and gratitude for Israel’s gesture, with many taking it as token of friendship. “This is the most moving period of history, especially after the Japanese occupied [Shanghai]” read one popular comment. “Two peoples in terrible circumstances made it through it all by helping each other.” Another user seemed more interested in the modern relationship between China and Israel. “Thank you for supporting the people of China in the field of defense technology,” wrote the user.

The video posted by the Israeli Embassy tiptoed carefully around the controversy, thanking the city of Shanghai rather than any national government. But that didn’t prevent Chinese netizens on opposing sides of the political spectrum — those supportive of the party’s version of history and those more openly critical of it — from duking it out online.

Image: Fair Use

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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