This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...
Following the Bandung Conference in 1955, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) espoused―in an unusual contrast with other major powers of the “socialist” and “nonaligned” camps―a pro-Palestinian stance in its foreign policy toward the Middle East. This did not entail, however, any direct contact with the Palestinians, a development that did not appear until the mid-1960s emergence of a more autonomous and coherent Palestinian national movement embodied in the PLO. Contact prior to the establishment of formal channels of communication took place through a number of unofficial and semi-official conduits, ranging from the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), the Chinese embassies in Egypt and South Yemen after 1967, and the “underground” Communist networks (mainly Iraqi, Sudanese, and Yemeni) to such bodies as the Chinese Committee for Afro-Asian Solidarity and the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. These contacts enabled the PRC to eventually extend formal diplomatic recognition of the PLO in 1964, making it the first non-Arab country to do so.
These contacts also allowed China to cultivate extensive ties with nearly all Palestinian factions, including Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and al-Sa‘iqa, all of which multiplied China’s channels of engagement with the Palestinians. This could not have come at a more favorable time, coinciding as it did with the PRC’s intensifying rivalry with the Soviet Union and the radicalization of its foreign policy. Under such circumstances, the embrace of the Palestinian national movement by the Chinese state―epitomized in state visits, propaganda materials, and even major symbolic events (such as the celebration of “Palestine Day” from 1965 to 1971)―carried with it particular political and ideological goals.
These circumstances facilitated the emergence of an early Palestinian presence in the PRC, albeit initially of a transitory character. In 1966, following appeals from the PLO, the Chinese leadership agreed to offer armaments and military training for Palestinian guerrillas and specialists. The first contingents, numbering no more than 12 to 15 men and largely drawn from Fatah’s al-Asifah forces, began to arrive in the PRC in 1967-1968 for what amounted to nearly three months of training. Mustafa al-Safarini (nicknamed Abu Hadid), the PLO’s second ambassador to China and one of the earliest participants in such missions, noted in his autobiography Ayami fi-l-Sin (My Days n China) that the training they received, while including some basic military instruction, was largely dominated by theoretical study, revolutionary cultural exposure (including visits to factories, communes, monuments, and Jiang Qing’s operas), and meetings with high-ranking political and military figures in the Communist Party (CPC). At the conclusion of their training, the men usually returned to the front and in some cases became military instructors themselves. (Fatah explicitly incorporated Chinese writings on guerrilla warfare tactics in its manuals.) In more exceptional cases, some continued on to North Vietnam, Laos, or North Korea for further training. It is probable that the vast majority of these men never saw the PRC again, but some did eventually return. Mustafa al-Safarini for instance, under PLO orders in 1970, worked in the Palestinian embassy and, through the help of Zhou Enlai, became—in all likelihood—the first Arab student formally enrolled at Peking University.
Surprisingly, neither the guerrillas nor the embassy staff made up the majority of the expatriate community in the late 1960s, but rather a growing contingent of Palestinian journalists and intellectuals. These “foreign experts,” whose presence was authorized by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, worked as editors and writers for publications like Al-Sin al-Musawara (Pictured China), Bina’ al-Sin (Building China), and their later manifestation Al-Sin al-Youm (China Today); employees at the Xinhua News Agency; and, later on, as language instructors at universities and colleges across the country.
The relationship that developed between these individuals and their adopted home was often warm in character, and most usually stayed beyond their official term. Many of them were exiles or political dissidents (Marxists or ideologically left-leaning at least) who had escaped persecution in their home countries and found refuge in the PRC. This attitude was generally reciprocated by the Chinese authorities, who sought to shield such experts (whom it considered “old friends”) from repeated requests by Arab embassies for the termination of their contracts and extradition. This protection could only go so far. There were routine expulsions of Palestinian experts reported between 1969 and 1979, mostly due to perceived pro-Soviet sentiments among them. Because of the precarious situation such experts found themselves in, many could not help but agree to participate in mobilization and propaganda events organized by the authorities throughout this period. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Palestinians―like other “friendly” foreigners―were routinely expected to attend and observe self-criticism sessions, join Red Guard rallies (at least until 1969-1970), and participate in pro-PRC demonstrations.
