Why China Has a Long History of Allyship with Palestine

China supported Palestine during the Mao Zedong years, later neutralized its position, and more recently, has swung back to offering bolder support. For good reason: it’s got a lot to gain, and it’s no fan of Western colonizers.

China supported Palestine during the Mao Zedong years, later neutralized its position, and more recently, has swung back to offering bolder support. For good reason: it’s got a lot to gain, and it’s no fan of Western colonizers.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing on June 14, 2023. Photo via Kyodo.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas shake hands during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 14, 2023. (Pool photo) (Kyodo)

by Sadaf Ahsan
December 6, 2023

After Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent call for a ceasefire in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, discourse around just how deep the country’s relationship with the Middle East is has been sparked. 

It all started last week, at the BRICS summit (an international relations conference attended by the heads of state of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), when Xi said, “It is necessary to ensure the safe and unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance and stop the collective punishment against the people of Gaza through forced eviction, as well as turning off water, electricity and oil.”

Needless to say, Xi’s decision to make a statement of support for Palestine, joining a chorus of rising international criticism of Israel, made waves. Some believe may have helped lead to the seven-day truce and pause in fighting that ended on Dec 1.

A timeline of support

China has actually been a staunch supporter of Palestine’s for some time. Back in the 1960s, during the Mao Zedong government, the country was vocal about its alliance, showing support for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and providing weapons to Palestinian soldiers. 

Mao even compared Israel to Taiwan, dubbing them “bases of imperialism in Asia.” His government also supported UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism in 1975. (This resolution was later revoked.)

After Mao died in 1976, China chose to take a more neutral approach, limiting its support for Palestine, including no longer providing weaponry. However, the Chinese government did show support for PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence (even as Israel and the U.S. objected).

The Xi government has been, until now, similarly careful. Since Xi came into power in 2012, his government has made statements about the conflict — in 2008, 2014, and 2021 — calling for an end to violence rather than specifically calling any nations out, according to The China Project

That makes Xi’s recent statement the government’s most partisan in its relationship with Palestine. It didn’t label Hamas a terrorist group, and again, called Israel’s tactic “collective punishment” of Palestinians, taking a clear stance. 

What’s more, last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told visiting diplomats from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Indonesia that China was a “good friend and brother of Arab and Muslim countries” and a supporter “of the cause of the Palestinian people,” per reports by Al Jazeera

So, what’s in it for China?

China has expressed support for a two-state solution (which, for the record, the majority of Palestinians and Israelis are opposed to), and made efforts to be a kind of peace broker for the Middle East. As Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy in east Asia at King’s College London, recently told The Guardian, they want to be seen as “part of the solution, not the problem.”

Some critics, though, believe China is simply choosing to align itself with the increasingly critical view of Israel around the world. Others feel the country has proven to be consistent all along.

Manoj Kewalramani, a foreign policy analyst for the Bangalore-based Takshashila institution, recently shared with Al Jazeera, “Since [October 8], Beijing has been critical of Israel’s actions, warning about violations of humanitarian law and against ‘collective punishment.’ It has consistently called for a ceasefire, the need to avoid a spill-over of the conflict and the need to host a broader peace conference with a clear roadmap for a two-state solution.”

What makes China’s stance on the conflict even more complicated, however, is that it has earned recent and considerable criticism for its genocidal treatment of ethnically Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In October, Guardian journalist Jason Burke hypothesized that the country may be “looking to offset [that] concern in the Islamic and Arab worlds.”

For example, back in June, in exchange for Chinese aid, president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas controversially went as far as declaring that China’s crackdown on Uyghurs has “nothing to do with human rights” and is about fighting against extremism and terrorism.

Finally, China also has growing and significant economic interests in the Middle East. It buys the majority of its oil from Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The region is also an essential part of Xi’s Belt and Road initiative, an infrastructure project that could one day connect global markets, giving Beijing more political and economic leverage in the future.

And lest we forget, China has long had a reputation for opposing Western-oppressed nations. Naturally, in its continued rivalry with the U.S., this pushes it ahead, as the Biden government has remained staunchly and proudly in support of Israel — even as the world turns against it. 

“Almost anything that the U.S. supports, China must be against,” said Dr. Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at the Chatham House thinktank in London, speaking with The Guardian. “Beijing also wishes to be seen as a key supporter to the global south, which includes most Arab countries retaining friendly ties with China. It’s a matter of maintaining those relations by continuing to support the Palestinians​.”

What does this mean for the future?

In terms of where each party lies, needless to say, Israel isn’t happy about where China currently stands. On Oct. 8, Yuval Waks, a senior official at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing, took a hit at China’s attempts at neutrality, and said, “When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution.”

Unsurprisingly, Palestinians have taken more warmly to China’s stance. In October, while in conversation with China’s special representative Zhai Jun, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Amal Jadou said, “Palestine trusts China,” according to The Washington Post

Now, how effective might China actually be in helping to settle this conflict? Very minimally, according to political analysts. 

Apart from brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier this year, China hasn’t been able to make much progress in helping Ukraine and Russia find peace, despite its attempts. That might be because Ukraine doesn’t consider the country to be very impartial. 

Although China could use its relationship with Iran to try and discuss matters with Hamas, China’s Foreign Ministry has declined comment on whether that’s in consideration.

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