China's Ambassador to Israel
Zhao Jun encounters the same question time and again. During visits to his homeland he is asked what it's like to serve in a country known as a world power with 200,000 residents.
"I explain to them that Israel only has seven million residents – barely a small town in China," he says. "They find it hard to believe. I understand them. News doesn't change all the time in China like it does here – every hour. It took me time to get used to it as well."
After three years in Israel, Zhao is in love. He recently asked his supervisor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing for another extension, although his term is scheduled to end soon. He wants to stay here at least one more year.
He spent Yom Kippur
at the Kfat Shmaryahu synagogue near his residence. No, he didn't fast, but felt the need to express his solidarity.
"I am China's ambassador in Israel. I love Israel," he says in Hebrew, adding that he would galdly study Hebrew but can't find the time.
Didn't you have any prejudice against Israel?
"When the supervisor informed me that there was an available position for an ambassador to Israel, I immediately said yes. He said, 'Think about it for one night; consult your family.' I told him there was no need. I am interested in the position. Like others, I thought it was a country constantly in a state of war.
"When I arrived here I discovered a wonderful country. What captured my heart was the residents' friendly attitude. The friendship between Israel and the Chinese people has been going on for over 1,000 years, including during the Holocaust when Jewish refugees were given shelter in China although China was in dire straits, under a Japanese attack."
On Tuesday, September 28, China marks 18 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. The Chinese, like the Israelis, view this number as a symbolic milestone. "For us it symbolizes happiness and prosperity," the ambassador explains.
A festive gala dinner was to be held at the Beit Shean amphitheater in the presence of President Shimon Peres.
This location was chosen, among other things, in honor of former politician David Levy, who lives in Beit Shean and served as foreign minister when the relations with China were first established.
Zhao says he is working with the Israeli Foreign Ministry on preparing Benjamin Netanyahu's
upcoming visit to China, where he says the prime minister is expected to be welcomed warmly.
"You might not know this," he says, "but we in China admire you and your Jewish mind, which has brought many Nobel prizes. The free China was established in 1949, one year after Israel, but we view what you have achieved as a miracle. We are brothers, almost twins. We admire you for creating miracles for 62 years."
Undoubtedly, the greatest success in China and Israel's relations is the trade ties. In the past 18 years, trade relations have been extended and have grown from $42 million to $6 billion.
"Israel contributes greatly to China in agricultural affairs, an important and significant field in China," Zhao says. "These days more than 20 universities have established ties with Israeli universities; nearly 20 Chinese universities have signed twin city agreements with Israeli cities; and the first Confucius Institute opened at Tel Aviv University in 2007.
"All these are signs of good relations. We have learned a lot from you. The Chinese government sees the importance of developing the relationship between China and Israel, and is willing to advance mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries and two governments."
How can the cooperation between our two countries be strengthened?
"Israel is proud of its advanced science and technology, while China enjoys the advantage of natural resources and spacious lands. So we have a lot to share in order to reach winning solutions."
Succeeding in China is every Israeli businessman's dream.
"Well, it's the dream of 90% of businesspeople in the world. But Israelis have a good chance, because it's a win-win situation."
China has the habit of becoming a partner in the infrastructure and resources of many countries in the world, mainly in Africa. Israel still doesn't have many natural resources.
"Yes, but there have been signs recently of gas discovered near Haifa. If this is true, China may invest in gas and oil drilling. I discussed it with (Israeli business mogul) Yitzhak Tshuva
yesterday. He wants to explore the possibility of bringing Chinese investments here in the oil and gas field."
There are problem with the light rail in Tel Aviv and the project is about to be nationalized from Africa Israel, which has partnered with the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation. Will the Chinese government press (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu
to leave the project in your hands?
"The light rail project encountered difficulties because the agreement was signed by a number of companies before the financial crisis. The government is talking about a re-organization. We don't believe in increasing pressure. All concerned parties must hold talks to come up with solutions. We have other options as well: The train to Eilat is one of them, and we want to take part in it."