Mohammed Abu Jarad, who came to the PRC in 1966, was probably one of the earliest Palestinian specialists to arrive. A teacher involved in “camp work” in Algeria, where he had been stationed since 1964, Abu Jarad was offered the opportunity to come to the PRC through his Maoist-aligned network. He arrived with his family one month before the “formal” eruption of the Cultural Revolution in order work for Al-Sin al-Youm and soon after for Bina’ al-Sin. Three other Palestinian specialists joined him, and they apparently shared close lodgings at the Beijing-based “friendship hotel” (友谊酒店), which was emerging as a locus of activity for the Palestinian and Arab intellectual communities within the PRC. According to his son Khaled, Abu Jarad was a PFLP sympathizer, which created tensions between him and the Fatah-dominated embassy. He later left the PRC in 1969 to join the revolutionaries in Jordan but then returned intermittently every few years, picking up various jobs with Bina’ al-Sin, al-Sin al-Musawara, Xinhua, Peking University, and the Beijing Institute of Languages until his retirement in 2009. Even while abroad, he maintained close links with the Chinese government; for example, he fed information to the Chinese embassy in Aden during his stay in South Yemen from 1974 to 1976.
Although Abu Jarad’s experiences as an exile were typical among the larger community of Arab experts in the PRC, it should be emphasized that some Palestinian intellectuals/specialists did come through official PLO channels. The most famous of these was probably Muhammad Nimr Abdul Karim, who came to the PRC in 1975 as part of a PLO mission to assist in the development of Arabic media/translation outlets. He stayed in the PRC for roughly six years before departing in 1981, but he found himself returning intermittently for extended periods of time (from 1987 to 1993 and during the 2000s), although by then in a private capacity and mostly as a lecturer at Chinese universities. His greatest legacy―which usually places him next to Hadi al-Alawi, Hanna Mina, Abdul Mu’in al-Muluhu, and Salamah Ubayyid—is his translation into Arabic of various Chinese revolutionary and classical works, including Mao Dun’s Spring Silkworms, Ba Jin’s The Family, Puyi’s autobiographical piece From Emperor to Citizen, and Mao Zedong’s poetry, as well as numerous books dealing with Chinese history and culture.
A student community also began to emerge around this time. In 1970, the PRC started offering scholarships to citizens from various countries, initially five but quickly growing to 20 for every nationality. Between 1970 and 1985, scholarships covered tuition costs, a monthly stipend valued at 75 to 100 yuan (coupons were also supplied to purchase goods from “friendship stores”), and accommodation in a work unit. It appears that from the Arab world, the Sudanese, Yemenis (from the north and south), and Palestinians took the greatest advantage of these scholarships, with the annual size of their cohorts usually filling up the Chinese government’s quotas.
The Palestinians I interviewed were overwhelmingly from 1948 refugee backgrounds and had spent much of their upbringing in Syria. They received scholarships after taking an exam administered by the PLO, although many noted that China was not their first choice and that they would have preferred studying in one of the Soviet bloc countries. After arriving in China, these students usually spent two to five years studying Mandarin in Beijing at the Foreign Languages Second Institute, after which they enrolled in various institutions and universities across the country (Tianjin, Xi’an, Shenyang, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou), the majority concentrating on the hard sciences and a few entering the humanities (mainly Chinese literature and international relations).
Palestinian students, much like other foreigners, had a somewhat isolated social existence in the PRC during the 1970s and 1980s. Their movement was limited at least until the mid-1980s, with any journeys outside a 50-kilometer radius from their home city necessitating the procurement of a security clearance. The institutional environment in which they operated reinforced this. Foreigners studied in their own classes, which were usually divided along national lines. Compounding this was the circumscribed nature of their interaction with Chinese society, an outcome that was partially due to the psychological milieu that had emerged during and after the Cultural Revolution, which inhibited most Chinese from dealing directly with foreigners.
There was also an element of racism, although by no means similar to that which African students encountered during this time. Even with local Muslims, interaction was nearly impossible. Until 1979-1982, most mosques across the country were still closed off, although in Beijing the Dongsi Mosque remained open as an outlet for foreign worship, and the state offered students free transportation every Friday. This insulation contributed to a sense of inwardness within the Arab and Palestinian student communities in the PRC. Many could not endure this and discontinued their studies; suicide was also not uncommon among foreign students.
This isolated setting allowed highly-politicized Arab and Palestinian communities to re-produce the political and ideological divisions from back home. There was a degree of factionalism within the community between Fatah, the PFLP, the DPLF, and (more pronouncedly) Ba‘thist or Nasserite sympathizers, a situation that allowed Arab embassies to exploit these divisions for their own political ends. The Syrian and Iraqi embassies were particularly notorious for this in the 1970s and 1980s, promoting as they did competing visions of Ba‘thist ideology through promises of cash and through cultural events (especially during Eid celebrations).
