LEE: The kindred values of the Chinese and the Jews

A major gift from Asia’s richest man highlights the strength of a remarkable relationship. Photo: Flags of China and Israel

COLLEGE PARK, Md., October 8, 2013 — There was big news in the world of philanthropy last week, but it was buried in the hullabaloo about the government shutdown. It seems that Li Ka-Shing, the richest man in Asia, has donated an additional $130 million dollars toward higher education. Although newsworthy, this was not surprising. Over the years, he has donated over $750 million to Shantou University alone. 

What might make this surprising to some is that his latest donation was to Israel’s leading engineering university, the Technion, to build the new Technion Guangdong Institute of Technology in southern China. However to those who know Mr. Li, even this is not entirely surprising. That’s because Mr. Li has quite a long history of successful investing in Israel. He is well known as a friend to both Jews and to Israel itself, as China itself has been for much, though admittedly not all, of its history.

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In general, the history of the Jews in China is both long and friendly. When Marco Polo “discovered” China, he found that the Jews were already very well established there and quite prosperous. Even earlier, in the ancient Chinese capital of Kaifeng, Jews had built a synagogue and a kosher butchering facility. In the 20th century, China proved to be a hospitable sanctuary for Jewish people escaping the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust.

China even boasts its own Oskar Schindler in Dr. Ho Feng-Shan, China’s consul-general in Vienna, who saved the lives of thousands of Jews. In consideration of the centuries of peaceful contact between the two peoples, China can arguably be called the most hospitable country to the Jewish people. (Arguably, we reiterate.)

Last semester, I had the pleasure of hosting a visiting professor from Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics to exchange ideas about the teaching of international finance. In the course of casual conversation, I learned that all over Chinese academia these days, there is a veritable explosion of interest in the Jewish people, Judaism and Israel. Mr. Li’s gift merely epitomizes this interest.

To say that China respects Israel would be a tremendous understatement. In fact, China greatly admires both the nation and State of Israel in many important areas with the notable exception of cuisine, in which case the admiration goes demonstrably the other way. If you doubt this, just think about the number of Jewish delis you’ve ever seen in any of the Chinatowns of the world. Now consider the number of Chinese restaurants in any Jewish neighborhood. I rest my case.

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China greatly admires the strength of the Jewish Diaspora, its educational and intellectual achievements and its entrepreneurial successes. China greatly admires the innovation of Israel’s technology and biotech industries, as Li Ka-Shing very obviously does, the resilience of a state surrounded by enemies, and the fearsome Israel Defense Forces. There’s no question that Mr. Li’s largesse reflects this great respect. 

In recent years, I’ve spoken often on the topic of this article. Although it is probable that all cultures have something or other in common, the sheer number of them between the Chinese and Jewish cultures is remarkable. 

Most obvious is our two cultures’ reverence for knowledge and wisdom. In both cultures, education goes far, far beyond prosaic job training. It goes to the very heart of our cultural values. This similarity of cultural values is mirrored by the similarity of wisdom provided by our greatest teachers. Try this quick little quiz.

From which of the two cultures’ greatest teachers did we receive the following words of wisdom?

  1. “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
  2. “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”
  3. “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do.”
  4. “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’ and you will progress.”
  5. “If one avoids haughtiness to the utmost extent…this is the standard of saintliness.”
  6. “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

The answers appear at the conclusion of this article. But the point is that the expressed wisdom of these remarkable philosophers is virtually interchangeable. Even the goyim and the gweilo (similar to goyim) can appreciate these pearls.

Respect for tradition is another kindred value. Tradition as Tevye sang in “Fiddler on the Roof” is endemic in everything the Chinese and Jewish people do. Respect for tradition is essentially another manifestation of both cultures’ received wisdom. It provides us with legends and stories which may or may not have ever happened but which can be applied to almost any occasion like a gift certificate. Which is pretty smart, especially if you’ve forgotten to buy a gift. 

What Mr. Li has accomplished is to strengthen a strength. China, no slouch at engineering, will benefit from the expertises of the Technion. In turn, the Technion will benefit from those of the Guangdong Institute of Technology. But perhaps more importantly, Mr. Li has laid the groundwork for increased cooperation between not just the two universities but the two countries. 

China and Israel have political differences of course. But Mr. Li’s private initiative will help to smooth over these differences. We should hope that our great capitalists will also use some of the fruit of their free market endeavors for similarly bold and innovative purposes.

1)    Confucius, 2) Maimonides, 3) Confucius, 4) Maimonides, 5) Maimonides, 6) Confucius 

Michael Justin Lee from the faculty of finance and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Maryland, teaches, speaks and writes at the intersection of global finance and matters Chinese (with occasional tangents off on one or the other). He is the author of “The Chinese Way to Wealth and Prosperity” (McGraw-Hill, 2012) and speaks often on the title of this article. He can be followed at www.michaeljustinlee.com 

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Michael Justin Lee

Michael Justin Lee from the faculty of finance and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Maryland, teaches, speaks and writes at the intersection of global finance and politics (with occasional tangents off on one or the other).

He is the author of “The Chinese Way to Wealth and Prosperity” (McGraw-Hill, 2012). A veteran Chartered Financial Analyst, he served as Financial Markets Expert-in-Residence in the U.S. Department of Labor. He can be followed at www.michaeljustinlee.com


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