Jewish Conspiracy Theories Find an Audience in China
Anti-Jewish content and conspiracies take up significant real estate among the top results on Chinese media platforms including Douyin, WeChat and Bilibili. Though borrowed from the West, they have taken on a localized identity.
First published in the China Media Project, JUL 18, 2023 See original for graphics
Recent news of China’s renewed access to the Russian port of Vladivostok this May sparked celebration among some Chinese netizens. But among others, it was a painful reminder of its “century of humiliation,” beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time, the Qing dynasty’s ruling Manchu royals had reluctantly handed over their homeland, which included the port, to their northern neighbors. More territory was ceded to the Japanese invaders in 1931, resulting in the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo.
The Vladivostok decision sparked a debate in corners of Chinese social media about whether a debilitated and increasingly reliant Russia would be made to return the stolen land. Surprisingly, a third perpetrator has emerged alongside the Russian and Japanese empires: the Jews.
In the early 20th century, “before moving into Palestine, Jewish capital chose to settle in the Northeast [of China]”, explained a May 19 article by popular WeChat account “Blood Drink” (血饮). It added that the Jews “were even willing to make a Devil’s bargain with the Japanese fascists and give almost all of their money away for this purpose.”
Over one-hundred thousand people have now read the post, many of whom learned for the first time how “during the ensuing eight-year war, Japan’s military industry, which was financed by Jewish capital, massacred tens of millions of Chinese civilians.”
As with most conspiracies, the Jewish-Japanese blood libel contains a kernel of truth. It is based on a little-known episode in World War II known as the “the Fugu Plan” (河豚计划).
In 1939, Japanese “Jewish experts” had proposed to invite 50,000 German-Jewish refugees to Manchukuo with the hope that Jewish capital would help revitalize the territory. Drawing on their expertise of the fabricated antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, they hoped that a “deal” with the Jews would inspire them to help improve Japan’s position in the war due to their supposed power over the West. It was named after the “fugu,” the Japanese blowfish that — like the Jews — was a delicacy when handled correctly, but deadly if not. Although Jews indeed found refuge in Japanese-controlled areas during World War II, they were never seriously involved in the Fugu Plan, and the plan never came to fruition, writes Meron Medzini, a professor of modern Japanese history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Fugu Plan, though, takes on a different meaning inside China: It demonstrates a foreign assault on the homeland, with “Jewish capitalists” portrayed as the puppeteers behind Western governments seeking to “contain” China’s rise.
At the time of writing, the Fugu Plan is featured in the top search result for the word “Jew” (犹太人) on Douyin, ByteDance’s Chinese equivalent of TikTok. The video is the first in a three-part series about the historical “mistakes” of the Jews.
In less than eight minutes, the video’s narrator blames the Holocaust on Jewish greed, accuses Jews of starting China’s “century of humiliation” by financing the Opium Wars, and describes their cunning Fugu Plan with the Japanese.
Other videos about the Fugu Plan have received as many as 200,000 likes and 30,000 shares. Millions of others have followed the story on social media, where it can also be found with a simple search on Bilibili, WeChat and Weibo, among other platforms.
The narrative has become so popular that an acclaimed Chinese author Yang Shu (杨树) received state funding to pen a spy novel based on the story, which has been short-listed for television or film adaptation by the state-led Chinese Writers Association.
The conspiratorial spin on the Fugu Plan only scratches the surface. A distinct brand of localized antisemitic conspiracies is thriving on Chinese media platforms. A quick search for “Jews” on WeChat, Douyin, BiliBili, Weibo, or Zhihu, reveals that negative, anti-Jewish content and conspiracies take up significant real estate among the top results.
The economics of antisemitism
Antisemitism is not just a social media phenomenon. Despite Beijing’s tight control of the information space, it can also be found among leading academics, party-state journalists, and military strategists. Whereas benign pro-LGBTQ posts and dissenting political voices are often censored, Jewish hatred is openly propagated.
The mirror image of this phenomenon is more well-known. Any Jew who travels through China and reveals their heritage will be met with an admiring torrent of ostensibly “philosemitic” remarks: Jews are inherently intelligent, clever, business savvy, and wealthy. Today, this attitude is widely understood by outsiders as a harmless admiration of stereotypical Jewish traits.
The issue with this “positive” spin is the very fine line that separates it from overt antisemitism. To those who admire Jews for being inherently intelligent and good with money, holding resentment for their supposed disproportionate power over American institutions like Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, and Hollywood is not a major leap.