The most important expressions of Palestinian politicization in China were embodied in two arenas: 1) the formation of various student unions, including a General Palestinian Students Union in 1981-1982 and an Arab Students Union in 1984, all of which tried to organize cultural, political, and sporting events within the community in order to overcome ideological divisions, and 2) sustained political protest.
Protests actually began in the late 1960s, but they were initially organized under the umbrella of the Chinese state. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, these protests―which became far more frequent due to the growing student population―began to assume a more unofficial and spontaneous quality. Major protests and rallies were held throughout 1979, 1980, 1982, and 1983 in connection with such regional events as the signing of the Camp David Accords by Egypt, the American bombing of Libya, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and turning points in the Lebanese civil war such as the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Although such protests usually required a security clearance, most were left unchallenged by the Chinese state. One Sudanese student who lived through that period remarked that such demonstrations often started with the students “gathering in one of the rooms of a Palestinian student” and then heading out to an Arab embassy―usually the Libyan, Moroccan, or PLO one―to express solidarity or outrage. These protests were typically held in the name of the student unions and drew some support from African and European students.
It is worth noting that not all of these protests were political in character. Some were driven by embassy-related grievances, which explains why these groups were generally not supported by the Arab official establishment. In 1978, a demonstration was organized against the Moroccan ambassador, protesting the mistreatment and abuse meted out by the staff of Arab embassies.
It is unclear why the Chinese authorities tolerated these activities as much as they did. Perhaps it can be partly explained by a lingering sense of obligation toward older revolutionary causes that were seemingly “left out” in the cold following the 1971 détente with the United States. The “honeymoon” period of the 1980s―with its influx of Western influences and relaxed attitude of experimentation regarding some political and social issues―may have also played a role in informing official attitudes toward these demonstrations. In any case, this permissive environment quickly dissipated at the end of the decade. The last major protest held by the Palestinians in the PRC was in 1988, following the assassination of Khalil al-Wazir (“Abu Jihad”) by Mossad in Tunisia. The eruption at Tiananmen Square less than a year later radically altered the political scene and marked the end of a lively chapter in the history of the Palestinian and Arab communities in China.
The late 1980s and 1990s brought significant changes within the community that mirrored the transformations sweeping the PRC. While political restrictions curtailed political expression and organization (formally marked by the disbandment of the Arab Students Union in 1996), the lifting of social restrictions allowed Palestinians and Arabs to engage with Chinese society in new ways. For instance, many married Han and Hui women—often, presumably, as a pathway for naturalization. Economic changes also encouraged many of these long-term residents (students and specialists alike) to embrace the country’s newfound entrepreneurial spirit, mainly through the opening of businesses and small industries or, more lucratively, “middleman” offices in Yiwu, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. An estimated 500 to 800 Palestinian-owned businesses are located across southern China.
Abdul Karim al-Ja’di provides a representative example of these business owners’ experiences. He arrived in China in 1979 as a student and has remained since. From 1990 to 1996, he experimented with a number of commercial ventures, including a basic food company and a computer training center, though with little success. In 1996, he found his niche in the coffee business. Under the umbrella of Dareen International Co., al-Ja’di ran a small coffee processing factory on the outskirts of Beijing as well as a cafe in the prominent Sanlitun area. He has since emerged as a major supplier of Arabic coffee for Arab-run restaurants across the PRC and has enjoyed some attention from the Chinese public media. In addition to such long-established entrepreneurs, mention should be made of the “returnees:” the Palestinian students who left China but who have since the 1990s and 2000s begun to return as new opportunities lure them back.
Although relatively prosperous, these Palestinian businesspeople encounter, much like their Arab and African counterparts, a number of challenges, including intensifying economic competition, racketeering and criminality, and racism. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that there are few legal protections for such communities, which, since the 2008 Olympics, have come under increased state scrutiny and surveillance. Of course, those who have managed to cultivate close ties with the government enjoy some benefits and lenient treatment within the system, but they are few and largely from an older generation of “old friends” who have lived in the country since the 1970s and 1980s.
