Crisis in Kaifeng: 2 Articles
1. Mea Culpa
By Anson Laytner
Mea culpa. It is all my fault. I deliberately chose to break the institutional silence that everyone from Shavei Israel to the Sino-Judaic Institute to China-Judaic Studies Association even to the Kaifeng Jewish community had been observing for close to a year.
I did it because Elinor Fuks, a well-intentioned reporter from Mako, an Israeli online journal, asked me for information about how Pesach is being observed in Kaifeng so that she could include them in an article about Jewish communities around the world.[i] Knowing what the community was going through, I chose to tell her the truth and disregard the wishes of the Kaifeng community.
Freed from my silence, on 28 April I wrote a blog for The Times of Israel that broke the news to the English-reading world that the Jewish community in Kaifeng was in trouble with certain Chinese authorities. On 3 May, writing in The Forward, Sam Kastenbaum elaborated on my article reaching a still wider audience,[ii] and on 11 May, Dave Gordon, writing in Ami Magazine, broadened the information still further.
Earlier, through Barnaby Yeh, Kaifeng representatives had let us know that they wanted us not to raise their situation publicly or through our channels with Chinese officials but rather to keep quiet and join them in waiting for the situation to pass. That was a year ago. A year later, nothing had changed; if anything, conditions seemed to be getting worse. After receiving a distressing report from Barnaby, I decide to speak up.
I hope I made the right decision. Only time will tell.
It is hard to believe how radically different the situation in Kaifeng is today from a year before.
A year ago, in April 2015, about 50 members of the renascent Jewish community of Kaifeng, China gathered in a hotel banquet room for a Passover seder. Barnaby Yeh, a Jewish Chinese American representing SJI, led the seder in Hebrew and Chinese. Even a local city official attended. The unique event received worldwide attention after it was covered by The New York Times (6 April 2015). Shavei Israel also ran a well-attended seder of its own.
But by Pesach 2016, Barnaby Yeh was persona non grata in Kaifeng; the Jewish center had been shuttered; foreign Jewish tour groups are not permitted there; the Sino-Judaic Institute’s educational program has been suspended; security forces are keeping a vigilant eye on community members; and we had second-hand reports that the authorities had removed all commemorative signage regarding the old Jewish neighborhood.
After my article appeared in The Times of Israel, I was contacted by Mark Ellison, a Jew from Hong Kong who had visited Kaifeng in March 2016. He confirmed what Barnaby Yeh had reported: that the street sign marking the old Jewish quarter is now only in Chinese and transliteration, the English translation has been removed; that markers commemorating the Jewish area had been removed; that the “Jewish well” abutting the site of the synagogue has been filled in and built over; that the Municipal Museum is now refusing access to the famous stelae stored on its third floor and its small permanent exhibit on the Jews in Kaifeng has now been dismantled; and that the Kaifeng Guildhall (Shan Shan Gan), which has an exhibit on the various communities of Kaifeng , has removed all traces of its presentation on the Kaifeng Jews, which included a brief history of the Jewish community in Chinese and a photo of one of the tablets. Taken together with what we knew already, it was clear that a major suppression of Jewish identity was taking place in Kaifeng. Both the Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post tried to speak with some Kaifeng Jews but none was willing to go on the record. They were all too intimidated to speak out.
The former exhibit on the Kaifeng Jews at the Shan Shan Gan. Photo by Mark Ellison.
What has been happening in Kaifeng, Ellison noted, “is in distinct contrast to Shanghai and Harbin, where Jewish museums have been established, and Jewish heritage is an important tourism angle.” China also has long touted its treatment of Jews, both those Western communities to the east and the one in Kaifeng. This clearly is no longer the case in Kaifeng where, apparently, some authorities in China want all traces of Jewish identity obliterated, regardless of any economic advantage that could be derived from tourism.
What led to this drastic change?
In my Times of Israel blog, I identified three possible reasons for the crackdown.
The first possibility was the seder itself, or rather the international attention that it drew. Since the opening-up of China in the 1980s, Jewish life in Kaifeng has operated best when it has gone unnoticed. This is because Chinese officials at various levels are divided about how to handle the tiny community. On the one hand, some in the local government want to encourage a revival of the Jewish community in order to stimulate tourism and improve the local economy. On the other hand, the United Front, which operates locally, provincially and nationally, adheres to a 1953 central government directive that regards the Chinese Jews now as part of the Han nationality. According to this rationale, the foreign media attention drew the ire of the latter group, which then moved to suppress continued expressions of Jewish communal cultural life. However, since we are not privy to the thinking of the United Front, this remains only a theory. There have been dozens of articles written in newspapers all over the world about the Kaifeng Jews without precipitating such a harsh reaction. Why is this story different from all other stories?
