SIGNAL on Sino-Israeli Relations

By Dale Aluf

Compiled from SIGNAL Perspectives September and 12 July 2019

Israel and China are peculiar partners. In almost every way, they display contrasts as opposed to commonalities – across cultures, history, size, political systems, economic structures, and ideology. In the face of their differences, they have succeeded in cultivating flourishing economic relations, and today, China is Israel’s second-largest trading partner country. China’s relations with Israel are emblematic of the impact of the PRC’s vast international outreach over the past decade. 

With sustained rapid economic growth and a dramatic increase in international investment, China has become a key trading partner and significant foreign investor for Israel. There has been growing concern in China for stability in the Middle East, predominantly due to its investments in the region and the success of its Belt and Road Initiative. China has also taken an active interest in collaboration on innovation and technology with Israel – which inspired the establishment of a Comprehensive Innovation Partnership between the two nations in March of 2017. 

The China of today is a long way from the ‘Sick Man of East Asia,’ as it was called in the early 20th century when it first established diplomatic relations with Israel. The modern world is now, for the first time, presented with a powerful China – a China that is also, for the first time, looking outward to the world from its position of strength.

Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative now encompasses roughly two-thirds of the global population, with over 60 partner countries having signed onto the project. It aims to connect the world to China through a series of mega-infrastructure projects commanding multi-trillion-dollar investment. Today’s China has massive influence over global markets, supply chains, global governance, and geopolitics. 

China’s increasing assertiveness on the world stage has become a fact of our time – but the best way to deal with it is less obvious. While Beijing promotes its Belt and Road Initiative as a means to bring nations closer together through win-win cooperation, some observers have come to view it as a form of economic colonialism. These pundits argue that BRI investments create “debt traps” that require some developing countries to give China controlling shares in national assets. From their perspective, “win-win” oftentimes means that China wins twice. 

China’s expanding global footprint has also been a source of increased friction with the United States. In some cases, America sees China’s military advancements and its establishment of naval bases in the Indo-pacific and elsewhere as an aggressive step to project power. Closer to home, Americans view the “Made in China 2025” policy as a state-backed plan to dominate the advanced technology sector and replace America’s longstanding leadership in innovation. These perceptions are now firmly embedded in America’s political discourse. 

Meanwhile, America’s pivot towards Asia and its naval presence in proximity to China’s coastline are viewed by China as a challenge to its sovereignty, and part of an American strategy designed to contain its rise and maintain American hegemony. The deterioration of mutual trust between China and America has led to a dramatic shift in the nature of their relationship. Many nations, including Israel, now find themselves caught in the crossfire – struggling to find a balance between national security and economic progress.

Israel’s close bond with the U.S. is one of several factors that exert pressure on Sino-Israel relations, limiting the depth and scope of their relationship. Such pressures have existed since before the establishment of official diplomatic ties in 1992, and many continue to influence the scope of relations up to the present day. The nature of the diplomatic relations between a country of considerable size, population, and economy with a small country like Israel, China’s alignment with the Arab/Muslim world, China’s friendship with Iran, and the vast cultural as well as ideological divide, all bear influence on the relationship. 

To further complicate matters, Chinese policy does not fit into a static framework. It is dynamic and evolving, invoking ideas as diverse as Sun Tzu and Marxism-Leninism but also adapting in response to international law and global value chains. 

External perceptions of China’s foreign policy are often knotted with contradictions and polarized into extremes. Some analysts treat China as a “mystical, ineffable Oriental reality which is claimed to be inaccessible to Western or Eastern minds,” struggling to cram Chinese foreign policy into a framework tenuously based on ancient Chinese cultural constructs like “tianxia.” Others ignore Chinese cultural and ideological differences altogether, warning of a “hegemonic sphere of trade, communication, transportation, and security links” furthering China’s “neocolonial designs” based on the realpolitik framework. 

In the words of Adam Smith, both camps “give up the evidence of their senses to preserve the coherence of the ideas of their imagination.” Consequently, as former Singaporean Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan acknowledges, the frameworks applied to analyze Chinese foreign policy are “at best always only partially and contingently true.”

With the growing interchange between the two countries and Israel’s greater reliance upon China for trade and investment, a more thoughtful approach to foreign relations with China has become ever more crucial.

