Careful analysis of Chinese media coverage of the conflict – both state-sanctioned and social – can afford interesting glimpses of the Chinese worldview. Because media is so tightly controlled in China, its content reveals much about the mindset and agenda of China’s leadership.
The conflict between Hamas and Israel put official Chinese media in a somewhat awkward situation. In sympathy with the Palestinians, China did not establish official relations with Israel until after Israel engaged the PLO in peace negotiations in the early 1990s. Furthermore, the Chinese government and state-controlled media are generally opposed to military actions in the Middle East , especially by the U.S and America’s allies.
At the same time, the Chinese government now sees itself as at war with Islamist terrorists, who have killed dozens of people in recent attacks.
Officially China reacted to the upsurge of fighting by condemning violence on both sides. On July 9 Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, “China is deeply concerned about the continued escalation of Palestine-Israel conflict. We believe that to resort to force and to counter violence with violence will not help resolve problems other than pile up more hatred.”
State media has of course covered the conflict, but it hasn’t particularly focused on it. At P.M Beijing time on August 20th, the top stories on the international edition of the People’s Daily website were “America’s ‘high-speed rail dream’ has become ‘the World’s joke’”, “American airstrikes bring disaster to civilians” and “Iraqi Extremist group claims to have ‘decapitated’ an American reporter”. There were no stories about the resumption of violence in Gaza.
Most Chinese coverage of the latest round of fighting has been fairly straightforward. An article in Xinhua succinctly covered developments on the ground and efforts at international mediation, while quoting United Nations figures on the numbers of dead, injured and displaced.
Meanwhile, the famously nationalistic Global Times featured a piece entitled “Gaza’s child casualties under Israeli onslaught”, showing a series of graphic photos of dead Palestinian children in a hospital in Gaza.
Chinese media has also expressed sympathy for Israelis impacted by the violence, with a photo in military.china.com showing Israeli children playing in a bomb shelter.
On August 19th the military edition of People’s Daily published an interview with the Palestinian Ambassador to China, Ahmad A. M. Ramadan. In the interview Mr. Ramadan astutely appealed to the Chinese people in terms that would be understandable for any patriotic Chinese citizen: “Why do we have weapons? Because they occupy our territory… Under this situation, how can we talk about peace? If you were still under Japanese occupation, would you be pleased to survive under the occupation?”
While appealing to China’s historic resentment over Japan’s occupation was a canny move, the Palestinian side has conceded a hugely important media battlefield to the Israelis: Sina Weibo. The over half a billion users of China’s twitter-like microblogging platform can see many live updates from the Weibo feed of the Israeli embassy, but there is no official Palestinian presence.
Chinese social media shows divides that would be quite familiar to any western media observer of the Middle East conflict. Weibo power user Sisyochen wrote to her 1,900,919 fans “… the entire country of Israel has lost the sympathetic sorrow of the majority of the world. And we also understand, this is just a copy of the Nazi nation, Israel.” Meanwhile Weibo user “Da Vinci’s New Password” says “Palestinians’ brain damage is about as much as China’s brain damaged love for EXO [a Korean pop band]. They bring trouble upon themselves.”