When I lived in Guiyang and told people I was Jewish, I was usually placed (with reverence) in the company Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. In rural China, this is just about the perfect company to keep, and a glowing sheen of clever diligence and communist bona fides rubbed off on me. The vague-yet-intense feelings my colleagues, friends, and students had about Jews was almost always a net positive.
But as Evan Osnos pointed out in his New Yorker blog post earlier this week, “any idea that combines so much passion with so little knowledge is volatile.” Osnos was writing about what he calls the “curiously strong feelings that ordinary Chinese folks have for Jews,” and how quickly this curiosity can turn ugly.
Osnos points to the comments of Yang Rui, one of China’s most revered newsmen. I remember watching Yang’s show while living in Guizhou and Beijing and enjoying it quite a bit. I never read his blog, however, in which he writes things like “Wall Street’s greed was not exposed because Jews control both the financial and media worlds” and “Some American scholars think that the Jews are only loyal to each other among themselves” and “Jews are too powerful in the US domestically, controlling both the media and the finance. You’ll need the support of the Jews before you step into the presidential elections!”
It goes on (see Shanghaiist’s translations here).
Sadly, Yang’s sentiments are commonplace in China. In fact, I’ve seen this idiotic pablum printed as fact in “history” texts used to teach English to college students. With text books and prominent men like Yang espousing these views, it’s no wonder that Jews are generally seen as powerful, financially connected, clever, and sneaky; I was frequently and openly praised for being a member of a tribe that was able to cheat its way to the top. “In America, the money is in the pockets of the Jews,” a colleague at Guizhou University once told me while patting me on the back, “and the brains are in the heads of the Chinese.”
Yang Rui hates foreigners and wants the Communist Party to “cut the heads off the foreign snakes,” and “shut up” the “foreign spies” especially the “foreign bitch” Melissa Chan (who was recently tossed out of China for reporting on “black jails”). His words are meant to hurt.
For me—and for Jews everywhere—it’s hard not to worry about how words can quickly inspire antisemitic action.