A second factor to consider was the immigration of 5 Kaifeng women to Israel in March of this year, accompanied by significant media coverage in the Israel and the Diaspora. This too could have enflamed those authorities in China who prefer to see Jewish identity in Kaifeng wither, who might fear that the immigration of these women, the first group brought to Israel by the organization Shavei Israel in 7 years, would perpetuate a renewed sense of Jewish identity among the Kaifeng Jews even if only to seek a better life in Israel. However, it should be noted that the suppression of Jewish life in Kaifeng began well before this event and, although it may have contributed to the continued crackdown, it should also be pointed out that back in October 2009, 7 men from the community came to live in Israel without any reprisals back in Kaifeng.
But the third and most plausible explanation for the crackdown is that the authorities were reacting to a claim for political asylum, on grounds of religious persecution, filed by a Kaifeng Jewish woman in an American court. In this scenario, the authorities were rightfully infuriated by this specious charge and decided to punish the entire community for the action of this one individual, thinking that it had been a serious miscalculation to continue with the more open policy that had been allowed to flourish. Hers was a deed that may have provided the United Front with the opening it needed to return to the pre-1980 status quo, one that denied the existence of a Jewish presence in Kaifeng, past or present.
Whatever the actual reason for the current suppression of Jewish cultural life in Kaifeng, I felt it was time to break the silence about it. There are those who rightly point out that what is occurring in Kaifeng is probably part of the government’s overall crackdown on religions and dissent. Furthermore, the crackdown against SJI and Shavei Israel may be part of the national government’s moves to limit Western influences. It recently passed a law to restrict the work of foreign organizations and their local partners. More than 7,000 foreign nongovernmental groups may be affected. Perhaps ours have the distinction of being restricted before the law even came into being.
But there is no justification whatsoever for the government's action against the entire community because of one woman's action based on her personal situation. I am sure that her motivation to move to America was simply in order to better her life and she chose a means that best would guarantee a favorable outcome (which it did), even if it was duplicitous. But instead of closing things down, the authorities should have allowed the Jewish community to thrive even more in order to prove to the world that there is no religious persecution in Kaifeng.
It is a sad irony that, whatever the precipitating cause for the crackdown, the situation in Kaifeng now justifies her asylum application after the fact. How many times have the hopes of the Kaifeng Jews been raised up only to have them smacked down? Perhaps it is time for a mass aliyah of Kaifeng Jews to Israel as Shavei Israel has long proposed?
But when it comes to making a mea culpa, SJI and Shavei Israel also have to admit culpability. Both our organizations acted inappropriately. First of all, it should be noted that Judaism is not a legal, i.e. recognized, official religion in China. It is fine for foreign Jews to practice it; not fine for Chinese citizens to do so. Second, the Chinese national government does not consider the Kaifeng descendants to be Jews in any way, only to be of Jewish ancestry, as per the 1953 document. Consequently, these “Han” Chinese were trying to practice an “illegal” religion. Our organizations disagreed on the principle that, given the history of the Kaifeng Jews since the early 20th century, those descendants who still maintained a sense of Jewish identity should have to opportunity to learn about their heritage and then decide if they wanted to pursue a more active Jewish life or remain content with being Han Chinese of Jewish descent. So we set about to educate some of them and help them organize as a community. Where we believed we were simply educating a group of Jewish descendants to live both individually and collectively as Jews, some Chinese authorities saw yet another foreign organization working with Han Chinese citizens to promote an illegal religion. In their eyes, we were guilty of the crime of proselytizing.
What we did was wrong. Rather than working in Kaifeng under the radar (to the extent that this is possible to do in China), we ought to have sought out the appropriate authorities, clarified perspectives and plans, and gotten approval in advance. Instead, we took the easy way in.
But guilt, like hindsight, is 20/20 and casting blame does no good. The powers that be have instituted the first official suppression of Jewish life in Chinese history. This is sad beyond words. We can only hope that it is short-lived and an aberration.
What can be done? It is still not too late for SJI and Shavei Israel to make the case to Chinese authorities that we are not trying to convert Chinese people to Judaism; that we are simply trying to provide Jewish educational and cultural opportunities to interested Jewish descendants in Kaifeng. It is still not too late for us to bring young Jewish descendants to Israel or elsewhere to study so that they can return and educate their own people without our help. And it is still not too late for the Kaifeng Jewish descendants to set aside their differences, show some independence and initiative, and take steps to determine their own future.