Beyond the business sector, other Palestinians have also found careers in academia and publishing, as staff members of the newly opened Gulf embassies and charitable organizations or, more rarely, in journalism. The most prominent of these journalists is perhaps the chief of Al Jazeera Arabic’s Beijing bureau Ezzat Shahrour, who first came to the PRC in 1981 as a student and graduated with a medical degree from Shenyang Medical University in 1987. He went on to work for the PLO as a diplomatic official in North Korea and Laos and then returned to serve as its PRC embassy’s main public relations and media officer before joining Al Jazeera. In his capacity as bureau chief, Shahrour has played an interesting and exceptional role within the Chinese media environment given his “foreign” profile. Notable incidents range from his insistence on addressing his questions to China’s former Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in Mandarin rather than in English (a feat that won him a place in the Chinese press the following day) to his criticism of the Chinese media’s coverage of the Arab Spring in his article, “The Arab People Have 100,000 Questions for the Chinese Media” (阿拉伯人对中国媒体的十万个为什么). More surprisingly, he issued an appeal through Al Jazeera that may have contributed to the release of a group of Chinese citizens who had been kidnapped in Iraq by armed militias in 2004. In addition, Shahrour maintains an active presence in Chinese cyberspace with a blog and well-followed Weibo page.
New influxes of Palestinians have arrived throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and these newcomers appear to outnumber Palestinian “old-timers.” The majority of these arrivals are entrepreneurs (predominantly from the West Bank, but with a few from Gaza as well as Jordan and Syria) who have come to set up their own export-import businesses, “middle-men” offices, and restaurants. The student population has also grown, particularly after 2007 when the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement with the PRC to increase its scholarship quota to 80. Some students are also recipients of financial support from Palestinian business circles in Yiwu and Guangzhou, demonstrating how much the community has grown in China. This growth has revived interest in the Palestinian Students Union and in political activism, albeit in new ways.
While certainly more restrained than their predecessors, a new generation of Palestinian students is reaching out to Chinese society, including by organizing events in their universities and colleges commemorating the Nakba, celebrating Palestinian culture, and marking (the usually officially-run) International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People held every November. More interestingly, this generation has spearheaded a number of campaigns in Chinese cyberspace―particularly after the 2009 Gaza War―to promote the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions) movement as well as raise awareness of Israeli violations of international law in the PRC.
To be sure, the Palestinian community in China has evolved, as has China itself. Yet the Palestinians of China have nonetheless retained the historical roots and links that continue to define their very existence as a distinct community. If given the space and opportunity, this community could play an important role in mediating and facilitating Sino-Arab relations. However, the Arab states have neglected to engage and invest in the Palestinians of China, and as a result have thus far failed to capitalize on their potential.
The piece draws heavily on notes and interviews made in 2012-2013 in China for a larger research project on the history of the Arab diaspora in China, which is funded largely by the Gulf Research Center. Special thanks to Dr. Mustafa al-Safarini, Dr. Ja’far Karar, Adam Hijr, Abdul Karim al-Ja’di, Ali al-Tamimi, Jackie Armijo, the Peking University Arabic Language Department, and the Arab Information Center (Beijing) for their input and assistance.
 A.R. Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
 Hashim S.H. Behbehani, China’s Foreign Policy in the Arab World, 1955-75: Three Case Studies (London: Kegan Paul International, 1981).
 Nearly all of China’s institutions of higher learning were closed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). According to al-Safarini in his memoirs and others who lived during the period, the Chinese authorities set up a series of “ramshackle programs” for foreigners within universities like Peking where aspects of the university system endured.
 These Arabic publications were part of China’s propagandistic outreach to the wider Arab world and were often distributed through Chinese embassies and groups abroad. Many Yemenis and Sudanese interviewed in 2012-2013 noted that their formative exposure to China came through such works.
 It is worth noting that the famous Iraqi Marxist Hadi al-Alawi’s condemnation of the post-1979 Deng Xiaoping reforms as “bourgeoisie revisionism” was a shared sentiment among many of these scholars who had settled in China and embraced a puritanical view of Maoism.
 These divisions within the small Arab intellectual community regarding the Sino-Soviet split apparently continued well after Hadi al-Alawi’s arrival in 1976. He was so exasperated with the fruitless debate between such intellectuals that he described them as the Ashab al-Fikratayen, or “factions of the two ideas.”
 Also according to Khaled, he enjoyed close ties to the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani.
