by Jih-Fei Cheng
Photo Credit: Justin McIntosh/WikiCommons/CC
ON JUNE 15TH, 2021, the Society for Sinophone Studies (SSS) issued its Statement in Solidarity with Palestine. The academic organization joins the unprecedented wave of transnational scholars who recognize and oppose the targeted and systematic dispossession, confinement, and forcible separation of Palestinians by the State of Israel, which Human Rights Watch has condemned as guilty of the crimes against humanity that constitute apartheid.
This statement participates in a shift in global consciousness. Increasingly, the international community acknowledges that the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 resulted in the continual occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the relentless campaign of what Palestinians and anti-Zionist Jews alike describe as ethnic cleansing, or the ongoing Nakba.
In early April 2021, the violent removal of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem violated international law and demonstrated Israel’s determination to expel or exterminate Palestinians. Once again, Jewish settlers seized Palestinian homes with the support of Israeli courts and military. This time they were met with united Palestinian resistance across the occupied territories, re-igniting a global non-violent grassroots movement signaled by the trending hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah.
Palestinian family being evicted from their home. Photo credit: Teresa Cez/WikiCommons/CC
Israel’s response was to commence the unmitigated bombing of Gaza. Palestinian homes, hospitals, and news media buildings were targeted, killing over 200 people, many of whom were children. Despite the May 20th, 2021 ceasefire agreement, Israel continues to level Palestinian infrastructure, including a news media building, while attacking protestors and harassing news reporters to blackout international reporting.
More recently, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, Palestinians have been ordered by the Israeli government to demolish their own homes to make way for Jewish settlers and an Israeli religious theme park.
This makes SSS’s announcement and amplification of global solidarity with Palestine urgent.
The SSS statement endorses the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement launched since 2005, including the Academic Boycott of “Israeli academic institutions that are complicit in the occupation.” South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement gained ground in 1959 and led to the first democratic election in 1994 which resulted in Nelson Mandela’s presidency and paved the way for the ratification of a new constitution in 1996 enfranchising Black subjects. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS seeks to non-violently “end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”
IN ITS STAND against Israeli apartheid, the SSS statement elaborates a history and political reality that is often ignored when Palestinian occupation is bracketed as a “Middle Eastern” conflict. The statement recognizes the “quadrilateral relationship” between the United States, Taiwan, Israel, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that ties together these nations’ defense and biotechnology industries. The present tussles for military and biotechnological power amidst the COVID-19 pandemic is no coincidence. The COVID-19 pandemic has specifically incited geopolitical tensions within this quadrilateral configuration, which makes our address of Cold War geometry pressing.
Israel’s continued settler colonization and militarized destruction of Palestine crucially relies on the steady supply of US aid and weapons. This includes the lobbying of US government officials to affect national politics and US support to block sanctions against Israel at the United Nations Security Council. As Gaza was bombarded, the US brokered a ceasefire. However, the US remained the sole dissenting voice to vote against and thus prevent the UN from issuing a statement to condemn Israel’s latest assault. On May 17, 2021, it was reported that President Joe Biden approved $735 million worth in weapons sales to Israel. Furthermore, anti-Zionist activists have pointed out that the US and Israel share trainings and tactics in the state violence exercised against Black and Palestinian subjects.
Israel has also openly and secretly engaged in weapons sales and commercial trade with both Taiwan and the PRC. Since the end of the final phase of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), the US and PRC have several times come close to blows over Taiwan. In 1996, the PRC launched three ballistic missiles into the waters surrounding Taiwan. This was the “Third Taiwan Straits Crisis” over which Beijing and Washington traded barbs. Despite constant US intervention, a tilt of power in favor of the PRC with the help of Israel has left Taiwan with little support worldwide and thus vulnerable to forced annexation. The threat of war has opened for Israel dual trade routes in arms: an opportunity to sell weapons to both Taiwan and the PRC.
In 1971, the United States and Israel were at odds over UN General Assembly Resolution 2758, which was passed to unseat the KMT-ruled Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, and rescind its status as a sovereign nation-state. The US voted in support of maintaining Taiwan’s seat at the UN. In contrast, Israel was the seventh non-communist country to vote in favor of replacing Taiwan with the PRC, thus establishing the Communist Party of China as the sole and legitimate government of modern China. The resolution “expel[led] forthwith the [KMT] representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occup[ied] at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.”
Since then, the strengthening of Sino-Israel relations has caused considerable anxiety for the US, which sees the PRC as its rival in world affairs. Although the US does not formally recognize Taiwan’s independence, it keeps an “unofficial relationship” and a “commitment to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability.” This strategy allows the US to exert influence in the region, leaving Taiwan little choice but to depend on the US for diplomatic and military support. Arguably, the US exercises a custodial or neo-colonial relationship with Taiwan, which maintains the island and nearby waters as a strategic outpost for US defense against the PRC.
