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China the Emerging Power: Prospects for Sino-Irish Relations
By Conor O'Clery, Asia Correspondent, The Irish Times

I’m a journalist, someone employed to gather news. I’m not an historian or academic, except in an amateur way. And I would certainly not call myself a sinologist. A sinologist, as you may know, is someone who can name three members of the Chinese Politburo. I’m up to about two. So this is by way of a report, rather than a dissertation. I’ve been living in Beijing for nearly four years. I am still enchanted by China and its people. My wife Zhanna and I have an apartment on the sixth floor of a building reserved for foreigners near the centre of Beijing. Western journalists are rather suspect creatures in communist China, so we are officially not allowed to live in Chinese apartment blocks. Nevertheless I have made some good Chinese friends. I have freedom to move about Beijing and travel to most parts of the country. And I’ve managed to learn quite a bit about China since I first arrived to establish the first Irish Times bureau in Asia in 1996. What have I learned? Well I’ve learned how to cycle in Beijing - I pass on the secret. Keep your head down, never stop and always avoid eye contact. If you catch someone’s eye you have to cede the space, and you are to blame if there is a crash. I’ve learned that Chinese food is incomparably better than what passes for Chinese cuisine in Dublin. I’ve learned a little bit of Chinese, enough to know that if you get the tones wrong, you can make embarrassing mistakes like calling your mother a horse. I’ve learned to ignore the way Chinese people stare at you. Actually my wife and I now find ourselves staring at foreigners. "Hey look at those fat tourists!" I’ve learned that in communist China there are very poor Chinese. There are beggars in Beijing. I’ve been to villages just an hour outside Beijing where people live on a few cents a day. I’ve also learned that there are very rich Chinese. I found myself beside a Chinese guest at an Irish embassy dinner party. I asked him what he did. He said "I’m a Ferrari dealer." I asked "What’s your interest in Ireland? He said "I’ve got a horse running in the Curragh tomorrow." Incidentally, I’ve also learned something interesting about horse racing in China. It has been infiltrated by the Irish. There is a race course just outside Beijing. If you go there any Saturday you can find Irish bred horses or Irish-Mongolian cross-breeds competing in the races. The cross-breeds are a phenomenon in world racing, horses bred to combine the speed of thoroughbred Irish stallions with the stamina of Mongolian ponies. The ideal joint venture! The first Irish stallions were brought over six years ago from Coolemore stud by a joint Hong-Kong-Chinese venture. There are now about 35 thoroughbred Irish horses racing now in China, in Beijing and Guangzhou, preparing to break into the lucrative Hong Kong racing scene. Mind you, if you want a bet, you have to remember gambling is forbidden in China and there are no bookies at China's racecourses. There is a slogan at the finishing post in Beijing which reads: "Resolutely Enforce the Central Committee's Strict Injunction against Gambling". But another thing I’ve learned in China is that there are ways round such ideological prohibitions. One can go to an race course office and place money in what is called a "horse-racing intelligence contest". Instead of a betting slip you get a "prediction voucher", and if you guess correctly you collect your winnings at "redemption counters". They can pay up to 20 to one. I’ve also learned something about how the Chinese view Ireland. Most Chinese think we are a dot on the edge of the world and that we belong to England. They think however we are a very artistic people. President Jiang Zemin told the Taoiseach in Beijing in 1998 that the Irish were a genius people. "Why," he said, "most of them seem to have won the Nobel prize for literature." Most educated Chinese have heard of James Joyce. Ulysses has been translated into Chinese, not once but twice, in competing versions. One of the translators Xiao Qian died just last year. And despite the great distance and cultural chasm between Ireland and China there are some interesting historical connections. One Irish individual in particular made quite a considerable mark on China in the 19th Century. For decades he was the most famous westerner in China. He was Robert Hart, a Northern Protestant from Portadown, Co Armagh, who was baptised in Drumcree Parish Church. Robert Hart graduated from the British diplomatic service in China to become Inspector General of the Imperial Chinese Customs during the Qing Dynasty. He did some remarkable things. He founded the Chinese lighthouse service - setting up a network of 182 light houses. He organised China’s National Post office. He negotiated international treaties on behalf of he Qing government. There was even a statue erected to Hart in Shanghai which stood until 1942 when it was destroyed by the Japanese. The inscription described him as a "True Friend of the Chinese People". Then this century there were the Irish Columban fathers, better known as the Maynooth Mission to China, stout rural Irish lads form the most part who tried to convert China to Catholicism. In 1918 the Pope gave them responsibility for converting Hanyang on the Yangtze River, an area about the size of Connacht with a population of five million. The driving force was another extraordinary Irishman, Father James Galvin from Clodha, Co Cork. He frequently complained in his letters home, not about obstruction from the Chinese authorities but about the more numerous Protestant missionaries, whose zeal, he observed, "is worthy of a better cause". He built a cathedral and set up an order of Chinese nuns. The cathedral still stands and to this day there are surviving nuns, in their 80s, who remember him. The type of mission Father Galvin led was concerned with "saving souls", which is out of fashion nowadays. Today the Columban fathers are back in China, in the form of a few Irish priests scattered around the country. But they now mostly teach English. They don’t wear clerical clothes. They don’t, or are not supposed to, proselytyse. They simply give example and bear witness to a Christian life.

