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Most Israelis have very superficial knowledge of China and view it as backward and underdeveloped, Zhang Xiao'an from the Chinese embassy in Tel Aviv told reporters earlier this month at the launch of a cultural festival aimed at boosting China 's image in Israel.

Speaking before about 20 reporters at the ambassador's residence in Herzliya Pituach, she added that the events planned for the Chinese cultural month in Israel , beginning in October, will be "a great opportunity to closely experience China - both modern and ancient."

The events - marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China and the 17th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel - aim to showcase Chinese developments in education, economy, technology and especially contemporary culture.

The "Experience China in Israel " festival will feature performances by the Beijing Modern Dance Company and China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe, along with a film week and exhibitions, including one about the potentially controversial issue of minorities in China.

As noted by Zhang Xiao'an in her address, Israel was the first country in the Middle East and one of the first in the world to recognize the government of the People's Republic of China, although it was not until January 1992 that the two nations officially established diplomatic relations.

This diplomatic move in 1992, according to Professor Aron Shai, Vice-Rector of Tel Aviv University and head of the East Asian Studies department, came from the realization that China cannot serve as a mediator in the Middle East if it only engages in diplomatic relations with one party.

Since then, and especially over the past few years, China has demonstrated a balanced view of Israel, according to Shai, who called the recognition by Israel of the People's Republic of China in 1951 "a revolutionary move" undertaken despite American and Western opposition.

Shai added that the newly-emerging threat of Muslim extremism in China and the problem this poses for the Chinese authorities can serve to create a turning point in Israel 's relationship with Beijing.

An Israeli who maintains regular contacts with Chinese diplomats and businessmen observed that "Chinese officials from the embassy generally feel at ease here because the Israelis they deal with will never mention the issue of human rights violations in China."

The same source added: "Indeed, China doesn't come under much scrutiny by the public here either. In Asia and in general, Israel 's foreign ministry will voice criticism on human rights only if it has nothing or very little to lose."

The subject did not come up during the Q&A part of the press conference at the Chinese ambassador's residence.