Monday, August 17, 2015

Learning Chinese - Judith Bergman

by Judith Bergman

Although relations between China and Israel are obviously complex and have experienced both ups and downs since diplomatic relations were established in 1992, there can be no doubt that China views Israel as an important partner in many respects and the importance of this can hardly be overestimated.


Imagine a group of French, German, Scandinavian or British teenagers winning a grand prize for their outstanding schoolwork. The prize consists of the opportunity to travel to one out of a number of foreign countries and Israel is one of the countries on that list of possibilities. What is the likelihood that they will choose Israel over, say, the United States or Japan? 

From an increasingly early age, European youngsters are bombarded with anti-Israeli slogans and propaganda, sometimes even from their own schoolbooks. The chances of them thinking Israel would be a terrific place to travel and visit are -- unfortunately -- rather slim.

Imagine now, another group of teenagers from a very different place than Europe. Nineteen of them are going to be visiting Israel this week, as a reward for winning a prestigious science prize in their country. Given a choice of travel destinations, the teenagers chose Israel, where they will be attending a special 10-day workshop hosted by Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science. The teenagers will be accompanied by teachers, journalists, and by government officials. 

These teenagers are Chinese and their ethos and attitudes towards Israel -- as is obviously clear -- differs significantly from that of their European counterparts. Clearly, for them Israel represents a unique opportunity to learn and to grow. They will attend the Smart-Up Science Youth Camp, a collaboration between the Weizmann Institute's Davidson Institute of Science Education and Shirat Enterprises, which promotes joint high-tech ventures between Israeli and Chinese companies. They will also be meeting the 2009 Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry, Professor Ada Yonath.

Although relations between China and Israel are obviously complex and have experienced both ups and downs since diplomatic relations were established in 1992, there can be no doubt that China views Israel as an important partner in many respects and the importance of this can hardly be overestimated. 

"For China, Israel is never a small country, but rather, a happy and innovative startup nation with many cutting-edge technologies and rich experience in governing social affairs," wrote Chinese Ambassador to Israel Gao Yanping in an article in Jerusalem Post in April 2014, shortly before then-President Shimon Peres visited the country. 

China is Israel's fourth largest export target in the world and its first largest in Asia. In March 2015, a special Israel-China task force was launched by the Prime Minister's Office. The task force was launched after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to China in May 2013, where it was decided to advance economic ties between Israel and China. 

At the time, Israel Export Institute Director General Ramzi Gabbay said, "The Chinese market is a strategic target for Israeli exporters. China's need to continue upgrading its technology infrastructures constitutes an opportunity for Israeli companies especially in fields that the Chinese government has set as development targets such as: Water technologies, the environment, medical equipment, high-tech industrial equipment, motor vehicles, software, etc. The Israel Export Institute has set for itself the goal of assisting Israeli exporters in forging relevant business links in order to break into the Chinese market."

The goal is to double Israeli exports to China within five years to approximately 5 billion dollars yearly.

Chinese tourism to Israel is another growing area, although a somewhat underdeveloped one with a tremendous potential for growth. Chinese travel abroad is booming and you will find Chinese tourists in even the smallest European outpost, but Israel has so far not realized the potential of Chinese globe-trotters. "To say that not much has been done to bring Chinese tourists to Israel is not true. It would be more correct to say that almost nothing has been done," says Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who has been in office since May. 

According to a report in Haaretz on July 11, last year about 32,000 Chinese visited Israel, up 29% from 2013. The upward trend is continuing this year. During the first five months of 2015, 18,700 Chinese tourists visited Israel, a 35% increase over the same period in 2014.

However, since there are 107 million Chinese globe-trotters, Israel is getting a very small piece of the cake with only 18,700 Chinese travelers having visited Israel.

Part of the problem -- or at least so the Haaretz report claims -- is that Chinese travel comes with its own set of language and culinary issues, e.g. that Chinese travelers expect signs in Chinese, Chinese food, etc., yet this is not entirely true. For anyone traveling in Europe this past summer, it has been plain to see that Chinese travelers go everywhere, even to the smallest and most obscure islands in Scandinavia, without a Chinese sign or restaurant in sight. While it may hold true for older Chinese, one should not underestimate the desire of young Chinese people to see the world for themselves and to experience it, despite the lack of Chinese guides or familiar food.

Having said that, there are genuine linguistic barriers that cannot be overlooked, as Israelis and Chinese do not share a common language. There is every reason in the world for Israeli students to begin learning Chinese. 

Which brings us back to the visit of the nineteen Chinese students. It is cultural exchanges like that which create the basis for stronger cooperation in the future, as those Chinese students acquaint themselves with the real Israel and its many technological achievements.

Here is hoping that Western teenagers will one day jump as eagerly at the opportunity to visit Israel.

Judith Bergman is a writer and political analyst living in Israel.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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