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How China Fell In Love With Syria's First Lady

Asma al-Assad fits China's traditional, nationalist, and sexist stereotype of the 'perfect woman'. Her image has also helped distract from her husband's oppressive regime.

Photograph of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad smiling for photos in front of a group of Chinese Syria studies students

September 26, 2023, Beijing: Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad meets with Arab studies students

Syrian Presidency/ZUMA
Ru Sang

BEIJING — It was September 21 when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad arrived in Beijing on a special Air China plane and began their six-day state visit to China.

Photos of the couple getting out of the plane and walking on the red carpet became an instant hit on Chinese social media. Their brief presence during the opening ceremony of the Hangzhou Asian Games quickly became viral and a top search on Weibo.

Asma was widely praised for both her appearance and temperament. As they visited Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, local media reported that a woman tourist touched Asma's face and paid her a compliment. Asma also did an exclusive interview with Phoenix Satellite TV and visited Beijing Foreign Studies University with her children to participate in a symposium — she was warmly welcomed and her presence was highly appreciated by teachers and students alike.

During their visit, keywords such as "First Lady", "Desert Rose" and "Diana Of The Orient" trended on China's mainstream social media platforms. Asma, who has dual British and Syrian nationality, was called a "hero" who "resists American hegemony".

If you believe some social media users, Asma is unaware of the real situation of the Syrian civil war, as she is an angel of "wisdom, beauty and kindness" and "the person who has the most fans in China."

Despite all this lavish praise, however, the hyperbolic treatment of the Assad couple's "positive influence" has also drawn criticism. Some social media users, for instance, have questioned the suppressed human rights situation in Syria. Others have asked whether Asma is truly a feminist icon or just a hypocrite.

A Diplomatic Tool To Burnish Sino-Syrian relations

Asma fully understands and is dexterous at using her image to burnish Sino-Syrian diplomatic relations. She had the perfect response after being complimented for her beauty during the temple visit: "Your country is very beautiful."

On September 24, Bashar and Asma visited Xiao Gucheng Village in Hangzhou to learn about China's rural development. The pictures showed Asma interacting with villagers wearing a blue and white porcelain skirt. Her choice of clothing was a careful one, designed to exhibit her understanding of and admiration for Chinese culture.

Syria's "goodwill" towards China can be traced back to the 1950s. In 1956, Syria established diplomatic relations with China, becoming the second Arab country to do so after Egypt. However, after the Ba'ath coup in 1963, Syria began to deepen its relations with the Soviet Union, and its bonhomie with China gradually weakened.

The situation turned in 1966, when Hafez al-Assad came to power in an internal coup within the Ba'ath Party, and the Soviet Union refused to sell more weapons to Syria. Syria was subject to Soviet interference in its internal affairs and, to signal a push back, it sent a military delegation to Beijing led by Chief of Staff Mustafa Atlas.

Fearing loss of control, the Soviet Union made concessions that allowed Syria to buy military hardware. Since then, Syria has occasionally purchased arms from China and has extended symbolic support to Beijing on the international political stage. For instance, in 1971, it support China's bid to restore its legal seat in the United Nations.

It was not until Bashar al-Assad succeeded in 2000 that the relations between Syria and China really began to flourish. The Assad regime found an ally in Beijing on different regional and global platforms, especially after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.

Photograph of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and First Lady Asma al-Assad arriving at the airport in Beijing\u200b.

September 21, 2023, Beijing: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and First Lady Asma al-Assad arriving at the airport in Beijing.

Syrian Presidency/ZUMA

Why Is China Interested In Syria?

Why should China develop its relations with the Syrian regime, contrary to the attitude of the rest of the world?

First of all, with the development of China's economy, it has been striving to create an image of a peaceful agent and conflict mediator, as opposed to the United States' image as "world police" and "hegemonist". In UN public meetings, China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, rarely uses a veto and chooses to abstain more. However, according to official UN documents, China has actually cast a total of 17 negative votes, 10 of which were co-voted with Russia on the Syrian issue.

By supporting the Assad regime, China has successfully consolidated its relations with both Iran and Russia without investing a lot of resources, part of its project to counter the influence of the West, especially the US. China uses its diplomatic influence to promote the resolution of crises through dialogue, rather than the coercive military actions and sanctions commonly used in the West.

Does China, for all its nationalist zeal and love for Asma, really care about the misery of the Syrian people?

The best example of this strategy came in March this year, when China backed the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This approach can help China avoid direct involvement in conflicts and regional power struggles, profit from arms transactions, and gain access to a broader Middle East market after the gradual withdrawal of the US

Secondly, by supporting and joining forces with the Syrian regime, China can promote its anti-terrorism strategy and other key national security objectives. This is also in line with China's nationalist narrative, in which Syria is just a fighting ground for major powers and Assad is a victim of foreign forces meddling in the country's internal affairs, airbrushing the corruption and repression of the Assad regime.

In the wake of the Syrian civil war, and especially after the establishment of the Islamic State (ISIS), more and more oppressed Uyghurs went from China to Syria to participate in the jihad. At present, these people are either imprisoned in Syria, including in the Kurdish-dominated government prisons in the north, or live in opposition-controlled territory. The northern autonomous government has repeatedly requested the repatriation of armed men to their countries due to the economic crisis, but the Chinese government has rejected its pleas: Beijing can reduce internal pressure to fight terrorism by leaving these "jihadists" in Syria, and it can also counterbalance their actions by connecting with the Assad government.