If Israel wishes to continue benefiting from its relations with the East Asian giant, its policy and strategy must be responsive to the dynamics that affect the nature of the relationship. Achieving this, however, requires that Israeli policymakers cultivate a deeper understanding of the rich history and culture which informs China’s unique approach to international affairs while also being attuned to the external pressures that bear influence on the relationship. 

The question of how to deal with an increasingly assertive, powerful China has left many in the international arena baffled – including Israel…

Public response to the Haifa port issue has revealed that Israeli society’s views towards China are polarized.

Some are rather enthusiastic, particularly the business-oriented sector who see China as a valuable source of investment for Israel. Yet they fail to see the potential risks that engaging so blindly can lead to.

The other camp, seem to frame China as if they are some Juggernaut intent on taking over the world. This pole tends to view every transaction with the utmost suspicion, believing each to be part of some broader sinister plan.

These views are indicative of a society that lacks a basic understanding of China. As Dr. Ori Sela puts it, ignorance is the “coal that runs the engine.”

Understanding any culture is important but this is especially true when the culture is so different that accurately assessing intent from language and behavior can be an almost insurmountable goal. But understanding China is important. Especially if Israel wishes to continue the benefits it enjoys from the relationship whilst at the same time mitigating the potential risks associated with dealing with Beijing.

Approaching China as an all-or-nothing proposition, however, is an unforced error.

Even the Philippines and Japan, both of which face tremendous strategic risks from China, do not take a hardline stance rejecting all Chinese involvement to preserve their sovereignty while throwing themselves at the mercy of the US security umbrella.

Instead, they recognize that in spite of territorial disputes, they can benefit from shared investment and resource exploitation agreements while boundary delimitations are mulled and negotiated over a longer timeframe. They understand that China is a global force that cannot be ignored or ostracized without unacceptably high economic cost, and that engagement with China must walk a middle road between security and profit to meet national objectives.

Why do these countries not dedicate themselves to all-out competition with China or total cooperation with China?

Because they recognize the distinction between China’s core interests and the secondary objectives that are intended to secure them. These secondary objectives, like preservation of the North Korean regime and island construction in the South China Sea, are more flexible in a way that issues like Taiwanese reunification are not.

Consequently, the Philippines and Japan have found ways to negotiate middle ground solutions that help China secure its interests in a less damaging way than direct confrontation.

For instance, the Philippines and China signed a memorandum of understanding on joint oil and gas development. This helps China’s core interest of diversifying energy sources and is less destabilizing to the region than if China were to establish another unilateral oil rig – as it did in 2014, which precipitated a crisis with Vietnam. Additionally, the Philippines will likely secure 40% or more of the profits from joint oil exploration, as opposed to receiving 0% if China had moved unilaterally.

The prerequisite for mutually beneficial agreements requires cultivating a better understanding of China’s core and peripheral interests. Unless Israel can learn to distinguish between the two with regard to China, it will be unable to develop a more sophisticated approach than the “China as a bank to be embraced” and “China as a hegemon that must be resisted” camps currently advocate.

However, the ability to achieve this is contingent on Israel’s ability to close the knowledge gap and learn more about its second largest trading partner.

Dale Aluf is the director of research and strategy at SIGNAL, Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership – a member of China’s Silk Road Think Tank Association SRTA.


In Memoriam

Sidney Rittenberg

14 August 1921 – 23 August 2019

Compiled from articles by Jonathan Margolis,, 28 Aug 2019; Robert D. Mcfadden, New York Times, 26 August 2019; and other sources.

Sidney Rittenberg, an American Jew who stayed in China for 35 years after World War II as an adviser and political prisoner of the Communist Revolution, and later made millions as a counselor of Western capitalists exploiting booming Chinese markets, died on Saturday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 98.

One of the few non-Chinese people to become a senior member of the Chinese Communist party, he was known in China, and still revered, as Li Dunbai (which sounds like Rittenberg to Chinese ears). 

An intimate of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and almost every other veteran revolutionary, Rittenberg gained prominence at the Broadcast Administration in Beijing, one of the most important agencies of government, and for a few months in 1967 was the director of Radio Peking... Rittenberg also translated Mao’s Complete Works and the Little Red Book into English and became a leading rabble-rouser in the Cultural Revolution.