At present, the US and the PRC, as superpowers, respectively retain the world’s first and second largest military defense budgets. Israel, as a recipient of US weapons and a global leader in weapons manufacturing, remains under scrutiny by the US for its potential to transfer not just US weapons to the PRC, but also the designs of that technology. Although Israel arms sales to the PRC have slowed, Israel continues to offer the PRC valuable goods and technologies such as natural gas, drones, and cyber-security technologies, which are used not only on an everyday basis but also for surveillance, orchestrating political elections, and war. Israel and the PRC also engage in joint ventures for commercial and infrastructural development.
The normalization of Sino-Israel relations raises US alarm regarding its capacity to hold sway over Israel and the Middle East, as well as Taiwan and the Asia Pacific region. Conceivably, the US must appease Israel in order to keep it a close ally as the PRC finds ways to further strengthen Sino-Israel relations. In turn, Israel can proceed with its military occupation and expansion with both the US and PRC each claiming concern for Palestinians but neither party being accountable to the Palestinian people.
Palestinians are being buried beneath the rhetoric.
Even more troubling is how US-PRC industries are entwined in ways that bear immense impact and have far reaching implications, but are difficult to disentangle and analyze until disasters accumulate into global crises.
For instance, around 2018, the pork trade became embroiled in then US President Donald J. Trump’s trade war with the PRC. This potentially affected the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, which was founded in 1936 by a white American family in Virginia. In 2013, it was bought by Chinese billionaire Wan Long, chairman and CEO of the WH Group, which is headquartered in Hong Kong. Since then, Smithfield has been the source of concern for toxic waste dumping on the largely Black, Native, and Latinx residents living near its meat processing plant in North Carolina. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Smithfield again made headlines as the source of multiple coronavirus outbreaks among its employees across three of its plants.
As the US and PRC vie for global industry domination, it remains critical to track how health crises arise from, and further inflame, geopolitical tensions. COVID-19 has revealed where resources are the most strained in the world and where militarized rule prevents access. The intensified scarcity of resources chokes everyday life, resulting in the inevitable clashes between protestors and the fascist authorities meant to subdue them.
These eruptions into zones of conflict are not mere disputes that can be settled by existing powers who are themselves invested in maintaining the conditions of domination. Rather, anti-colonial, anti-fascist activism–such as BDS, the global Movement for Black Lives, Native protests against environmental extraction, and the Palestinian-Black-Indigenous coalitions they form–provide models of resistance to deeply rooted structures of inequity that spill over into global catastrophes by design. They point to where international cooperation is systematically undermined and where the failure to collaborate in the treatment of COVID-19 bears consequences for future pandemics.
COVID-19 and Cold War Geometry
THE US-TAIWAN-ISRAEL-PRC quadrilateral configuration has played a force in the global vaccine apartheid. Locked in biotech competition, the US and PRC each cite concern over intellectual property and accuse the other of conspiracy to commit biowarfare and for covering up lab leaks. This has severely delayed coordination of a COVID-19 global public health policy and vaccine distribution.
Israel was offered priority access to US-sponsored vaccines in exchange for sharing data regarding its distribution. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu permitted access to Israeli vaccine recipients’ personal health data. The published data attested to the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, which was then celebrated by US media. This significantly alleviated US consumer anxieties ahead of its own rollout which followed shortly thereafter. Yet, Israel’s early denial of vaccines to Palestinians across the occupied territories, despite its obligation to do so, should give pause to hailing Israel’s vaccine implementation a success. Instead of immediately providing Palestinian institutions with the vaccine, Israel shipped supplies to other countries in a bid for vaccine diplomacy.
To avoid becoming dependent on biotechnological aid, Taiwan took an early concerted effort to prevent COVID-19 and was declared hugely successful for doing so. By 2021, however, a wave of infections revealed that Taiwan was unprepared to handle a COVID-19 crisis. Taiwan is currently scrambling for vaccines while its government accuses the PRC of blocking access.
In response, the PRC claims it has offered to send vaccines, citing its compassion for Taiwan whose people it describes as “compatriots.” Mistrust has led Taiwan to turn down the PRC’s vaccines. Taiwan’s capacity to address COVID-19 is crucial to demonstrate that it can remain self-sustaining and independent.
Instead, Taiwan has appealed to the US for support. On June 19th, 2021 the US shipped 2.5 million vaccine doses to Taiwan. The US government purchased vaccine doses from US biotechnology corporations, like Pfizer, and donated them to countries like Taiwan while withholding the intellectual property surrounding vaccine manufacturing. These vaccines were developed using US taxpayers’ money while Pfizer and Moderna hold the patents. This means that the US public has paid at least twice for the vaccines. They pay once more when President Biden decides to further financially reward US biotechnology corporations instead of immediately sharing the technology to save lives and utilize taxpayers’ dollars to support critical infrastructure like housing and health care.