In more recent times another prominent Irish figure briefly loomed large in Chinese affairs. This was Frank Aiken, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs in the late 1950s, and the action took place at the United Nations. Ireland was admitted to the United Nations in 1955 and announced it would not associate with any power bloc but would support the powers responsible for the defence of the free world. In other words it would proclaim neutrality but vote every time for the United States position. At that time Taiwan held the China seat at the United Nations and Communist China was out in the cold. Frank Aiken arrived in New York in September 1957 and announced to the horror of the Americans - and some of the Irish representatives - that Ireland would support a motion to discuss China’s admission to the UN. The Americans, assuming that a belt of the crozier would bring the Irish to heel, got a representative of New York’s Cardinal Spellman to call the Irish delegation with the message: "Tell Aiken, if he votes for Red China, we’ll raise the devil!" adding that the Cardinal would boycott an Irish reception that evening rather than accept hospitality from the supporters of communist China. The curt reply - according to Conor Cruise O’Brien, a member of the Irish delegation - was "His Eminence must do as he thinks right." Ireland voted for discussion of China’s entry to the UN, which was eventually granted. It was Ireland’s most important vote ever at the UN. Taiwan of course was not pleased. Some time later a former Taiwan ambassador to the UN met my colleague Seamus Martin, and said: "I knew your Mr Frank Aiken - Not very helpful!". Ironically the following year when the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet after a crackdown by Chinese troops, and the United States and the United Kingdom hesitated to act at the UN because of the implications for Hong Kong, it was Ireland which took the initiative to force the UN to debate the Tibet question. Again it was Frank Aiken who articulated Ireland’s position. A cartoon in the Dublin Opinion of the day illustrated the perhaps slightly exaggerated view in Ireland of Mr Aiken’s importance to the Tibetans. It showed a Tibetan on a camel conveying hot news to a nomad in the desert. According to the caption he is saying: "Then up steps your man, Frank Aiken..." Modern Ireland’s official relationship with the People’s Republic of China began on June 22nd 1979. That was the day Dublin and Beijing established diplomatic relations. The press release said: "Ireland recognises the Government of the people’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China....The two governments have agreed to develop friendly relations and cooperation on the basis of the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit including the promotion of trade." This decision to establish relations was taken against the background of two major developments. One was the decision of the United States to lead the way in legitimising the communist government. As Richard Nixon famously said in 1970: "The Chinese are a great and vital people, who should not remain isolated from the international community." (Nixon’s other famous remark about China incidentally was when he was taken to see the Great Wall and he looked at it and said, "Gee, that’s a great wall!") The second important development was China’s decision in 1978 to open up to the world and embrace capitalism. As I mentioned there are ways to get round inconvenient ideological articles of faith, like the belief in communist China that capitalism was evil. Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping managed this when he justified embracing capitalism with the words: "It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." Later he was to stimulate the Chinese economy by declaring "It is glorious to be rich," something with which the Ferrari dealer no doubt heartily agrees. Ireland, incidentally, played a small and little known role in convincing the Chinese what models to use to begin the process of attracting investment and opening up to the outside. The Chinese Government sent a small team around the world to see how special economic zones worked. One of its members was Jiang Zemin, now President of China. The place that apparently impressed them the most was the Shannon industrial duty-free zone. I’m told they were also very impressed with the informality of their Irish hosts, who took them to Durty Nellies pub afterwards for a sing-song - which may explain the warmth with which the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was greeted by President Jiang in Beijing in 1998. The Chinese government subsequently opened four special economic zones in 1980 on the Shannon model, which were extremely successful in attracting foreign investment, stimulating trade and invigorating growth. There are now more than 9,000 such zones all over the country. In the two decades since opening up China’s economic performance has been nothing short of spectacular. Real growth has averaged 8 per cent a year for the last 20 years, lifting 200 million people out of absolute poverty. Just the other day the important East Asia Institute in Singapore forecast that China can expect economic growth of seven per cent for the next three years, and that it had got out of the economic decline caused by the recent Asian Economic Crisis. By the way the Asia crisis is now well and truly over. The lesson it has taught me is that the experts can sometimes get it very wrong. Almost no one saw it coming. I remember the collapse started just as a triumphal book about the Asian tiger economies appeared, called ‘Asia Rising’. There was another one called ‘Asian Renaissance’. Talk about bad timing. Inevitably last year a new book came out called ‘Asia Falling’ with equally bad timing. No sooner did it appear than the Asian economies began rising fast again. China is now the most favoured nation for direct foreign investment in developing countries. More than 200 of the Fortune 500 multinational companies have set up ventures in China. China has also benefited by help from its extraordinary diaspora. Chinese people abroad form a unique resource for