“We believe in ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you,’” preached Hua Chunying (華春瑩), China’s assistant foreign minister on October 15, shortly after the recent Hamas atrocity had left thousands dead and the Middle East in flames.
The comment, tweeted on X, was framed in the context of China sheltering Jews in World War II, but it was a reference that simultaneously promoted peace and warfare, speaking to every person with a Jewish, Muslim or Christian background, all at once. Yes, the words ostensibly suggest charity and were accompanied by faux-angelic fluff about not repeating the mistakes of the past. But they also imply reciprocity: You deserve what you get if you have wronged someone else.
Thus, Hua subtly justified every perspective of the Hamas-Israel bloodshed and positioned herself behind each, a neat encapsulation of China’s multi-scalar approach to totalitarianism where restraint, violence, your revenge and my revenge all lead us to Beijing in the end. It is achieved by seeking different aims at different levels, all of which feel out the way for sovereign states to use and abuse the people they rule over however they please.
Of these levels, China is certainly with Hamas on a very basic one. This is evidenced by its staunch support — and discrete weapons facilitation — of Iran, whose leaders would happily annihilate Israel given half a chance. Iran holds Hamas in its tinderbox of proxies. China’s sympathies are also signaled by the antisemitism that it has permitted to stomp around behind its Great Firewall after the Hamas killing spree and its decision not to condemn the terrorist group by name for the massacre. The messaging looks like Ukraine all over again.
But why would Beijing stand with Hamas at all? First, because Hamas will not win. If that sounds strange, then consider that China President Xi Jinping’s preferred torture-prone dictatorship for the Palestinian people seems to be the Fatah party led by Mahmoud Abbas. While many share the desire to see Hamas weaken and Fatah emerge dominant after the latest outbreak of war, Xi’s warm courtship of Abbas would offer both leaders substantial regional leverage in the future. Second, with its carefully couched language enabling it to plausibly deny approving terrorism, China’s nod-and-wink, backstage patronage for Hamas still achieves approval in the Arab world, smoothing continuation of the Middle Eastern blind spot to whatever fate befalls Uyghur Muslims in East Turkestan (Xinjiang). Third, Hamas is an enemy of the U.S. as well as of Israel.
Yet the benefits do not end there. With grotesque carnage already underway, Hamas butchery ignites Israel’s unlawful fury, which promises a world that is more amenable to the kind of human rights norms that Xi’s regime embodies. For the more wrathful and inconsiderate of innocent Palestinian lives that Israel becomes as it hunts down the killers of Jewish civilians, the more China can present its slow-motion extermination of the Uyghurs as a measured and benign response to the terrorism that it has suffered.
When criticized by allies of Israel for alleged genocide, it can nonchalantly, if disingenuously, ask whether people would prefer to see compulsory Mandarin lessons and labor placements or missile attacks, dead children and the denial of food, water and medical care to millions. Does the crushed home of an Uyghur matter more that of a Palestinian, after all?
Furthermore, Hamas stokes extremism on both sides of the Iron Wall that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel. And for a country like China that counts Pyongyang, Moscow and Naypyidaw among its dearest friends, a lurch towards extremist authoritarian rule like has been seen under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is welcome, especially if it is accompanied by helpful learning materials for anti-terror techniques and the increasing empowerment of one group of people via the discriminatory deprivation of another, which, sadly, appears to be the case with Israel.
Again, as long as Palestinians who have done no wrong suffer dispossession, dislocation and de facto collective punishment, to several of the 50 states who last week denounced its targeted mistreatment of ethnic and religious minorities to the United Nations, China can blithely retort that it is racist to single out its abuses when non-Han who subjugate others are taken as friends.
Indeed, alleging racism and xenophobia is Beijing’s preferred safe haven whenever it finds itself called upon to explain the mass injustices it perpetrates, and Israel is proving a useful trojan horse for this strategic defense. Recently, the latter has been pushing at the United Nations for adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism that Israeli and international human rights groups alike believe has been practically appropriated not for legitimate protection against the scourge of anti-Jewish hate, but to silence criticism of the Israeli state. And the United Kingdom is moving forward with legislation that will prevent the boycott of Israeli products by local councils, thereby decommissioning tools of protest like divestment against both Israel and other countries, too.
China will have admiringly noted the attempt to conflate the Jewish people with a structure of Israeli governance, and it will wonder whether political support for such an understanding of prejudice may grow in other democracies as they manage their responses to Hamas’s brutal and indiscriminate mass murder. If so, it will be waiting in the wings with its own requests for protective legislation on an anti-China basis.
Beijing’s eyes will also be mirthfully watching the slew of cancellations, firings and verbal floggings targeted towards people in Western countries, not to mention U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who have expressed solidarity towards Palestinians during the violent fallout from the Hamas slaughter or even merely questioned Israel’s long-term policies. Unlike in China, these instances are not state-orchestrated and often follow the pattern of private enterprises reacting to perceived public opinion, but they still represent a serious challenge to freedom of expression. For Xi Jinping, any controversy over freedom of speech is good controversy over freedom of speech, and he will be pondering how the cultural battles that are raging in United States’ universities over Israel and Palestine can be exploited to cleave even deeper divisions and turn democracy against itself.
However, what will delight him more is the chaos that has been unleashed in mainstream and social media discourse as disinformation, misinformation and truth indistinguishably trade places with each other in the wake of the broadening war. One minute an illegal use of white phosphorus denied by Israeli Defense Forces is a China-pushed lie. The next it is Amnesty International-verified truth. A hospital is then struck by a sickening explosion, following apparent warnings of attack from Israel. To begin, the horror is blamed on the Israeli Defense Force and later attributed to the misfire of a rocket targeted at Israel from Gaza, leaving people to fight over whatever shard of reality they find most palatable or convincing. On one side is life-threatening hate. On the other is life-threatening censorship. All the while, old photos are presented as new; bloody stabbings are pinned, without evidence, on repressed ethnic groups; and fact-checkers are drowned in a swirl of uncertainty.
In such an atmosphere, where honest mistakes, unscrupulous deception and cold, hard facts can no longer be differentiated, any kind of evil can present itself as heroism, especially if it understands how to feed a fire while standing far from the flames.
Hamas does slaughter unto one. Israel does siege unto the other. And China stands on both sides, looking on.