Rabin’s China Visit Revisited

Israeli Vice PM Silvan Shalom just returned from a government-initiated innovation forum in Shanghai last week. China, with its huge capital and market, has proven an invaluable trade partner in the eyes of Israeli businessmen as well as statesmen. Although the recent colossal Chinese investment poured into Israeli corporations and start-ups is no news to many, few realize that these two— as both love to be called— “ancient civilizations” only established diplomatic ties in our real world as late as in 1992.

Additionally, few know that Yitzhak Rabin, as the world commemorated the 20th anniversary of his assassination in the past two weeks, was the first Israeli leader ever visiting the P.R.C. The P.R.C., moreover, was the first state outside the Middle East that both Arafat and Rabin visited, after their historic handshake before the White House on Sept. 13 1993. Some analysts have pinpointed it as an indication of China then seeking a bigger role in the Middle East but, on the basis of my own investigation, this was more of a coincidence. Rabin’s China tour in October 1993 was decided in the summer, several months before, without conferring with the P.L.O. leader.

This visit was, of course, way less Nobel-winning and history-making than Rabin’s earlier ad hoc flight to the U.S., but still significant, especially in hindsight. In many ways, Rabin’s China visit was almost clandestine at the time. Scanty press reports have survived, not enough to reconstruct the historical scenes as detailedly as the Oslo process. On that occasion, China, acting gingerly, not to provoke its longstanding Arab allies too much, didn’t want to make a big fuss of Rabin’s visit, and for that reason, its domestic propaganda machines all had their eyes and ears half shut. Outside China, Rabin’s visit received little and largely biased international attention. The U.S. specifically and hostilely asked Israel to take heed of its active dealings with the Chinese. In 1993, China hadn’t engaged with the rest of the world as much as now: the giant country’s GDP, nevertheless, turned out just slightly higher than that of the Netherlands, or about one tenth of Japan’s; thereby, it was far from being perceived an intimidating might as today.

Picture: National People’s Congress chairman Qiao Shi meeting with Israeli PM Rabin with a pair of interpreters hovering in background.

As a result of the relative absence in the media about Rabin’s visit, I took pains to locate related sources and pictures. Besides, the extraordinarily censored internet, oops no, intranet of the P.R.C., made unbeatable contribution to this difficulty as well. But anyhow, fast facts first: Rabin stayed five nights in China Oct. 10-15, 1993. He visited Beijing and Shanghai. In Beijing, Rabin met with the Chinese leaders then, President Jiang Zeming and Premier Li Peng. In Shanghai, he visited the city’s Jewish sites and rapidly developing Pudong. Very early in the morning of Oct. 15, he departed from Shanghai for Israel.

Rabin’s special air force jet landed in Beijing International Airport in the evening on Oct. 10. It was a Sunday, and quite cloudy, and the weather would pretty much remain so throughout his four-day trip in Beijing and Shanghai. It also felt a little chilly, though Beijing had seen worse Octobers. The city then hadn’t yet caught up with its “signature” air polluting smog, but those heavy clouds did give China’s “forbidden” capital a solemn and bitter look. Rabin was accompanied by his wife Leah, several senior governmental officials, the director of the Bank of Israel, a group of Israeli businessmen and some reporters and journalists. After receiving a formal welcome from Agriculture Minister Liu Jiang and Vice Foreign Minister in charge of the Middle Eastern Affairs, Yang Fuchang, Rabin was driven to Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a state-run hotel for hosting international dignitaries, where Arafat also checked in just two weeks before Rabin’s arrival. That night, the Chinese government made no official statements regarding his visit.

Picture: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is escorted by Chinese counterpart Li Peng as he reviews the honour guard during the welcoming ceremony on October 11, 1993 for the Israeli premier.

