Positioning itself as a global leader, China is under pressure to succeed where so many others have failed and find a way out of the tragic, deadly firestorm that has suddenly engulfed Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Yet, with a foreign policy that outwardly presents the country as all things to all people and diplomatic ties that lean to Hamas in important ways, straightforward decision-making will not come naturally. That said, China has many channels for reaction, not all of them official.
Here are five things to expect from its response.
Uyghur terrorism and isolation
Almost from the moment that news of the Hamas atrocities broke, commentary on the Uyghur reaction took hold on social media.
While most authoritative Uyghur voices such as the World Uyghur Congress and Omer Kanat, the executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, unequivocally condemned the bloodshed, not every Uyghur has the same opinion, and, as with many communities, some may even support Hamas’s actions and intentions.
China and its internet proxies, both authentic and inauthentic, are certainly poised to capitalize on the division. They will magnify different Uyghur opinions to different audiences in order to erode empathy or stitch together decontextualized posts and articles to confuse people about what they might be supporting when they stand with Uyghurs.
Meanwhile, to deal with those Uyghur voices who have spoken out against Hamas, China will characterize them as C.I.A. pawns and thereby look to discredit them. It will do so via bot, third-party and Beijing-leaning accounts that are difficult to directly link to the Chinese Communist Party.
On the other hand, where it can find Uyghur opinions in support of Hamas violence, no matter how marginal or unrepresentative they may be, it can be expected to amplify them through social and perhaps even state media. Indeed, there is a distinct possibility that it will even manufacture Uyghur social media accounts for the purpose.
It has much to gain by doing so. Beijing’s central justification for the mass internment of Uyghurs has been that it is engaging in counter-terrorism and deradicalization. While China itself does not regard Hamas as a terrorist group, much of the world has a contrary opinion, so any Uyghurs advocating Hamas, real or imagined, serve to back up China’s argument.
What is more, some of the most powerful warnings that China may be committing genocide against Uyghurs in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) have come from Jewish organizations. Any wedge that can be driven between Uyghurs and Jews will therefore be welcome in Beijing’s eyes.
Discord, misinformation and division in the West
China’s global misinformation strategies have been acknowledged to take new forms in recent years. From the more direct propaganda of old, it is shifting towards cleaving division in democracies by exacerbating existing conflicts.
The Hamas atrocity is drawing out strong and divergent opinions amid the fog of war, and China will likely take advantage with at least two lines of attack, largely, but not exclusively, through inauthentic social media networks: On the one hand, it will disseminate misinformation; on the other, it will gear up radical or strongly opposing voices, especially if they are from, or appear to be from, minority communities.
With the former approach, to which X (formerly known as Twitter) has shown itself to be particularly vulnerable, it will look to direct narratives, discredit freedom of expression and diminish trust in any information whatsoever, so that all news becomes equally valueless. With the latter, it is looking for strong reactions that destabilize target countries, and pull them more towards polarized dysfunction and authoritarianism.
China President Xi Jinping has, for some time, been looking to position himself as a peacemaker. This chimes with the “peaceful rise” narrative that Beijing has cultivated as a cover for its war-mongering and vast human rights abuses. It also bestows great prestige for anybody who can authentically take on the role.
Thus, one can expect China to put itself forward as a broker for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. In some ways, it is well placed to do so. For one, it has looked to ingratiate itself will all parties in the Middle East, including Israel. For another, it is an entity with almost unparalleled power that is not associated with Washington or its baggage. And it has already had some success on this front with the Saudi Arabia-Iran detente.
However, as demonstrated by its supposed attempts to deliver an end to conflict in Ukraine, not to mention what it does and does not censor domestically, Beijing can neither be considered a neutral party nor one that can deliver a just and peaceful future for the people of Israel or Palestine.
Allyship with Russia, Syria and Iran — the latter of which is believed by many to be currently facilitating Hamas attacks, while the former has links to the militant group as well — may skew its sympathies. Moreover, its long-nurtured relationship with Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas, who has put aside his own fractious differences with Hamas for the moment, precludes the establishment of a democratic, rights-respecting state on that side.
When the chips are down, Beijing may suffer cold feet for turning up the volume on viable two-state outcomes to conflicts, anyway. After all, similar logic could be applied to peace-making solutions much closer to home …
Draw Saudi Arabia closer
The Washington-expedited normalization of ties once expected between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would have further isolated Iran, now looks all but impossible to realize, at least under current circumstances.
Indeed, the Saudi Foreign Ministry released a statement shortly after the Hamas attack on October 7 that, while calling for de-escalation and protection of civilians on both sides, seemed to place blame for the outbreak of slaughter on the “continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of provocations against its sanctities.”
Such wording will not be edifying to Israel, which has suffered at least 1,200 deaths since Saturday. Nor can Riyadh be seen to tolerate the Israeli retaliation, which has resulted in a further 900 dead in Gaza and counting. Civilians account for a significant proportion on both sides. Bridges will therefore be difficult for the U.S. to build in the near future.
This leaves a door in Riyadh open to China, which, as evidenced by the BRICS expansion, has been courting Saudi Arabia for some time. It would like the oil assurances that the kingdom can offer, not to mention influence over their strategic value. In addition, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a serious enough human rights offender that he can be relied upon to support China’s crimes in media and at the United Nations.
On Riyadh’s side, when comparing with its relationship to the U.S., China holds the attraction of new multi-billion-dollar mutual investment opportunities, a like-minded approach to repression, trade with no concern for sanctions and willingness to transfer nuclear knowhow with few questions asked. Beijing will certainly look to pull its eyes more firmly towards Far East Asia amid the shocking events in Gaza.
Knowing that Israel will, in all probability, brutally, disproportionately and comprehensively reassert its power over the Gaza Strip, at least until the next violent flare-up, China does not want to cut itself off from Israel, whose increasingly authoritarian rule under Netanyahu has brought it closer to Beijing’s line of thinking after decades of deepening economic ties.
Conversely, it also actively courts Arab states that broadly stand with Palestine, whose support, it believes, gives international justification to its destruction of the Uyghur people, not to mention a helping hand in transnational repression.
Of the two sides, Beijing’s inclination is towards the Arab world, but there is no reason to publicly place both feet in one camp, especially since reputational damage among some audiences would come with any explicit statement. Therefore, it is prudent to release belated and pressured everyman comments that refer to no wrong-doers and denounce “all violence and attacks on civilians” in general.
Although China’s international limitations could be exposed by such a tepid response, it will nonetheless attempt to keep all parties on-side for its own future strategic ends. Who can say? When the dust has settled and thousands more are maimed or dead, it could even attempt a Saudi Arabia-Israel rapprochement under its own umbrella.
In the meantime, however, it can keep quiet in relative satisfaction that uncomfortable news like the opposition to its reelection to the United Nations Human Rights Council or its pro-Russia role in the Ukraine war is disappearing in the Middle Eastern inferno. And whatever outrages are committed by one human upon another in the name of Hamas or Israel, they can all be used to relativize and normalize China’s own heinous misdeeds.
October 17, 2023: This article has been updated to remove a sentence that originally read, “There is already evidence that China-led misinformation is underway.”
While Newsweek did indeed discover that Chinese state media was falsely presenting a photo and video of 2016 and 2018 white phosphorus attacks in Syria as having occurred in Gaza, and Israel denies that the substance has been used against Hamas, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Program have both verified subsequent video and photographic material of white phosphorus ammunition being deployed in the current Gaza war.
Although the original allegation of misinformation still stands, it should not obscure what appears to be an unlawful weapons use in a populated area.