None of this is to say that antisemitism is widespread in China, or to suggest the PRC is a uniquely and irrevocably racist country. However, it does beg the question of how a country with a negligible Jewish population and an even smaller indigenous Jewish community could form such strong opinions about people they had never met.
Chinese antisemitism should first be viewed as one manifestation of a broader problem of racist nationalism in Chinese discourse. Earlier this month, many observers were shocked and appalled to see how China’s top diplomat Wang Yi hinted at an East Asian race-based bonhomie against “sharp-nosed” and “yellow-haired” Europeans and Americans, advocating for an East Asian alliance that “can eliminate external interference and achieve sustainable development.”
To those who admire Jews for being inherently intelligent and good with money, holding resentment for their supposed disproportionate power over American institutions like Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, and Hollywood is not a major leap.
The irony is that despite exhibiting some of the most well-documented instances of systemic violence, dehumanization, and discrimination against ethnic minorities, China is rarely called out for racism.
In his seminal book on the subject, historian Frank Dikötter shows how racialized discourse has been a part-and-parcel of Chinese nationalism since its inception in the late nineteenth century. Sun Yat-sen, dubbed “the Father of the Nation,” shared many Chinese revolutionaries’ fear and hatred of the ruling Qing’s “Manchu race.” This led him to incorporate racist nationalism into the bedrock of his political thought. “Sun claimed that only nationalism could forestall racial destruction,” writes Dikötter. Conspiracy theories about the Manchus persist in China to this day.
Sun and his contemporaries among China’s intellectual elites have attempted to construct a sense of national identity by appropriating Western antisemitic representations of Jews. By defining the “Jewish race” as a homogeneous group, argues Zhou Xun (周逊) with the University of Essex, they hoped to create a similar sense of unity among the Han-Chinese race. This process of othering the Jews has allowed the Chinese to project their own anxieties and desires onto a group that is both foreign and familiar.
Chinese nationalism under Mao Zedong viewed racial issues through the prism of class struggle, though there were times when the differences were merely semantic. When socialist Israel aligned itself with the “capitalist” Western Bloc, China gravitated towards the anti-Zionist Muslim world, viewing the Jewish state as “the enemy.” With little to no personal contact with Jews, many Chinese scholars and statesmen came to rely on the deeply antisemitic Soviet and Pan-Arabist anti-Zionism that masqueraded as legitimate criticism of Israel.
The enduring legacy of ultra-leftist “enemy studies” abounds in the works of Beihang University military strategist Zhang Wenmu (张文木). In a series of articles for a peer-reviewed socialist journal under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Zhang describes Covid-19 as a usurious American-Jewish bioweapon aimed at China and humanity as a whole. In keeping with the teachings of Mao and Karl Marx, Zhang says that “what Jews require most is an environment conducive to borrowing, which includes things like financial crises, pandemics, disasters, and, preferably, war.”
In the early 1990s, during the second coming of reform and opening, opportunistic writers and publishers flooded bookstores with “get-rich-quick” guides in an attempt to profit from the pervasive stereotype of the “Jewish Shylock.” An entire genre of books has emerged that portrays Jews as a wellspring of financial wisdom, a source from which the Chinese could learn valuable lessons.
One of those books is The Jewish Guide to Getting Rich, which includes a seemingly admiring line: “The money of the world is in the pockets of the Americans, but the money of the Americans is in the pockets of the Jews.”
Following this logic, nouveau riche families in Shenzhen can now enroll their kids in posh programs designed to help them “learn from the best” in management, finance, and parenting so that they, too, can carry on a Rothschild-like legacy.
However, these assertions become troubling when they contribute to the notion that Jews are influencing America’s trade war and efforts to contain China. Similar conclusions can be found in viral videos and posts discussing the alleged Jewish-Japanese Fugu Plan, in which “Jewish capital” supposedly supported Japan’s war against China.
Conspiracy theories thrive on ignorance and sensationalized content reaps lucrative clicks and revenues. However, spreading rumors online risks falling afoul of China’s dreaded Cyberspace Administration, inviting charges of “picking quarrels and making trouble” that could lead to imprisonment. Antisemitism avoids this fate, given that these narratives are seamlessly embedded within state-sanctioned nationalistic frameworks, warning against foreign encirclement and influence.
“The issue of Jewish conspiracies in our region is more pervasive and profound than we realize,” Simon K. Li told the JTA wire service last year. Li highlights that these conspiracies find greater expression on social media platforms like Douyin and Tencent QQ, where anonymity allows for open discussions, rather than in direct face-to-face interactions
A prime success story of this tactic is Currency Wars, a five-volume book series by Song Hongbing. Beginning in 2007, its publication represents a significant turning point in the integration of Jews as stakeholders in popular conspiracies.