The very next day, Rabin was scheduled to meet the Chinese Premier Li Peng. After an official welcome ceremony featuring a 19-gun salute that paid Rabin, having spent most his life in the military, due respect, the two held a two-hour meeting. In the meeting, the Chinese government authorized the establishment of a Israeli consulate in Shanghai, and a four-million-dollar potash plant in Shanxi Province, jointly owned by the state of China and Israel. Rabin and Li also signed an airline agreement that would allow El Al to conduct direct commercial flights between Tel Aviv and Beijing, a route started a year earlier on a charter basis but couldn’t meet the increasing demands for business. The rest of the talk included particulars of Israel-Palestine peace process and plans to boost China-Israel bilateral relationship.

Picture: PM Li Peng & Israeli PM Rabin signing agreement to open Tel Aviv-Beijing direct air links in ceremony attended by entourage.

On that day’s People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s Pravda, it wrote,

According to the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Prime Minister Rabin was pleased that he became the first Israeli Prime Minister visiting China. He pointed out, China was the first country out of the Middle East that he visited after signing the Oslo Accord. Although Israel and China differ considerably in terms of territory and population, the Jewish people and Chinese people both share a long history in the world. “We are willing to broaden our relationship.”


The stylistic article continued to describe Rabin and Li’s meeting as a great success, concluded “in a sincere and friendly atmosphere.” The two exchanged opinions on the Middle East, and Li asserted that China would “welcome and support any peace endeavours and communications if pursued properly and justly.” However, according to the French newspaper Les Écho that day, Li only stated that China would “play its role” in the Middle East, and such a role, if put in the context, was inevitably “limited.” Though nowhere to be found in China’s domestic news, Rabin might have also pressed China not to sell arms to Iran, Syria and Pakistan during the meeting, a venture that the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson had, not surprisingly, deemed as “principled arms exports” that “contributed to regional stability.

Li’s words made sense, given China’s self-image at that point of its position in the Middle East. Since its initial ideology-oriented probe into the Israel-Palestine conflict in the 1950s, the communist China, “Palestine’s truest friend” upheld by Arafat personally, had interpreted it more or less as a conspired scheme, against the freedom deserving Palestinian people, by the imperialist superpowers, namely, the West, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding that China’s tone softened a bit in the 1980s, and significantly more after Feb. 1992 when it normalized relations with Israel, its attitude toward the Israel-Palestine conflict was all the same affected by its previous foreign policy’s momentum, and its reluctance to address other nations’ “domestic matters” (it couldn’t gauge to what extent was the conflict “domestic”). China had long attributed the very nature of the conflict, its prolongation, its irresolvability, to its outside powers; therefore in order to tackle this conundrum, a solution would have to be made exclusively between the two parties involved, Israel and Palestine, with little external influence from other states. While voting unflinchingly pro-Arab in almost all U.N. resolutions and agreeing to participate in international efforts to help settle the conflict, China simply didn’t want to take the lead.

Picture: Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin and his wife Lea take a break after steep climb at the Great Wall 11 October 1993 in Badaling. 

From a tourism promotion webpage listing celebrities who have visited the Great Wall (what a semblance of visitors btw.), it is clear that Rabin went the Great Wall after his meeting with Premier Li Peng. Judging by the daylight of the photos above, Rabin’s tight schedule that morning, and the estimated travel time between Diaoyutai and Badaling ( a distance of more than 65 km, at least with no traffic then), Rabin must have got there late in the afternoon. When the Israeli delegation came back from the Great Wall, Premier Li held a reception for Rabin at Diaoyutai Guesthouse.

Picture: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his wife Leah look up at the Monument to People’s Heroes after the wreath-laying ceremony at Tiananmen Square 12 October 1993.

