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The antidote to COVID-19 induced divisions: China and Palestine’s Global Solidarity

by Nathan Han

With the pandemic exacerbating geopolitical divisions and heightening nationalisms, the only solution can be global solidarity.  

Rather than bringing the global community together, the COVID-19 crisis has intensified geopolitical rivalries and heightened nationalism. (1) Disparities in vaccine rollouts have led to accusations that the United States and the United Kingdom hoard vaccines and resources necessary for poorer nations to jumpstart their vaccination rollouts. (2) While the U.S has recently announced plans to begin distributing vaccines, it comes after two-thirds of the domestic population have already received their first dose. (3) However, if we are to tackle future global crises, it requires what the philosopher Slavoj Žižek calls “the birth of a new global solidarity”. (4) 

In a recent demonstration of this ‘global solidarity’, China promised to donate the US $1 million worth of emergency aid and 200,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Palestinians. (5) This is in addition to the 100,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine that were already donated during March. (6) The gesture comes as Palestinians deal with not only the COVID-19 crisis but also with the recent Israeli siege in Gaza, which resulted in over 240 deaths and over 1900 injured.  

Although not widely known in Australia, Chinese-Palestinian solidarity goes back to the 1950s and 1960s. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the PRC recognised the State of Israel but began to support the Palestinians increasingly during the 50s and 60s. This was because the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, saw the Palestinian revolutionary cause as part of a broader fight against Western imperialism. (7) 

In 1955, newly de-colonised Asian and African nations held a large-scale meeting known as the Bandung Conference (also known as the Afro-Asian Conference) to establish economic and cultural cooperation and promote anti-imperialist principles. The Bandung Conference, as described by Sukarno, the first president of the host country Indonesia, the Bandung Conference was “the first intercontinental conference of coloured peoples in the history of mankind”. (8) It was here that the PRC expressed support for the Palestinian cause, as they perceived Israel as a base for Western imperialism. Zhou Enlai, serving as China’s foreign minister, clarified that the Bandung Conference could not be considered a success if the Palestinian cause was not included in its agenda. (8) 

In addition to the support of PRC leaders, other important leaders, including Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, also helped push the Palestinian struggle onto a wider international stage. The issue of Palestinian liberation was raised in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, a gathering of countries that focused on anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism during the Cold War. (9) It was only natural that Palestinian liberation be raised, as it was a struggle that embodied both anti-colonial and anti-imperialist ambitions.  

China expressed support for the Palestinians in several ways. (7) They were the first non-Arab country to establish relations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). They supplied arms and military training to Palestinian guerrilla groups, although the PLO opted largely not to use the arms. The Palestinian cause was also amplified in Chinese media, with China celebrating Palestine Solidarity Day for the first time on May 15, 1965 and continuing to do so until 1971. Meanwhile, in Palestine, members of the Fatah faction of the PLO began studying Chinese revolutionary methods. Recommended readings for Fatah members included Mao’s Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War and Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (also known as the Little Red Book). 

As China has pursued economic development over ideological struggle in the years following Mao’s death, the relationship between China and Palestine has continued, but in a more limited fashion. (10) Although China and Palestine still maintain a diplomatic relationship, including economic and cultural exchanges, China has also strengthened their relationship with Israel through Israeli infrastructure and arms sales investments.  

History shows that global solidarity, based on shared values that transcend material interest, is possible. There is no reason to assume why it cannot happen again in the future. While Richard Horton of The Lancet has pointed to the failure of Žižek’s original vision of global solidarity that should have followed the contemporary COVID-19 pandemic, he does so by ignoring instances of global solidarity in the Global South. (4) For example, Cuba has two vaccine candidates currently in phase 3 trials, which they plan to distribute in Iran, Mexico, and Venezuela. Such examples are underreported (possibly because these stories tend to feature countries in the Global South) but are exactly the type of story that should be shared and elevated if the vision of a ‘new global solidarity’ is ever to be realised. 

1: Mwareya, Ray. 2021. “Vaccine Diplomacy And The US-China Rivalry In Africa”. Aljazeera.Com. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/11/7/africa-vaccine-diplomacy-and-the-us-china-rivalry/

2: Bhutto, Fatima. 2021. “The World’s Richest Countries Are Hoarding Vaccines. This Is Morally Indefensible | Fatima Bhutto”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/17/rich-countries-hoarding-vaccines-us-eu-africa

3. 13: Stolberg, Sheryl. 2021. “First U.S. Vaccine Donations Will Go To ‘Wide Range’ Of Nations In Need”. Nytimes.Com. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/03/us/politics/vaccine-donations-coronavirus-biden.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article. 

4: Horton, Richard. 2021. “Offline: Thinking the pandemic”. The Lancet. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00514-6/fulltext 

5: Jiangtao, Shi. 2021. “China Pledges US$1 Million In Aid, Covid-19 Vaccines To Palestinians”. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3134375/china-pledges-us1-million-aid-covid-19-vaccines-palestinians

6: al-Mughrabi, Nidal, and Zainah El-Haroun. 2021. “Palestinians Get Chinese-Donated COVID-19 Vaccines”. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-palestinians-vacci-idUSKBN2BL24D

7: Oppenheimer, Shaina. 2019. “Weapons And Ideology: Files Reveal How China Armed And Trained The Palestinians”. Haaretz.Com. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-how-china-became-the-palestinians-biggest-ally-in-the-1960s-1.7619544

8: Kasonta, Adriel. 2021. “China’s Historic Obligation To Protect Palestinians”. Asia Times. https://asiatimes.com/2021/05/chinas-historic-obligation-to-protect-palestinians/

9: Mantovani, Maren. 2017. “Tricontinental Solidarity And Palestine Today – Stop The Wall”. Stop The Wall. https://stopthewall.org/2017/01/04/tricontinental-solidarity-and-palestine-today/

10: Aluf, Dale. 2021. “How China Views The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”. Asia Times. https://asiatimes.com/2021/05/how-china-views-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/

11: Turki Al-Sudairi, Mohammed. 2015. “Among Old Friends: A History Of The Palestinian Community In China”. Middle East Institute. http://www.mei.edu/publications/among-old-friends-history-palestinian-community-china

12: Boese, Wade. 2003. “Israeli Arms Exports To China Of Growing Concern To U.S. | Arms Control Association”. Armscontrol.Org. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2003-03/news/israeli-arms-exports-china-growing-concern-us

13: Beaubien, Jason. 2021. “Cuba’s Dream: Come For A Vacation, Get A Homegrown COVID Vaccine”. Npr.Org. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/03/25/980789381/cubas-revolutionary-dream-making-its-own-covid-vaccine?utm_term=nprnews&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=npr

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