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Reflections of the Armenian issue in the Chinese media

JTW News Analysis, Nurzhanat Ametbek

During the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian deportation, many experts looked to China with increasing attention noting China’s own painful experience during WWII under a violent Japanese occupation. Armenians expected China to condemn the mass deportations of ethnic Armenians during the Ottoman era as ‘genocide’. Some influential Armenian activists in Russia have even called on China to become more involved in Caucasian affairs, as they believe the country could act as a balancing power in the region. The commemorations are also occurring at a time during which Turkey and China are trying to deepen their relations, but if the special relationship between Turkey and Azerbaijan is taken into consideration, China’s attitude becomes all the more salient.

The Armenian Community is active in China

Last week, China’s Armenian community organized a landmark series of cultural and artistic events in China’s big cities like Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai. On April 24, an Armenian cultural evening was held in Shanghai. That same night, the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia in Beijing arranged a showing of a documentary entitled “Andin: Armenian Journey Chronicles” directed by renowned documentary filmmaker Ruben Giney. The film recounts the long history of Armenians in China and the historical links between the two civilizations.

Yet the main highlight of the weekend was the public gathering in Nanjing, where Japanese troops massacred hundreds of thousands of Chinese during World War II. In the minds of many Chinese, as with the ‘Armenian Genocide’, the Nanjing Massacre is an event that still goes unrecognized by its perpetrators. These commemorations presented Armenian history, art, and culture to the Chinese people, and were dedicated to the remembrance of the 1915 Events.

Armenians have strong financial support for overseas activities

Chinese media reports that Armenia is able to engage in a greater amount of activity due to its strong financial support. To make more countries recognize the deportations as genocide is an important part of Armenian public diplomacy and also the main goal of the lobbying activities of the Armenian diaspora community scattered throughout the world.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian deportations, and it has thus coincided with a greater scope and scale of commemorations across the globe. Among the large number of Armenian people currently living abroad, most of them are ancestors of the Armenians who had escaped from the deportation and settled abroad 100 years ago. Similar with the Jewish people, Armenians are also seen as shrewd and successful businessmen; therefore, the overseas activities of Armenians usually have strong financial support.

Armenians expected China to condemn the deportations

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian deportations, groups across the globe upped their efforts to influence various countries’ position on the matter. According to influential Russian-Armenian Union leader Arbor Lamy Yang, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, in a meeting with Chinese leaders during his visit to Beijing about a month ago, asked China to recognize the Armenian deportation as genocide and expressed that he looked forward to China’s condemnation of the so-called 1915 Events.

Between 1915 and 1917, the Ottoman government forced Armenians living in modern day Turkey to emigrate en masse, killing as many as 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in the process. As reported by Baihua, Arbor Lamy Yang said that although the responses of the Chinese leaders to the genocide allegations as well as the results of their meeting with Sargsyan were not publicized, Armenians are still looking forward to hearing China’s opinion on the issue as a growing influential power.

Arbor Lamy Yang also said that it would be very important for Armenians were China to speak out on the issue. If the Chinese government and the Chinese people condemn the 1915 Events as genocide, this would be of great emblematic support for Armenians and Armenia would in turn be forever grateful to China. Armenia is one of Russia’s closest allies, and also an important pillar of support for Russia in the Caucasus region. Here, while Russia supports Armenia on the one hand, it conscientiously tries to avoid offending its traditional rival Turkey on the other.

Over the past few years, China has also been strengthening its relations with Turkey as expected. At the same time, China’s influence is growing in the former Soviet Union countries. Here, another Russian-Armenian activist said that while the Caucasus region has many nationalities, the relations between which are very complicated, Armenia expects to introduce China into the Caucasus region as a balancing power.

Baihua also referred to the opinion of some Armenian activists that it would be very beneficial for China to emerge as a stabilizing force in the southern Caucasus, where Armenia is located, as the region is host to a number of potential and frozen conflicts. They have expressed hope that China will become more involved in the affairs of the South Caucasus and the Caucasus in general. They contend that a triangular relationship can be formed between Armenia, China, and Russia, especially considering that Russian-Chinese relations are experiencing a deepening phase and that Armenia is also developing its relations with China.

The Chinese media’s various reactions towards the Armenian issue

The Chinese media does not exhibit a common attitude on the Armenian issue. Some Chinese media outlets attempt to reflect both sides of the issue. For example, one source reports that “The so-called Armenian ‘genocide’ refers to a large number of Armenian deaths that occurred between 1915 and 1917 during the reign of Turkish Ottoman Empire. While Armenia considers the events as ‘genocide’, successive Turkish governments have denied that the event constitute ‘genocide’ and claimed that the number of deaths is exaggerated. Armenia has set April 24 as the day on which annual commemorations of the ‘genocide’ take place. This year marked the centenary of the events.”

Additionally, some sources attempt to refer back to history and to analyze the events from a historical perspective. Nonetheless, such sources primarily take their references from the Western media, which is often pro-Armenian in nature. There have also been some attempts in the Chinese media to draw a link between the Chinese and Armenian experiences. In this vein, some media outlets emphasize that the Armenian community is quite active in China, and that they are trying to draw sympathy from China by directing the public’s attention to the Nanjing Massacre committed by the Japanese Army during World War II.

Other sources emphasize more current geopolitical configurations, noting that Turkey supports Azerbaijan in its territorial disputes with Armenia, an alliance that caused Turkey to close its borders with Armenia in 1993. Here, these sources also refer to the fact that on October 10, 2009, in Switzerland, Turkey and Armenia signed an agreement to end hostilities and to achieve long-term normalization of bilateral relations.

Misunderstandings may be rooted in Chinese language and history

The Chinese language itself may also convolute the international understanding of China’s stance on the issue. For instance, “massacre” and “genocide” can both be translated as “da tu sha”, or “大屠杀”. For example, in “zhongzu miejue de da tu sha”, or “种族灭绝的大屠杀”, “zhongzu miejue de” indicates the degree of the “massacre” as “genocide”. Therefore, “Armenian da tu sha” can be understood as either the “Armenian Massacre” or the “Armenian Genocide”. Because the term used in the Chinese language does not convey the meaning of “deportation” most of the general Chinese population understands the literal reflection of the events as the “Armenian massacre”, despite the fact that various academic sources emphasize the “deportation” aspect of the 1915 Events, as discussed above.

Additionally, a combination of Chinese linguistic and historical factors may also influence the Chinese understanding of the 1915 Events as a result of China’s experience during World War II. During this time China experienced a violent invasion and occupation at the hands of the Japanese Army that left hundreds of thousands of Chinese dead. Therefore, when Armenians mention the “Armenian Massacre”, they are easily able to find sympathy from those Chinese that recall the “Nanjing Massacre”.

To sum up, the Armenian community is quite active in China, as is also the case in the Western world, especially compared with the relative inactivity of the Turkish community abroad. This is also supplemented by the fact that Chinese scholars and journalists often cite Western media sources in their reading of the Armenia issue. However, cognizant of the potential effects of the Armenian issue on the fragile state of Sino-Turkish relations, Chinese officials have been very cautious in their approach to the topic, often referring to Turkey’s offer to open up its archives, including military archives, for scholars and researchers to study the issue in an academic environment free from political intervention.
Source: JTW

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