Aug 29 2010

Israel’s blossoming friendship with China

If you happen to be in Beijing these days, and CCTV-2 is your favourite channel, you might stumble upon the documentary hit of the season – Walk into Israel, a 12-episode HD TV series, produced by China’s national television. It is considered to be the most comprehensive (and expensive) attempt in recent years to document the history of the Jewish people and that of the state of Israel.

The Israeli pavilion in Shangahi, Expo 2010

The Israeli pavilion in Shangahi, Expo 2010

Love is in the air between Israel and China, no doubt about that. Data just released by the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute for the first half of 2010 indicates that China, which was previously ranked 11th among Israel’s export destinations, is now rated 5th, with $755m (€593m) worth of exports – a 115 per cent increase compared with 2009. Exports to China have surpassed those to long-time pillars of Israeli bilateral trade, such as Germany.

“That’s a natural and ongoing process”, says Amir Lati, Israeli deputy consul general in Shanghai. “The Israeli and Chinese economies do not compete with each other, they complete each other. Israel is not involved in heavy industry, and on the other hand China is thirsty for technology and other fields where Israel is very strong. I think this process will only accelerate.”

Growth in trade is of course somewhat due to China’s faster recovery from the global recession, but improved relations between the two countries can be seen in other fields as well. Israeli education minister, Gideon Saar, has decided to include the Chinese language in the matriculation exams. During the summer, Israel’s leading teachers’ preparatory school launched its first-ever programme for training Chinese teachers. From as early as next year, it’ll be possible to test Israeli teenagers in Chinese – on the same level as mathematics or English.

There are at least a billion reasons for doing that, says Dr Shlomo Alon, responsible for Chinese teaching in the education ministry. “It is our understanding that the world around us is changing,” he says, “and China becomes ever more important. It is also proof of our far-reaching contacts with China, and we believe that language and culture are crucial tools.” Alon added that the tests are being formulated with the assistance of Chinese academic institutions.

Chinese officials visiting the Israeli pavilion in Shanghai’s Expo are fascinated, says Lati, and it seems this “beginning of a beautiful friendship” has a lot of potential ahead.

(Published originally in Monocle on August 29th).

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