Meanwhile, Taiwan officials and media continue to refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan pneumonia,” echoing former President Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and distancing itself from the PRC. Trump’s use of phrases such as “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” rendered US-PRC collaboration impossible and contributed to increased incidents of anti-Asian violence in the US during the pandemic. This has given the PRC further cause to incite Chinese nationalism. The PRC has seized upon Trump’s anti-China rhetoric to stoke allegiance among global Sinophone communities, claiming that any criticism of the PRC is tantamount to anti-Chinese racism.
The US and PRC continue to face-off with one another over the geopolitical future of Taiwan, even in the midst of a pandemic. Recently, the PRC reiterated that any assertion of “Taiwan independence means war.”
The Academy and the Question of Palestine
THE SSS’S STATEMENT returns public attention to how the US-Taiwan-Israel-PRC quadrilateral relation remains largely absent in media as well as scholarly focus.
Beginning around 2007, UCLA Professor Shu-mei Shih named and theorized Sinophone studies as an interdisciplinary field which analyzes literature, film, and other cultural productions that grapple with the identity and meanings of “Chinese” in various languages and national contexts. According to the SSS, the field of Sinophone studies “examines Sinitic-language cultures and communities marked by difference and heterogeneity around the world.” Thus, Sinophone studies remains in conversation with fields like post-colonial, ethnic, feminist, settler colonial, Indigenous, and queer studies.
Shih’s position and title as the inaugural Chair of the Edward W. Said Professor of Comparative Literature bears the legacy of the renowned Palestinian American and global anti-colonial scholar-activist Edward W. Said. Said’s Orientalism (1978) radically transformed the academy. It founded post-colonial studies and offered Asian Studies and Asian American Studies a groundbreaking framework to analyze the “umbrella of Western hegemony over the Orient.” This should remind scholars and activists alike that Palestine is at the core of anti-colonial struggles.
In The Question of Palestine (1979), Said notes that “the question of Palestine” follows what Karl Marx, Hannah Arendt, and others describe as the “Jewish question.” He quotes Arendt:
“After the [Second World] war it turned out that the Jewish question, which was considered the only insoluble one, was indeed solved—namely, by means of a colonized and then conquered territory—but this solved neither the problem of minorities nor the stateless.”
Arendt’s words attend specifically to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians under political Zionism, but also to the persistent problem of colonialism, nationalism, racism, and dispossession in the twentieth-century era of supposed decolonization.
The 1949 establishment of the PRC is commemorated for its participation in the Eastern Bloc communist opposition to Western Bloc capitalists. However, the PRC’s contemporary borders are based on maps that were decided by the pro-US KMT Party when it declared the birth of the Republic of China and their rule over it in 1912. The ROC’s geographical contours followed the Qing Empire, which included the conquered territories and regions of Tibet, Mongolia, Xinjiang, the northeast, and the south. This makes the PRC a settler colonial, even if communist, occupation led by ethnically Han Chinese people in places today such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia.
At the end of WWII, CCP chair Mao Zedong expelled all foreigners from the PRC, including European Jews who, escaping Nazi Germany, had formed large refugee settlements in cities like Shanghai. Establishing Israel to presumably settle the “Jewish question,” then, is historically threaded to the “question of China.” The PRC’s declaration of sovereignty and its territorial assertions are wedded to its desire to maintain a single-party authority whose national identity as “Chinese” is enforced as Han ethnosupremacy.
If the PRC itself claims to be born of communist internationalist and anti-colonial struggle, then it must respond to Said’s line of inquiry, reiterated from Arendt, following Marx.
The “Taiwan question,” as framed by the PRC, only recognizes “Chinese peoples” on either side of the Taiwan Straits, thus denying from the outset the existence of the Taiwanese and Indigenous peoples of Taiwan and nearby islands.
If Taiwan asserts its independence from the PRC as an anti-colonial struggle, then it must confront its own practices of Indigenous dispossession and settler colonialism. The question of and for Taiwan as a settler colonial nation is whether it will continue to invest in Cold War quadrilateral relations or if Indigenous leadership among its own will give rise to global solidarity with Palestine.
Taiwan officials must also recognize an independent Palestine and the Palestinian indigenous struggle against Israeli settler colonialism.
For the PRC to respond differently than the US, it must not make public-facing claims to support a two-state solution while throwing its material resources and political weight behind Israel like the US and much of the Western world has done.
As in the case of the US and its “Global War on Terror,” the PRC engages in strict and securitized border and immigration policies while targeting Muslim minorities with extensive surveillance and internment.
Meanwhile, to deflect from its own transgressions of human rights, the US has accused the PRC of mounting genocide against Uyghur and other Muslim ethnic minorities. As a settler colonial society, the US government engages as well in the dispossession of Native Americans; mass policing, murder, and incarceration of Black and Brown peoples; and indefinite detainment of refugees crossing the US-Mexico border, many of whom are children forcibly separated from their parents.