The convulsions of a China constantly reinventing itself led to Rittenberg twice falling foul of the leadership. Of his 35 years in China, he served a total of 16 imprisoned in solitary confinement, accused of being an American spy. Disillusioned with communism, he returned to the US in 1980 with his wife, Wang Yulin, whom he married in 1956, and their four children.

In the United States after his release, he founded Rittenberg Associates, a consulting company that helped businesses from Colgate Palmolive to Warner Music to Intel, Microsoft and PricewaterhouseCoopers to establish themselves in China.  He used his extensive knowledge and contacts in China to build his own capitalist empire, advising corporate leaders, including Bill Gates of Microsoft and the computer magnate Michael S. Dell, on how to cash in on China's vast growing economy. Still welcome in China, he took entrepreneurs on guided tours, introducing them to the country's movers and shakers…

The son of Muriel (née Sluth) and Sidney Rittenberg, Sidney Rittenberg was born in Charleston, S.C., on Aug. 14, 1921 into a prominent Jewish family. His father, Sidney Sr, was president of the Charleston City Council and his grandfather had been a prominent South Carolina legislator. His mother was the daughter of a Russian immigrant. After graduating from the Porter Military Academy in Charleston in 1937, he turned down a scholarship to Princeton to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in philosophy and graduated in 1941.

He joined the American Communist Party in 1940, drawn by its platform of free speech, racial equality and roots in the labor movement. Without giving up his Communist ideals, he acceded to a party request and resigned in 1942 when he was drafted by the Army in World War II.

Recognizing his talent for languages – he had learned French and Latin in prep school and excelled in German at Chapel Hill – the Army sent him to its language school at Stanford University. He was fluent in Chinese by 1945, when he arrived in Kunming, China, as a linguist for the Judge Advocate General just as World War II ended.

He still was committed to Marxist-Leninist ideals, and the corruption and inequalities of life in China under the Chiang Kai-shek Nationalists shocked him.  Honorably discharged, he made contact with the Communists in Shanghai and was soon trekking for 45 days across China to join Mao’s guerrilla army at Yan’an.

He played gin rummy and argued dogma with Mao, talked for days about the United States and philosophy with Zhou, danced with Mao's wife Jiang Qing, and got to know Mao's inner circle, including Liu Shaoqi, the third-ranking leader. Mao had always been fascinated by the US and, while camped out at Yan’an, would spend hours sequestered with Rittenberg going through old copies of American magazines and asking questions about the US. They all watched Laurel and Hardy movies together, for which Rittenberg did simultaneous translations.

Mr. Rittenberg joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1946. He became an English-language translator of news dispatches for the party's propaganda arm and an interpreter of Chinese for communiqués and contacts with international leaders. He traveled with Mao and the Red Army and witnessed events of the civil war that led to the Communist victory in 1949, and to the formation of Mao's Beijing government, the
People's Republic of China. After the Communists won power, he was asked to stay on as, in his words, “an engineer to build a bridge from the Chinese people to the American people”.

His first spell in prison, of six years from 1949, of which the first was spent in total sensory deprivation, driving Rittenberg to the edge of insanity, came about after Joseph Stalin wrote to Mao warning him that the American was a spy.

His captors never quite seemed to believe the charge, but Mao supported his continued incarceration to test him. “They did say once, ‘If you’re a real revolutionary, you should be able to stand this test,’” Rittenberg said, “and that was all I needed.” He was offered the chance to go back to the US, but decided to stay. “I was just getting into ever deeper study of his writings and deciding he was a genius,” Rittenberg said.

Mr. Rittenberg was an avid propagandist during Mao's Great Leap Forward, a campaign from 1958 to 1961 to transform China from an agrarian economy to a collectivized, industrialized society. The campaign, which banned private farming and enforced edicts with indoctrination and forced labor, was a disaster, causing widespread famine and tens of millions of deaths…

He was even more directly involved in the early stages of Mao's Cultural Revolution, a decade-long purge of "bourgeois" intellectuals, party officials and others suspected of anti-Maoist thought…At that time he would address rapturous crowds of up to 100,000. His speeches and news conferences were published in the Red Guard newspapers. Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and the leader of what would come to be known as the Gang of Four, once commented acidly that, at 45, Rittenberg was a little old to be a Red Guard, but he pressed on regardless, until Jiang Qing, thought to have been jealous of this popular foreigner, had him thrown into jail for a 10-year term.

