Why Israel and China Can, and Should, Work Together
Human history has seen large changes throughout the generations. Ours is not the first to witness such change, but we are experiencing one of the most transformative and rapid shifts since the Industrial Revolution.
Although this transformation is still unfolding, we can already identify some of its path-changing features: National boundaries are no longer what they used to be, and when it comes to scientific knowledge and innovation, the global community transcends these boundaries.
We now see these changes becoming a reality. Last month, I had the privilege of leading American supporters of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology on the Technion World Tour China. Our group toured the Guangdong Technion Israel Institute of Technology (GTIIT), the first Israeli university campus in China, which was inaugurated last December. We also visited some of most culturally significant sites in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, and met the leaders of some of China’s most influential start-ups and investment companies.
GTIIT links Israel’s oldest university to China’s most populous province, building a hub for a new ecosystem of high-tech businesses, a bridge to advance Israeli-Chinese scientific research collaboration, and a framework for significant investments in the knowledge and skills of the Chinese people.
In the old world of geographic boundaries, some might wonder: Why would Chinese leaders choose an institution from a tiny country — a third the size of Shanghai and halfway around the world — to help drive the development of one of its most important economic regions?
Just 20 years ago, such a partnership would have been unthinkable. But today, like America, Israel has strong and beneficial ties with China. Since 1992, China and Israel have steadily deepened cooperation in fields from agriculture to academia to the arts.
China (along with Hong Kong) is now the Jewish state’s second-largest trading partner, as well as the second-leading source of joint high-tech ventures with Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist. More than 1,000 Israeli companies are actively operating in China, while Chinese firms are investing billions in Israel annually. Despite differences in their systems of government and cultures, Israel and China are building a flourishing economic and social relationship around a shared understanding that there is nothing more important for their countries — or our planet — than cultivating knowledge and building human capital.
China has sustained an average of nearly double-digit annual GDP growth over the past two decades, pulling more than 700 million people out of poverty. Chinese leaders recognize that advancing to the next stage of their nation’s development — and entering the ranks of high-income countries — will not be driven by the production capacity of their factories, but in the innovative capability of their people. At present, Beijing’s rise as an economic superpower has defied the predictions of its numerous naysayers, who confidently proclaimed that China would fail. This narrative is compellingly documented in a recently published multi-part series in The New York Times, which recounts how China is “rewriting its own script” while becoming “the land that failed to fail.”
For China and many other nations seeking to advance along a similar trajectory, Israel’s experience is instructive. With no natural resources, swamps in the north, desert in the south, and a desperate shortage of water, Israel’s founders realized 70 years ago that we had to invest in the country’s most important resource: our people.
Faced with challenges, Israelis learned to create opportunities and embraced a culture that rewards creativity, encourages imagination, and promotes institutions of higher learning. The burden of absorbing more immigrants per capita than anywhere else in the world — 350 percent of the country’s original population — became Israel’s greatest asset, creating a foundation of diverse human resources. Israel quickly integrated new arrivals, unlocking their vast potential. In just seven decades, the Jewish state has transformed from a developing country into a high-tech powerhouse, earning its nickname as the “start-up nation.”
Emerging Israel-China ties, such as those between the Technion and Shantou University, reflected in the GTIIT, highlight the vast potential for science and technology to advance progress and build relationships. In an era when ideas travel instantly — and conversations take place in real time across cultures and continents — the development of human capital anywhere can improve knowledge and enrich lives everywhere. Infusing a Chinese university with Israeli innovation will bring about solutions that leave an impact well beyond either country — and continue to break down barriers erected by history, politics, and governments.
Jeff Richard is CEO of the American Technion Society.