But it definitely was time, in my opinion, to speak up about the situation in Kaifeng. Some, including members of the Kaifeng community, argue that the best strategy is simply to wait for things to change in China. It is true that sooner or later all things do come to pass but sometimes one has to disregard the actual wishes of the group involved to effect more immediate results. I recognize that the Kaifeng Jewish descendants are fearful of more repression but I spoke up because sometimes an external perspective is a better one in the long-term, their immediate fears notwithstanding. After waiting for more than a year, I felt it was time to shine a light on the situation there because their very survival as Jews is at stake, because it is always good to shine a light on injustice and the denial of human rights, and because I honestly believe that the Jewish communal revival in Kaifeng is too fragile just to wait out the current crisis.
And it is also time for the Chinese national government to step in and stop this repression. It is time for us to come to an understanding about this tiny group and not let our differences taint good Jewish-Chinese relations. Ideally, China should enable the Kaifeng Jewish descendants to continue to learn about their Jewish heritage even as they continue to live as Han Chinese—or it should let them leave to go live as Jews in Israel. Ideally, China should herald the fact that it has never persecuted its Jewish community much as it celebrates its having served as a refuge for European Jews fleeing the Nazis. Ideally it should promote the historic Jewish presence in Kaifeng just as it does those in Shanghai and Harbin. Only good would come from such a decision. It would be an act of kindness for the Kaifeng Jews, economically beneficial for all of Kaifeng and good for China as a whole in so many ways.
[i] Her Hebrew language report was published on 27 April: http://www.mako.co.il/special-love-israel/weekend-jews-world?sCh=3d385dd2dd5d4110&pId=1898243326. You need to press on the flag of China to read her article.
2. Open Letter to SJI by Some Kaifeng Jews via Barnaby Yeh
Around the time when You Qing appeared in an immigration court in New York, there were concurrently some police visits and crackdowns in Kaifeng, which targeted myself and those who were associated with me. I was in Israel at the time, so I avoided the full brunt. Nevertheless, it was deduced (largely from the oddly specific targets and non-targets) that the family of You Qing had been making reports to the police. In Chinese society, where there is no rule of law, police only seek individuals either on a whim or if someone informs them.
At the same time, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer's tour group was barred from entering Kaifeng. This was the point when news of this incident reached Western ears. As more parties heard of this news, they either leaped to assumptions or demanded explanations. Many were ready to swing the hammer of persecution prematurely without knowledge of facts on the ground. In response, major players in the community of Jewish descendants gathered together and drafted this letter clarifying the situation, including pointing out the real culprits and reaffirming the community's loyalty to the Chinese government.
You Qing goes by Sarah Liwei on Facebook. She arrived in the US on a tourist visa and has overstayed since, and presumably been granted asylum by the immigration court. Her last whereabouts were in Flushing, NY, and it is rumored that her son, Sun Youtian, has also immigrated, legal or otherwise. Her niece, You Yeheng, is also here illegally with her husband, Zhu He. This family has caused irreparable harm to the community of descendants of Kaifeng Jews and must be held accountable.
If any of you has any whereabouts of You Qing and/or her family please inform us, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security.
It has been clearly investigated that it was Kaifeng Jews Li Xiurong “Aviv”, You Yong “Yoel”, You Qing “Sarah”, and Peng Wenxia “Neta” (being one family) [hereafter the You Family] who informed to the Kaifeng City Police Department.
1. The main information given out to police was that not only Barnaby Yeh was proselytizing in Kaifeng, but also that Li Bo, Li Suisheng, Li Wei, Li Xin, Bai Xiaojuan, Gao Chao, Jin Guangzhong, Shi Mingxia, and Ai Zhenshui are the organizers of Kaifeng Jewry, having organized Passover celebrations and learning Judaism.
2. The reasons behind [the You Family] informing to the Police Department are as follows:
The You family, in the long term, has claimed the leadership of the Li family and Kaifeng Jewry. Under the pretense of requesting help for Kaifeng Jewish children attending school and the elderly [receiving care for] being sick, they have scammed donations of American and Israeli Jews, as well as Hong Kong and Chinese Christians. The donations made by Barnaby Yeh’s organization [the Sino-Judaic Institute] and other foreign Jews directed towards Beit Hatikvah have all been distributed by [members of the You Family], so that Kaifeng Jewish families in difficulty have not received a modicum of assistance.
3. It was Yeh who discovered that [the You Family] have scammed money. [Through proxies,] Yeh warned them time after time, but they have not heeded the warnings. Thus, Yeh told everyone the situation of the Kaifeng Jewish community, and so all of us support Yeh, and re-organized the school leadership. Thus, [the You Family] had a negative reaction to Yeh! They wanted to expel Yeh from China! They wanted to let the government shut down our school in which we learn Torah!