One famous picture from the era shows Mao autographing Mr. Rittenberg's copy of his "Little Red Book" of sayings. Another shows Mr. Rittenberg on a speaker's platform, holding the book up and exhorting crowds in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to defend Mao's thoughts. Soon after the pictures were taken, Mr. Rittenberg was himself denounced by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, ostensibly for attending a secret meeting to plot the government's overthrow. In 1968, he was imprisoned, again without a hearing, this time for a decade in solitary confinement in a dark cell 7 paces long and 3½ paces wide.  His wife was sent to a labor camp, his children to live with relatives.

During Mr. Rittenberg's second imprisonment, the Cultural Revolution left the country in chaos, Mao's health began to fail and the so-called Gang of Four – Mao's wife and three other leaders ­­­– assumed greater power. China's Communist Party became what Mr. Rittenberg called a "shadow" of its old self.

"The spirit was gone, the party became a mere machine for exercising power over the government and the people," Mr. Rittenberg told The Financial Times in 2012. "Official corruption and careerism, rare before the Cultural Revolution, now become prevalent and systemic."

Released in 1977 after Mao died and Jiang Qing arrested, Mr. Rittenberg emerged from prison disillusioned with Communism. He returned to the United States in 1979 for a three-month visit that he portrayed as a "vacation," to see relatives, to lecture and, apparently, to quietly discuss his repatriation with the Carter administration. He returned to China, his status undiminished, and was named to an important academic post.

But he quickly left China again for what he said would be a five-month visit to America. His wife went with him, and it turned out to be a permanent move, with the children joining them later and assuming American names and citizenship. He had kept his own American citizenship, and he soon settled into a new life in Bellevue, Washington. His return was widely publicized. He went on television and radio talk shows, lectured and was featured in newspapers and magazines.

His welcome by American officials raised suspicions that he had been a C.I.A. agent all along, but he scoffed at the idea, and no proof was ever offered. Even in old age Rittenberg would be asked by retired FBI and CIA chiefs whom he had been reporting to in Washington while under his “deep cover” in China. When he insisted he was not a spy, Rittenberg related, the former spooks would typically tap their noses and say: “You’re still very good.”

“I think China has to face the fact that Mao was one of the worst people in human history,” was Rittenberg’s assessment of Mao in old age. “He was a genius, but his genius got completely out of control, so he was a great historic leader and a great historic criminal. He gave himself the right to conduct social experiments that involved upturning the lives of hundreds of millions of people, when he didn’t know what the outcome might be. And that created famines in which tens of millions died, and a revolution in which nobody knows how many died.”

Rittenberg explained that his idealism and the belief that he was taking part in the development of a new and better world blinded him to the atrocious persecution and murder of even close friends of his. “It’s a kind of corruption, exactly the kind of corruption that ruins the whole thing,” he said. “I believed I was part of history. That’s what you get with ideology and power. You learn to harden your heart in the name of the wonderful new world you’re building. Once you do that, you do all kinds of things. I did.”

Rittenberg, in later years at least, had an impish sense of humour, loved jokes – especially Jewish jokes – and was called upon as a commentator on Chinese affairs by both western and Chinese media. In 1993 his memoir, The Man Who Stayed Behind, written with Amanda Bennett, a former correspondent in China for The Wall Street Journal, was published, and in 2012 he was the subject of the documentary The Revolutionary, by Irv Drasnin, Don Sellers and Lucy Ostrander. He taught into his 90s at several US universities.

"I had been right to help those who were working for a new China," he said in the memoir. "I had been dead wrong, however, in accepting the party as the embodiment of truth and in giving to the party uncritical and unquestioning loyalty."

He is survived by his wife Yulin and their children, Xiaoqin (Jenny), Xiaodong (Toni), Xiaoxiang (Sunny) and Xiaoming (Sidney Jr.), and four grandchildren.