Recent reports talks about a planned railway line from China to London through Iran and Syria.
"I'm not an expert on this line, but I think these are rumors about some distant vision. It doesn't seem realistic at the moment."
Netanyahu's vision to shorten the way from Asia to Europe with a train from the Eilat port to the Ashdod and Haifa ports, without the need to pass through the Suez Canal, is quite similar. Are you promoting it?
"Any such thing is being examined seriously. We won't have a problem taking part in such a thing after demonstrating our abilities with the Carmel Tunnels. China is Israel's No. 1 business partner in Asia. You are good with medicine, and our cooperation is good in this matter too."
His house in Kfar Shmaryahu has a Chinese flag in its living room alongside an Israeli flag. He has been serving in China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 37 years, a significant part of them in Europe. In the Middle East this is his first experience. Ambassador Zhao has no problem dealing with more sensitive issues in the Israel-China relations.
China doesn't appear to share Israel's concerns on the Iranian threat.
"That's not true. We are against the development of a nuclear weapon by the Iranians, but Iran
has the right to use nuclear energy for civilian purposes. We agree with Washington's stand on this matter. We believe that the nuclear problem must be solved through a dialogue between the sides, and China definitely takes part in these discussions."
(Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad
is threatening to destroy Israel. What is your stance on this?
"We have made it clear, to the Iranians as well, that we are against countries using such threats."
You didn't rush to join the sanctions against Iran.
"That's not true. The UN adopted a resolution on the sanctions several months ago, and we joined it."
Peace talks have been launched, and for some reason China is not taking part in them.
"We play an important and significant role in the Middle East as members of the UN Security Council. A special delegation is scheduled to visit Israel next month, including the Chinese representative."
You're also providing the Palestinian Authority with financial aid.
"We help them build schools, roads and infrastructure. We have completed a number of economic projects and continue to help through our office in Ramallah."
How does China view peace between Israel and the PA?
"At this moment peace in the Middle East is facing a new historic opportunity. China has always supported the peace process. This is China's consistent stand, that all sides involved in the Middle Eastern issue will solve the differences between them properly through negotiations based on the relevant UN resolutions."
I see here embroidery on your wall of the Potala Palace in Lhasa – the Dalai Lama's palace in the former Tibetan capital.
"Tibet was always part of China and was oppressed by the Lama regime, including the family of the Dalai Lama, which held 60,000 slaves without any rights. They murdered them mercilessly. Their skin was used for musical instruments, their skulls for wall lights. We have proof of that in museums. Tibet was and will always be part of China. Despite the Dalai Lama's declarations, he does not seek peace and is working to divide China against the people's stand."
Taiwan is in the same turmoil as far as you are concerned. Do you think it could develop into war?
"Taiwan is also part of China and was created because of a civil war. We are in favor of unification and against Taiwan's independence. A war could be a reaction, but the majority of the public is against it. So we have suggested that we sit and talk. We're all Chinese."
Why do Israelis only get a three-month visa?
"This is a question I have been asked on many occasions. It doesn't matter, it's the procedure. Israelis also have security procedures and I don't ask why the Chinese only get a 10 to 15-day visa in Israel."
Will the deportation of foreign workers affect China's policy towards Israel?
"I won’t comment on that. It's an internal Israeli policy, and every government has the right to make its own decisions."
More and more factories are moving from Israel to China. Soon there will be no industry left here.
"I don't understand. Are you criticizing us? It's a business decision made by your companies, which choose to come to us. What's wrong with that?"
Where will we be 10 years from today?
"China welcomes investments from Israel. By the end of 2009, Israel set up 292 projects for investment in China, estimated at $220 million. The volume of trade grows every year. The diplomatic ties will also grow tighter. Three of your presidents and three of your prime ministers have already visited China.
"We believe in and support integrating the Israeli mind in the Chinese market in order to generate those same miracles you have created in this small country. History has taught us that we are true friends."