This raises the question: Does China, for all its nationalist zeal and love for Asma, really care about the misery of the Syrian people?

On September 22, the two countries signed a joint statement on a strategic partnership, announcing China's support to the policies and measures adopted by the Syrian government to "maintain national security, stability and development, and oppose external forces' interference in Syria's internal affairs". China also called on "relevant countries" to lift sanctions against Syria.

Although China has repeatedly expressed its willingness to provide assistance to Syria and contribute to Syrian reconstruction, most of these efforts seem to be limited to rhetoric or small-scale projects. Not only has China never accepted Syrian refugees, it has also imposed restrictions on international aid projects run by civil organizations targeting refugees. For example, after the Turkish-Syrian earthquake in March 2023, Chinese citizens spontaneously organized rescue teams to enter Syria for assistance, but they all had to return without completing their work upon a "request" from the authorities.

Many nationalists who occupy mainstream discourse and lead the flattery of the Assad couple treat the Syrian people as merely numbers and as the butt of crude jokes. They speak ill of refugees, asking why they don't "go back to rebuild their motherland". They have also shows serious Islamophobia.

Admittedly, a section of Chinese civil society does care about the Syrian people – after the earthquake, the Syrian embassy in Beijing was full of materials donated by the Chinese people – but once again, this help did not reach the disaster area because the embassy lacked transportation capacity.

Photograph of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad being presented with Chinese heritage items.

Hangzhou, Sept. 23, 2023: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad enjoy a demonstration of cultural heritages.


The Asma Enigma

Why does a dictator and his wife hold such sway over Chinese public opinion? In the hearts of ordinary Chinese people, Syria has always been a complicated story.

The Syrian civil war is a labyrinth of internal and external forces. It is an undeniable that all the involved parties — whether government forces, opposition parties, extremist organizations, or Kurds — have controlled, suppressed, and even massacred the people under their rule after gaining relative power. However, in China's mainstream discourse, there seems to be only one truth about the Syrian civil war: treating the Assad government as the sole representative of the Syrian people, portraying it as an absolute victim of foreign intervention in internal affairs, and denying any negative behavior of the regime.

She supported her husband through the war and was by his side at the dawn of victory.

Asma's story is complex, too. Having grown up in a Syrian Kochi family that immigrated to the United Kingdom, Asma had excellent grades in school and secured a double degree in computer science and French literature from King's College London. She then worked in the investment banking departments of Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan Chase. In 2000, she was preparing for an MBA from Harvard University, but she met Bashar while on vacation at her aunt's house in Damascus, and they fell in love at first sight.

Asma gave up her studies and career and married Bashar. After abandoning her British nationality and returning to Syria, she had three children and started actively participating in public welfare as the "first lady". After the civil war, many people questioned whether she had fled Syria for overseas asylum. She immediately surfaced at public events to refute these rumors, expressed her support for her husband, and opposed Western sanctions, especially the US' interference in Syria. Even after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Asma retained her elegant appearance and enthusiasm for public welfare. She supported her husband through the war and was by his side at the dawn of victory.

Photograph of  Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad sitting in a university room, and clapping towards the stage.

September 25, 2023: Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad meets with Arab studies students at the Foreign Studies University in Beijing.

Syrian Presidency/ZUMA

The "Real" Asma

Chinese mainland media's approval of Asma reflects the traditional nationalist and sexist values that the Chinese government strives to promote and are widely accepted by many people in the country.

On one hand, Asma must be "patriotic" and must play the part of a "victim"of war, sanctions, and disease. According to Chinese public opinion, the US is the arch "enemy" and the source of all suffering in the world. Asma's identity as a woman who abandoned her British identity, returned home to help her motherland, endured war, and spoke up against Western sanctions perfectly fits the definition of "patriotism" in China. People who have received "patriotic" education since childhood are not interested in pursuing the truth; they are easily attracted by the idealised image of a woman who sacrificed herself for the good of their country.

Asma's image also helps cover up the atrocities committed by the Assad regime against the Syrian people. To be sure, the Assad couple aren't the first to have benefited from this apathy on China's part: driven by the principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", China since the Mao era has enthusiastically embraced Putin, the Taliban, Khamenei and others of their ilk for their "persistence" and "victory" against the U.S.

On the other hand, Asma is also a "good woman" in the traditional Chinese sense. Behind every successful man, there is always a great woman. Chinese media is forever keen to write about women in politics, so long as they fit the traditional mould. In recent years, they have created the image of Xi Jinping's wife Peng Liyuan as the sister or mother of the country, standing behind her great husband. Chinese media constantly praises Peng's temperament and manners when attending diplomatic forums. By using labels such as "beautiful" and "elegant", the Chinese media wants to link Asma's external beauty with her supposed inner kindness.

Meanwhile, stories of the real Asma remain lost in the streets of Syria and the hearts of the local people. Some Syrians may think that Asma has nothing to do with the massacre ordered by her husband – but her carefully crafted image has certainly functioned as a tool to accumulate the wealth that fuels the atrocities of the regime.

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