On the 3rd day, Oct 12, Rabin met with the Chinese President Jiang Zeming for an hour in the afternoon, and Qiao Shi, too, Chairman of National People’s Congress. Their meetings took place in the Great Hall of the People, where Arafat met with Jiang in late Sept. Rabin’s meetings seemed to be, again, about the Middle Eastern peace accord he recently signed with Arafat and further economic partnership between the two countries, the gist essentially the same as his previous base-touching with Li. Rabin took a tour around Tiananmen Square in the morning, and might have also visited the Forbidden Palace and a few other famed places.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, Rabin’s visit to the P.R.C. alarmed the U.S. government. In response to/protest against his China visit, the C.I.A. director James Woolsey, in his report to the Senate Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, “disclosed” that arms sales had gone on intensively between China and Israel for a very long time, including some U.S. provided advanced technologies. The NYTimes reported on Oct. 12, in a China-threatening tone that would become all too common in the following decades,

The C.I.A. says China has been acquiring advanced military technology from Israel for more than a decade on programs for jet fighters, air-to-air missiles and tanks. The agency said the sale of Israeli military technology to China “may be several billion dollars.”

According to the updated AP report a day later, Rabin held a news conference in Beijing and “denied” the accusation by downplaying the size of Israel’s arms export to China,

All these stories of billions of dollars of arms business in the last 12 years are total nonsense. We … sold a little bit over $60 million (of goods) last year and this year.

The C.I.A was correct about the amount, but wrong about the time (as was often the case, they had to be wrong about something or other.) The trade between China and Israel steadily expanded in the 1990s but  hit the bottleneck after 2001 because of the aborted Phalcon deal, in which Israel, under enormous U.S. pressure, had to scrap its plan to sell that sophisticated airborne radar system to China. After a few years’ hibernation, the bilateral economic boom took off again in the past decade. It’s probably a good time to mention that “Israel and China already have in excess of $10 billion in trade since the start of 2015.” And the C.I.A. was right, finally.

Historically, China-Israel relations started off, unofficially, around the mid-1980s, mostly through Hong Kong, then still a British territory. Although the two nation’s high officials occasionally met in New York or Paris, they “never shook hands” in public. By the late 1980s it was already an open secret that China was more than interested in Israel’s military and agricultural technology. After Mao’s death, the reformist leaders worked really hard to rebuild the country, and they intended to import every useful advanced technology, military, agricultural, industrial, medical, basically anything that China could potentially utilize to modernize itself.

Rabin probably flew to Shanghai on the night of Oct. 12. Since China’s now celebrated High Speed Railway was still in conception, and back then it would take at least 18 hours —I confirmed this with my grandad— to travel from Beijing to Shanghai by train, plus security concerns, Rabin could only fly from Beijing to Shanghai, on his jet, of course.

He was officially welcomed the next morning, by Sha Lin, the Vice Mayor of Shanghai, because Huang Ju, the Mayor, was on a trip to Japan. Then Rabin went to Fudan University, a prestigious university in China that dated back to the late Chinese Empire. He joined a class taught in English, “Cold War’s Influence on Contemporary World” and delivered a lecture. I have different sources, contradicting each other on what Rabin’s lecture was about. So he either talked of the politics of Israel-Palestine reconciliation, or brought up the historical connections between Chinese and Jews/Arabs/Persians in earlier Chinese dynasties, or both.

There are probably more photos or even videos available in the Fudan University archive, which surely deserves a checkout some other time. But for now, the only thing for sure is that there were hundreds of students attending Rabin’s lecture. Only a dozen of them, however, were permitted to ask questions, pre-prepared and rehearsed by their instructors. After what happened on Tiananmen Square in 1989, no university in China wanted more troubles from students. The Chinese national media seemed to have quieted down as to Rabin’s whereabouts since his meeting with President Jiang. It was impossible for me to find a database that archives, digitally, Shanghai’s recent local newspapers so I guess this didn’t save me a trip to Shanghai Library if I want to know more.