4. As well, their family is very wealthy! You Qing’s [ex-] husband Sun Bing has done business in Africa for a period of over ten years and is very wealthy. You Qing has been in the United States for three years, with a monthly salary of $4,000 USD. Li Xiurong is a retired factory supervisor/engineer, with a very high retirement fund. You Yong, Peng Wenxia, and You Qing own storefronts in the most luxurious parts of Kaifeng. They have luxury homes in Kaifeng! With such a wealthy family, You Qing’s son (Sun Youtian) still requests scholarships from Rabbi Tokayer. Sun Youtian and You Yeheng, the daughter of You Yong, have clearly expressed that they dislike Israel and Judaism. They have only claimed Jewish identity to scam money! They have scammed the help of foreign Jews!
5. The Chinese government has been very good to us. We love China, love the Chinese Communist Party. This time, the Kaifeng police department is only examining the situation! From 1949-1995, during the planned economy era of China, we Kaifeng Jews were given treatment still higher than Han Chinese; we could eat more lamb and grain foods. Using Jewish identity in the university entrance exam could add more points! In China, we have never been oppressed, nor have we ever been persecuted. We Kaifeng Jews could learn Judaism in Kaifeng, and the government has never disallowed the learning of Judaism. According to our understanding, the City Government of Kaifeng still wants to rebuild the Kaifeng Jewish Synagogue, (perhaps as a tourist site,) and the government has always protected our Jewish Synagogue’s ruins.
6. Kaifeng Jews are completely opposed to [the You family’s] method of informing on Kaifeng Jews. Anything and everything that You Qing has said in the American courts is a lie! In order to get a green card in the United States, she unfeelingly has hurt everything and betrayed the feelings of us Kaifeng Jews! You Qing’s mother is called Li Xiurong, and not Li Qiaoyun. You Qing took the identity card of someone named Li Qiaoyun, thinking that the race written on the identity card was Jewish. You Qing has claimed Li Qiaoyun as her mother, so You Qing is a scammer! We hope that you Jews will not help You Qing, as if you continue to assist in her lies, the result would be extremely severe.
7. The family of Li Xiurong has done many bad things in the Li family, scamming parents, family, nephew, and brother, as well as scamming [NAME REDACTED] to beat members of the Li family that they dislike.
8. [The You family] was baptized by Christians in Hong Kong in 2009, and Li Xiurong's godson is a Christian pastor named Mr. Wong.
9. Attention! You Yeheng exploited the American organization Kulanu in order to obtain a visa for half a year in the U.S., but after one year she has not returned to China. She has scammed Kulanu. You Yeheng's boyfriend Zhu is not Jewish, but he also claimed to be a Kaifeng Jew in order to go to the U.S. This kind of girl who does not keep promises reflects the scamming nature of Li Xiurong's family.
10. A letter from the Kaifeng Jewish community. We strongly request that you no longer help [the You Family], and do more harm to the Kaifeng Jewish community!
11. Beit Hatikvah, which you have sponsored since 2012, has already merged with Shavei Israel's Kaifeng Jewish community, and Shavei Israel provides for rental and activity fees. All funds of the Kaifeng Jewish community are managed by [the You Family]. It is possible that your organization and Shavei have, together, given them rent and activity fees.
A. [The You Family] had gathered reports of Barnaby Yeh and the Kaifeng Jews' activities in Kaifeng, and wrote up a report to Li Xiuqin (Li Xiurong's third sister) and Si Qingxiang (her husband) so that they would turn in to the government agency. Li Xiuqing and Si Qingxiang had worked in the government agency for a long period, and they have connections with the government. [In China many things rely on connections.]
B. Why Li Xiuqin and Si Qingxiang act in this manner is because they are the lackeys of Li Xiurong's family, having cooperated with her in order to scam the money of foreign Jews as well as Chinese and Hong Kong Christians. Li Xiuqin is the majority shareholder of Kaifeng's Zhaomazi mall, receiving a monthly income of 20K+ CNY, while Si Qingxiang is a former employee of the national bureaucracy, with retirement funds of 6K+ CNY. Their oldest daughter Si Yi owns the three most luxurious restaurants in Kaifeng: two of A-Wu Meishi Jiudian, and one of Yujingyuan Jiudian. Si Yin's daughter called Bian Siyu is about to take the exam to go to university. The second daughter Si Ji and her husband are bureaucrats, the two of them together receiving an annual salary of $20K+ USD (considered the highest salary in Kaifeng), and their son is Zhu Dongpo. A family of such opulence in Kaifeng still requests scholarships from American Jews, but they have not contributed a penny of their money in the Kaifeng Jewish community. Please beware of these people who want to scam; we believe we must assist the poor and help those who need help!
Signed by 12 Representatives of the Kaifeng Jewish Community