The series claims to reveal the secrets of an international financial cabal dominated by a small group of wealthy Jewish elites, most notably the Rothschild family. According to the author, their intentional manipulation of the Federal Reserve results in major social, political, and military disasters.
Despite being panned in China and elsewhere for their broad generalizations, factual errors, and overt antisemitism, Song’s books were a commercial success, with over three million copies in circulation as of 2020. They even received endorsements from senior officials in Beijing, including former Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan (王岐山), who reportedly recommended the series to his staff.
Wuhan University professor Sunny Han Han argues that Currency Wars represents a broader trend of Chinese “pop-nationalism.” This phenomenon revolves around conspiracy theories targeting the “hypothetical West,” an abstract force believed to hinder China’s ascent.
It appeals to nativist anxieties over Western influence and globalization, which Han traces to the emergence of early Chinese nationalism in the late Qing. According to Han, such anachronisms perpetuate traditionalist groupthink. Even more concerning, they distort Chinese perceptions, ultimately perverting Beijing’s ability to communicate effectively with the world.
The ultimate Other
Conspiracy theories and racism are prevalent throughout the world, across all cultures and time periods. And yet, the setting in which they evolve is essential to understanding them.
From Sun Yat-sen to Wang Yi, racialized discourse has been an element of Chinese nationalism since the late Qing dynasty. By classifying Jews as innately external and homogeneous group, the PRC’s founding fathers were able to see a reflection of their nation’s own fate. Following decades of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, it was natural to believe that if the Chinese could be as wealthy as the Jewish Shylock, China would be the most powerful country on the planet; or that in order to create the Chinese “New Man,” one must examine how to avoid being like the subservient weak Jew.
Historical trends also influence the geopolitical landscape. China established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, after the Cold War had ended and the Maoist class mentality had subsided. Consequently, antisemitic rhetoric wrapped in anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist language had to be discarded as well. Nevertheless, countless Chinese politicians and academics carry on the Soviet legacy and use the Jewish state as a battering ram against its American “big brother,” in what Glenn Timmermans of the University of Macau refers to as “antisemitism by proxy.”
In China, where there is a minuscule Jewish minority, conspiracy theories about the treatment of the country’s sizable Muslim, Christian, LGBTQ, or African communities face greater scrutiny. Antisemitism, however, is rarely discussed as it exists primarily in elite circles and online. Diplomats from China (and Israel) would even go so far as to claim that “antisemitism has never existed in China.”
The socioeconomics of the country’s rapid development may explain the niche market for books and programs based on the stereotypical Jewish financier. At the same time, the prevalence of antisemitism in the world’s second-largest economy is concerning. China accounts for one-fifth of the world’s internet users, with over a billion active users. As scholars Yang Tian and Fang Kecheng have found, the nationalist “influencers” who coordinate and share content on a daily basis comprise a large, toxic network.
Furthermore, despite their xenophobia, they share ideological ties with the far right in the West and Eastern Europe. According to Yang and Fang, the Chinese Han majority, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the population, claim that their own majority culture is in crisis due to minority groups such as Muslims, Blacks, or, in this case, Jews.
Due to their direct import from the West, many of the aforementioned Chinese conspiracies should be very familiar to Westerners. In his lectures, for example, Jin Canrong (金灿荣), dean of Renmin University’s School of International Studies, has promoted the Great Replacement theory. Popularized by French nationalist Renaud Camus, the theory holds that non-white immigrants are replacing white European societies with the help of Jews.
Nevertheless, when we examine these theories through a historical lens, we can observe their transformation and incorporation of Chinese metaphors and distinct cultural and historical notions. What is the Fugu Plan conspiracy but the Great Replacement with Chinese characteristics?
To rationalize Chinese antisemitism on ignorance is, at best, patronizing. Many of its proponents, including naturalized American citizen Song Hongbing, have resided or attended school in the West. Some have even written extensively about the perils of “Western” antisemitism.
Contemporary antisemitism — whether in the United States, Europe or China — is, in the end, a conspiracy that has proven remarkably useful around the world. As American writer and activist Elad Nehorai writes, antisemitism does not always appear to be Jew hatred: “Jew hatred is actually the end result of antisemitism.” Viewed from this perspective, perhaps no one should be surprised that kitschy admiration for Jews has turned sour; isn’t China just catching up to the rest of us?