What holds the US-Taiwan-Israel-PRC quadrilateral configuration together is their shared existences as settler colonial nation-states. Their collective power draws from the extraction and decimation of Indigenous lives, lands, and resources for settler statecraft and capitalist development. In this Cold War geometry, where geopolitical relations are strained, and while nationalism and fascism are stoked, the movement for Indigenous rights and sovereignty show a path through and beyond the settler colonial world system.
The Academic Silencing of Palestine
AS THE SSS STATEMENT declares: The “conditions of Sinitic-language communities worldwide are crucially and variously tied to the occupation of Palestine.” It calls for “internationalism which centers Indigenous leadership, sovereignty, and practices locally and globally to promote the end to settler colonialism and the COVID-19 pandemic.” It denounces “policing, militarism, and state-sponsored, regional, cultural, or ethnic Chinese and Asian nationalisms as solutions to anti-Asian violence” as well as the “militarized and intertwined settler colonizations of Indigenous lands and Oceania by the United States, Taiwan, the PRC, and Israel.”
The SSS statement encourages defiance against the silencing of academics whose critiques of Israel and Zionism have led to false charges of “anti-Semitism.” In 2014, such claims were levied against Palestinian American scholar Stephen Salaita, leading the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign to rescind his job offer. Notably, Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), faced hostility from Israeli academics and institutions following his own endorsement of the academic boycott. Death threats and attempts to expel Pappé from his academic post forced him to relocate from Israel to England.
More recently, the University of Toronto has been embroiled in controversy for blocking the hire of human rights lawyer Valentina Azarova, purportedly for her scholarship on Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Council censured the university, calling the school’s decision not to hire “politically motivated.” A boycott of the university has been announced, asking individuals not to accept positions or speaking engagements there pending further action.
Demonstration in support of Palestine in the UK. Photo credit: Maddy Cozins/Flickr/CC
Palestinian struggles are not only censored in academic scholarship and hiring practices, but even the mere mention has given fodder to US conservatives attempting to dismantle an entire field of study.
Recently, the field of ethnic studies has been under attack in the US with the question of Palestine as a point of major contention. Ethnic studies has been conjured by reactionary lawmakers using a wildly inaccurate definition of “critical race theory” to malign it. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom’s mandate to implement the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) in K-12 public education, which was proposed to include Arab American studies and the question of Palestine in the curriculum, has been met with fierce Zionist opposition.
Maintaining Arab American studies and the history of Palestine in ethnic studies curricula would highlight the historical solidarities built between Black, Native, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Arab activists in North America and in internationalist movements. Further linking Sinophone communities to these struggles mounts an even greater anti-colonial intellectual and political movement that poses a significant threat to Western institutions and powers.
Sinophone Reimaginings of “Asia” in Solidarity with Palestine
GLOBAL SINOPHONE COMMUNITIES must question and challenge their insistent shuttling between the US and PRC as two centers of power. To exceed these geopolitical poles, it seems appropriate at this historical juncture to question whether “Chinese” as an identity sufficiently addresses the broad diversity and experiences of Sinitic peoples. What Sinophone studies offers is critical and rigorous inquiry into the overlapping histories and connections between Sinophone, Black, Indigenous, Palestinian, Jewish, Latinx, Asian, and other minoritized communities.
The Palestinian movement for self-determination has prompted internationalist solidarity and scholarly inquiry in ethnic and global studies. So too must Palestine, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific writ large be understood in relation to Han Chinese settler colonialism, the Global War on Terror, and Indigenous struggles for sovereignty in the East and Southeast Asia regions and in Oceania.
It is vital that global scholars and activists key-in to the intensifying battles for global dominance between the US and PRC rather than write these off as regional issues related to China studies or East Asian studies.
This Cold War pivots around Palestine, but affects every region.
Strengthening solidarity with Palestinians requires deeper critical engagement with Sino-Israel relations and a close examination of the PRC’s trajectory of power. Such engagement would prompt discussion of how our modern knowledge institutions are built on land across the quadrilateral configuration that attempts to erase the histories of Indigenous peoples. Importantly, we must ask: Will the PRC, interested in the colonized and stolen resources that Israel has to offer, recast itself in the same light and role as the US?
In the face of growing academic surveillance in the US and PRC, as well as rising geopolitical tensions which differentially impact the effects of COVID-19 across the world, declaring solidarity with Palestine preserves academic freedom, sustains anti-colonial solidarities, and holds promise for global health and resource-sharing. It calls for re-imagining Asia—not as a geographical place and political landscape beyond the West, but as the heart of struggles for Indigenous sovereignty, Black freedom, Palestinian self-determination, and building an internationalist politics against militarization and fascism.