I have, fatefully, in my previous research trips for another project, run into a folded, yellowish, poorly conditioned photo of Rabin and a few senior officials of the Shanghai Municipality, standing in front of a building that looked kind of odd. Immediately I took a snap of it with my smartphone, thinking that it might be of some future use, just as what I did as a habit with many a document because archives in China are not famously photocopy-friendly. I didn’t pay much attention to that particular photo since my hands were on other stuff. And as often as not, it didn’t survive a “smart” accident I had with my smartphone this summer. I only vaguely remembered the cursive writings in Chinese on the back of the photo saying something about “prime minister.” And literally, it wasn’t until a week ago, while I was reading Dan Ephron’s new book Killing a King on Rabin’s assassination and caught a glimpse of a picture showing Rabin in the flight cabin returning from China, that I suddenly realized the man in the yellowish photo I had earlier encountered must have been no one but Yitzhak Rabin. Thus this post.

Ephron, however, seemed to get it wrong in his annotation of the picture, a minor irrelevant mistake in his thoroughly researched book, in envious prose. He added under that picture that “the Oslo Accord helped improve Israel’s diplomatic position around the globe”, implying, it helped that with China. It was the case with Gabon and Mauritius, probably with Spain and Portugal, too, and the Arab states such as Jordan, but not with the P.R.C. As stated, Beijing developed official relations with Jerusalem on Jan. 24, 1992, in a ceremony attended by Foreign Ministers of both states, Qian Qichen and David Levy in those days. That was prior to Rabin ascension to power in June 1992, so it couldn’t be the result of something that hadn’t happened yet.

Israel had sent friendly signals to China since long, even including forgoing its economic and diplomatic interest in Taiwan. China made the final call in 1991, because on the one hand it had deliberated over the relationship’s pros and cons and consulted with its Arab allies. On the other, China had been isolated internationally in the wake of its bloody suppression of the peaceful student protest for democracy in 1989. It needed to develop new international ties, and that with Israel was a great one. After the normalization, Israeli President Chaim Herzog visited China in late Dec. that year, and Shimon Perres, then the Foreign Minister, also visited in May 1993, a few months earlier than Rabin.

In spite of Rabin’s short stay, Shanghai, in point of fact, offered a remarkably rich Jewish past, boasting the largest and most splendid synagogue in East Asia, the Ohel Rachel synagogue. Together with the elegant Beth Aharon synagogue, demolished in 1985, the two were completed in the 1920s by the city’s prominent Sephardic community. They came originally from today’s Iraq and Iran but traveled with the British colonialists all over Asia in the early and mid-19th century, dealing with silk, opium and properties. After the war they either immigrated to Israel or retreated to Hong Kong where they could keep part of their business. I couldn’t find out if Rabin went to see the Ohel Rachel synagogue. He did, however, visit another Ashkenazi synagogue, on Oct. 14, his second day in Shanghai. The Ohel Moshe synagogue, erected in 1927 by the city’s Russian Jews, would later stand at the center of the Shanghai Jewish refugees community during WWII.

Picture: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin walks out with Chinese officials on October 14, 1993, after a visit to the Moses Synagogue which was turned into a museum in memory of the Jews who came to Shanghai during the Holocaust in the WW II.

It took me some more time to dig out other photos online staging Rabin in Shanghai, such as this one above. The building in the back, behind Rabin, was the Ohel Moshe synagogue, mistaken for the “Moses Synagogue” in the description. The synagogue’s Chinese name, móxī, is a standard translation reserved for the biblical Moses, therefore Moses synagogue is an erroneous reverse engineered translation. The synagogue is currently part of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. The museum was founded by the local government more than ten years after Rabin’s visit, and due to its (over-?)restoration, the building looks quite different today from the aged picture. On the museum website, visitors can still read the following paragraph:

Mr. Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, commented during his visit to Shanghai, “To the people of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.”

Rabin left those notes on the synagogue’s guestbook, originally in Hebrew, but he then had to translate them in English upon the request of his Chinese host. He also walked about in the wartime Jewish neighborhood, including Huoshan Park, not far from the Ohel Moshe synagogue. Unexpectedly, Rabin left a “legend” among the residents living around the park. It would later balloon into an apocryphal story, suggesting, absurdly, that Rabin’s parents (Eastern European socialist immigrants to Palestine) were Jewish refugees in Shanghai, and buried right in Huoshan Park, behind which there, however, indeed used to be a Jewish cemetery. I wrote about this at length in my previous post explaining how the Chinese today are turning the history of Shanghai’s Jewish refugees into a myth for themselves.