 Some―numbering twelve in total―were possibly brought to run the first Arab school in China, which was supposedly situated in the PLO embassy prior to 1973-1974, when the first Iraqi-run school was opened in Beijing. It is difficult to confirm its existence, with some of those interviewed claiming it was just a library for communal use.
 “In a Conversation on Culture, Literature, and Politics in China – Interview with Muhammad Nimr Abdul Karim,” al-Hiwar al-Mutamadin, November 1, 2006 (in Arabic), http://www.ahewar.org/debat/show.art.asp?aid=54548.
 A number of prominent Arab intellectuals, writers, and translators spent extended periods in China either working as editors/translators for publishing houses or lecturing in various universities and institutions there. Their contributions vary, but many have produced works of major importance to the development of modern Sino-Arab relations. Hadi al-Alawi’s al-Mustarif al-Sini (The Chinese Book of Novelties) and Salamah Ubayyid’s al-Sharq al-Ahmar (The East is Red) are examples. See Muhammad al-Sudairi, “Hadi Al-‘Alawi, Scion of the Two Civilizations,” Middle East Report 270 (2014).
 “The Arabic Language in Modern China,” The People’s Daily Online, September 19, 2014 (in Arabic), http://arabic.people.com.cn/n/2014/0919/c31657-8785148.html.
 The duration of study ranged considerably, as the Chinese were still in the process of developing their language programs for foreigners.
 Some Arabs, including al-Safarini in his memoirs, noted how some Chinese called them “Japanese demons” 日本鬼子.
 There is some dispute over when these entities were established, with some of those interviewed claiming that they came into existence as early as 1975.
 The activities of these bodies ranged widely. They included arranging friendly soccer matches between Chinese and Arab teams, organizing “routine” meetings for Arab students at major universities, and holding weekly film screenings covering various issues concerning the Middle East. They were open to all members of the Arab and foreign communities, but there were certain sub-communities that apparently avoided participating in them, such as the South Yemenis, as they were apparently subject to considerable surveillance by their own embassy.
 For example, the abovementioned Abu Jarad joined demonstrations against the British embassy during the 1967 war, which apparently landed him on the British blacklist and led to the refusal of his visa to Hong Kong in the 1980s.
 The British embassy was a typical target as well, although there were no protests directed at the American diplomatic missions after their establishment in 1979. This might have been due to the PRC authorities’ prioritization of Sino-U.S. relations and unwillingness to damage them in any visible way.
 The Moroccan ambassador headed the Council of Arab Ambassadors in Beijing, which was first created in 1965.
 I had the opportunity to meet some of the children of such mixed marriages. Although by no means representative, the ones I met appeared to identify mostly as Palestinian/Arab and to feel a degree of alienation from the Chinese milieu in which they were raised. It is also worth noting that in terms of its gender makeup, the Palestinian community in China has been overwhelmingly male. Recent years have seen the arrival of some women―usually students as part of migrating families―and there is occasional news of Palestinian women marrying (Muslim) Chinese men.
 The “middlemen” offices serve visiting Arab businessmen/tourists by linking them to potential suppliers and helping them overcome export-import hurdles.
 Al-Ja’di was politically active in his time, heading the General Palestinian Student Union over several terms and leading a number of demonstrations.
 “阿拉伯咖啡豆的中国生活” (The Life of Arabic Coffee in China), The Arab Information Center, July 21, 2010 (in Chinese), http://www.arabsino.com/articles/10-07-21/4133.htm.
 It should be noted that a considerable number of these returnees, accompanied by their families, arrived in 2011-2012 in the wake of the Syrian uprising. They were mostly Palestinians from the refugee camps there. By the end of 2012, it became difficult for them to gain entry into the PRC after Beijing suspended visas to Syrian residents. However, some have still managed to get through, relying on Palestinian support networks within the PRC for help.
 Extortion by triads and gangs is a common problem faced by foreign businesspeople in China, particularly if they fall in debt. Some Arab communities in Yiwu and Guangzhou have established “funds” to help those who have fallen on hard times to pay off their debts and avoid needless violence that is usually overlooked/ignored by the police.
 “阿拉伯人对中国媒体的十万个为什么” (The Arab People Have 100,000 Questions for the Chinese Media), Forbes China, April, 16, 2011, http://3g.forbeschina.com/review/201104/0008830.shtml.
 The Palestinians in the major trading entrepots in China are a small group in comparison to the Iraqis or Yemenis. In fact, the Guangzhou “Arab diaspora” is led by a Yemeni, Sheik al-Yafi.