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China imports Israel’s methods of propaganda and repression

By Jimmy Johnson
The Electronic Intifada, 28 December 2010

(EI Illustration)

Israeli army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu recently returned from a trip to China where he met with his Chinese counterparts and other officials. The goal was to deepen Sino-Israeli ties on political, security and military levels. This is only the latest in a burgeoning security relationship between Israel and China that includes drone technology, crowd control training, surveillance, intelligence gathering and more. This raises the question of how China’s official support for Palestinian self-determination will coincide with its ongoing procurement of the tools of Palestinian pacification. Similarly, how does it threaten the rights of Uighurs, Tibetans, and others under the control of the Chinese state by bringing Israel’s apparatuses of occupation and apartheid?
China, in recent years, has faced growing rebellions in Tibet, East Turkestan, and most prominently in the ongoing labor unrest focused in China’s south where strikes and protests are occurring at an unprecedented rate. Despite attempts at controlling what information comes and goes, the Chinese government has learned that complete suppression is impossible. Its political relationships with Uighurs, Tibetans and especially workers are different than that of Israel to Palestinians. Tibetans and Uighurs have certain protected statuses and rights both as minorities and as Chinese citizens, and the state, since 2008, has been supportive to a degree of improving workplace conditions and reducing the income gap in favor of the protesting working class.

But with the most visible of Uighur and Tibetan activism and resistance focusing on self-determination, China faces a likely insurmountable battle to convince already mobilized populations that they should accept Chinese control. The strong police responses to unrest in 2008 in Tibet and 2009 in East Turkestan, combined with China’s long record of authoritarian crackdowns on civil liberties, indicate any demands outside of those deemed acceptable by the state will be met harshly.

Sino-Israeli relations were generally distant prior to the 1980s but that decade saw the beginning of significant Israeli arms and technology transfers to China. Early efforts included the 1982 transfer of missile technology and the upgrading of China’s tank fleet despite closer political and diplomatic relations being hindered by Cold War and Non-Aligned Movement politics, especially Israel’s close military and political relationship with Taiwan. Yet by 1990 Israel was “a very major supplier” of defense technology to China (“Israeli Arms Technology Aids ChinaLos Angeles Times, 13 June 1990). Moreover, a closer relationship was built when Israel proved itself to be a reliable arms supplier during the period after the Tiananmen Square massacre when many international suppliers imposed an arms embargo in response. At the time Israel was selling arms to many repressive regimes including ones restricted by official arms embargoes such as apartheid South Africa.

The two nations only established official diplomatic relations in the wake of the 1991 Madrid Conference when the stigma of the oppression of the Palestinians was largely ameliorated by the beginning of public Israeli-Palestinian talks, presented at the time as the the precursor to Palestinian self-determination. Post-Cold War, Israel and China have developed extensive trade and military relations, despite occasional US skepticism and intervention, most notably blocking sales of advanced military systems and hardware over the past two decades. 

Israel’s own Lavi fighter jet project was ended in the mid-1980s but some of the technology developed for it has made its way into China’s Jian-10 (Chengdu) jets. The transfer of Lavi technology and Chinese funding of Israeli missile projects accompanied larger sales such as the 1994 sale of around 100 Harpy unmanned aerial vehicles to China. Another aspect of their relationship started during this time too, China’s interest in Israel’s experience with Palestinian and Lebanese pacification.
Since 2004 a large number of Israeli “homeland security” and pacification systems have been deployed in China. The Israeli company On Track Innovations (OTI) began to deliver “smart cards” as part of China’s national ID card system with some of the same biometric technology it provides to ID systems at major checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Magal Systems, whose detection systems are deployed on Israel’s wall in the West Bank, has installed nine perimeter detection systems at airports throughout the China, with two more pending. 

Such transfers could well be used in innocuous, or in the case of smart cards potentially beneficial, ways such as “smart” ID cards carrying information useful in medical emergencies. But their genesis as technologies of occupation and pacification deserves a critical interpretation. Numerous other surveillance and homeland security contracts to Israeli firms Nice Systems, Dr. Frucht Systems and others must be seen in a similar light.

Less innocuous is the Israeli private security firm International Security and Defense Systems’ (ISDS) training of Chinese security personnel in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. ISDS “was asked to provide know-how and situation reports about international terror, mainly regarding threats of extremist Muslim groups in Asia” (Israeli security expert takes pride in his role at the OlympicsHaaretz, 10 August 2008). The declared threat of armed attacks concerned mostly organizations associated with Uighur nationalism, Islamism and East Turkestan independence, the latter being the geographic center of the other two. With the international eye on China during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, China was especially concerned about any actions that might distract from the pageantry and bring attention to various causes in opposition to the status quo.

China was also concerned with other kinds of resistance. ISDS head Leo Glaser told Haaretz, “The Chinese fear, among other things, that some demonstrators’ group might try to take advantage of the worldwide attention to carry out a non-violent but provocative act to disgrace the Chinese organizers” (Israeli security expert takes pride in his role at the OlympicsHaaretz, 10 August 2008). 

In addition to potential Uighur and Tibetan protest, Beijing police were preparing for protest by some of the 1.25 million people forcibly displaced to build the Olympic infrastructure. To this end the Israeli police trained members of China’s police force in a six-week course that included, as reported in Haaretz, “how to deal with a crowd that riots on the playing field, and how to protect VIPs and remove demonstrators from main traffic arteries” (“Israeli police trained Chinese counterparts prior to Olympics,” Haaretz, 29 September 2008). The article noted that “although the main focus of the training was to give the Chinese police the tools necessary to handle terrorist attacks, they also learned how to handle mass civilian demonstrations.” The thousands upon thousands of Palestinian protests, marches, riots and acts of civil disobedience — which Israel routinely confronts with lethal force — have made Israel a go-to destination for such training.

The rising unrest in China and Tibet, along with China’s ever-increasing economic and political efforts outside its border, have already started to bring more press attention to the collective rights and conditions of workers, Uighurs, Tibetans and others in addition to the common historical criticisms of China’s poor record on civil freedoms. China’s studying of Israeli hasbara (the Hebrew term meaning “explanation” but commonly translated as “propaganda”) pairs ideologically with its ongoing pacification efforts. China’s record will need some explaining and the October visit of Benayahu and his public relations delegation follows the March 2010 visit of Sen. Col. Xeuping and a Chinese PR delegation that visited Israel to learn “the public-relations lessons learnt during the Second Lebanon War and during Operation Cast Lead” (“IDF Spokesperson Visits China,” IDF, 20 October 2010). The delegation also studied “the IDF [Israeli army] School for Media’s training system and the integration of spokesmanship and operational planning.”

Xeuping said of the most recent visit that “IDF Spokesperson’s Unit is very effective and up-to-date, especially in times of emergency.” With regular unrest throughout China, “times of emergency” to deploy Israeli hasbara are on the rise. And China’s adoption of Israeli security technologies means the Chinese response will be built from Israel’s industry of Palestinian pacification.

Jimmy Johnson is a proud uncle and tap-dance enthusiast. He lives in Detroit, MI with his books and can be reached at johnson [dot] jimmy [at] gmail [dot] com.

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