The 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination received near to zero notice in China. The Chinese people in general lack an interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Neither were they very informed about it: the majority of the population probably can’t pinpoint Israel accurately on a world map. From what I have been reading these days, comparatively speaking, the Chinese intellectuals are more familiar with Gilles Deleuze, the French philosopher whose opaqueness is proverbial — among the erudite academics, his suicide on Nov. 4 1995 rings louder bells than Rabin’s assassination. Another reason for the lack of interest is perhaps that there hadn’t been a Jewish presence in China’s recent and contemporary history. China also had nothing to do with the Holocaust, therefore not moralizing it or acting on its guilt. This is similar to the rise of the talk about China’s new colonialism domestically and internationally. the term only has a face value for most Chinese, because China didn’t have a colonial past (well, arguably, or at least conceptually.) So they are really not speaking the same language here.

If the normalization of relationship between China and Israel has to offer some present meaning, then it has to be that there are always possibilities for conversation and cooperation if one seeks them, and in our world today, they can often bring benefits (not without their problems though). When Rabin left Shanghai on Oct. 15 1993, he couldn’t know that his brief visit to the far eastern country would later become a standard itinerary for Israeli delegations and now, more and more Israeli tourists. Although Rabin’s China tour was seen by many as a limited success, it was, nevertheless, the first visit by the head of the Jewish state, and marked the symbolic start of China-Israel relations, or, as People’s Daily effusively praised in its own genre, “left a glorious page on the history of China-Israel friendship.” China used to shun Israel, uncommunicatively, but since Rabin’s visit, political, military, industrial connections, and more recently, cultural and academic exchanges have increased exponentially. Israel’s involvement in Chinese agriculture, for example, has partially helped China feed its massive population.

On some level, China and Israel are actually very comparable. China’s Palestine was its political reform. In the 1990s, at the an early stage of its rising economy, China was socially unstable but open. It had the option of a political reform that would change the core of society, and many were pursuing that goal painstakingly. There was a period immediately after the democracy movement on the Tiananmen square that people demanded an apology from the state and on top of that a real reform. China simply didn’t go into that direction, and only more unlikely after Deng Xiaoping’s death. Israel, too, in a sense never recovered from Rabin’s assassination in 1995. Within a year, Netanyahu, promising a secured Israel, became the PM and today he is still the PM. The recent surge of violence in Israel only proved the opposite of peace.

Both China and Israel, needless to say, have very serious flaws and problems, and both could have done better in the past. But states, like humans, sometimes act foolishly, cruelly and dishonestly. They should, however, acting more like humans, learn to apologize, accommodate, and forgive. Rabin’s peace efforts with the Palestinians appeared at a time when it was inconceivable for many. Although it by and large failed, lamentably, this didn’t and shouldn’t put an end to future tryings. When China’s President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou meet in Singapore tomorrow, the first such meeting since China’s civil war ( I just really wonder if they’ll give another historic handshake.), who can imagine that just some 20 years ago, the tension and hostility between the Taiwan Strait were so immense that many were talking about a pending outbreak of total war?


Note: I think TOI editing interface may not be compatible with iframe used in Gettyimages embedded viewer, as I have tried a few times to incorporate the Gettyimages pictures into the post but failed. I had to resort to the old good hyperlink which renders the article less engaging, pictorially, but nonetheless works. I hope TOI can get this platform problem fixed soon.

About the Author
A failed history student of modern Europe, a predictor about the puzzling past, and a hopelessly curious mind. Du holds a TOI blog in Chinese, too, where he occasionally pens on topics related to Israel that the Chinese don’t bother to know or, well, care. Here, he primarily writes on Jewish history in Asia, Sino-Israeli relations, and the politics of the Middle East and Middle Kingdom.
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