China, and account for four fifths of all inward investment. There are 50 million Chinese in Asia living outside mainland China. The economy of the overseas Chinese is reckoned to be the third largest in the world, after the United States and Japan. This supportive diaspora, along with relative stability, a disciplined labour force and a remarkably high savings rate has helped China to make its reforms a success. China is now the world’s tenth largest exporting country. It has the seventh largest gross national product in the world. It has the second largest foreign currency reserves in the world, after Japan. The reforms are now irreversible, a point made time and again by President Jiang Zemin. At this crucial period on Chinese history the management of the reform programme has been given to the country’s most able and dynamic reformer, Premier Zhu Rongji, who took over the handling of the economy from Li Peng two years ago and is now engaged in a major battle to root out high-level corruption. [I don’t know if you noticed but I’ve now named three members of the Chinese Politburo!]. As a result of these reforms the private sector is growing fast. China now has 1.49 million private firms employing some 19 million people, according to Chinese statistics, and 31.6 million individual small traders employing another 83 million people. They are proving vital to the Chinese economy. China's private firms absorbed nearly 1.5 million workers laid off by bankrupt state enterprises last year. Mind you, private companies have up to now been severely hampered in China because of red tape and the reluctance of state banks to make loans to finance their expansion, but the government now promises to "actively guide and encourage private investment". China amended its constitution last spring to upgrade the dynamic private sector from a "complement" of the socialist market economy to an "important component". And just recently a senior government official said that private enterprise should enjoy equal opportunity in China. This raises the prospect of a level playing field for entrepreneurs for the first time in half a century. One might venture to say now, not only does it not matter if the cat is black or white, it doesn’t matter who owns the cat. China is at this time preparing to enter the World Trade Organisation, the WTO. As a consequence access for trade will be more certain for other countries. China will allow 50 per cent ownership of major state enterprises like telecoms - a huge concession for a communist government - and drastically cut state tariffs on imported goods like foreign automobiles, which are currently unaffordable in China. One should not however overestimate the Chinese market, simply because it is so big - as did the Lancashire cotton mill owners of the last century, who convinced themselves that if the Chinese could be persuaded to lengthen their shirt tails by an inch the mills would be able to work at full production for ever. China does have a big market potential - 1.25 billion people and counting. But there are not all about to rush out and buy consumer goods. The vast majority of Chinese still have modest incomes by western standards. China is actually two countries. There is a rich coastal strip and a vast poor interior. Urban residents of this gold coast have an income of more than 500 dollars a month but 900 million peasants still live off the land as their ancestors have done for centuries, and their average monthly income is less than 200 dollars a month. And, according to the World Bank, some 300 million rural people still live below the poverty line of a dollar a day. The transformation of China from a communist to a capitalist society presents the leadership in Beijing with immense challenges. There is a famous line in the classic Chinese novel ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ - da you da de nan chu - the bigger it is the bigger the problems. China is now in the throes of two transitions: from a command economy to a market based one, and from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one. This is without historical precedent. The great task of making the state sector fall in with capitalist reforms remains unfinished. The process has been particularly painful for the big state industries, most of which rely on subsidies to stay afloat. As many as fifty per cent of the country’s 300,000 state enterprises are believed to be bankrupt. It is easy to see why. Without competition they have not modernised. They have traditionally supported huge numbers of employees to whom they provide a wide range of social services, including houses and medical care. Tens of millions of workers have been laid off as subsidies have been withdrawn. Other big enterprises cannot pay wages or pensions. This has led to considerable social tensions. The banks which traditionally supported them are over-extended with non-performing loans. The economy is plagued by over production and under consumption. Another, perhaps the biggest challenge facing the government is corruption. Corruption is rampant, as the recent massive scandal in the southern port of Xiamen illustrates. In Xiamen a team of ‘graft-busters’ - modeled on Eliot Ness and the ‘untouchables’ of 1920s Chicago - has implicated 150 senior officials in their investigation, some of whom have fled abroad. Premier Zhu is said to spend half of every day studying papers related to the case. But given all these problems, the World Bank forecasts that if China continues with its economic reforms, it will become a middle-income country by the year 2020. It will have a per capita income equal to that of Portugal, and will rank as the second-largest trading nation in the world. In 20 years its consumers may have a purchasing power larger than all of Europe.

I’ve been throwing a lot of statistics at you. It’s a Chinese disease. They love statistics. Let me give you some personal examples, from a consumer point of view, to illustrate the fast pace of change in modern Chinese cities. Before I came to China I read an internal paper prepared by the Irish embassy in Beijing on shortages and conditions Irish nationals could expect coming to live in China. It was dated June 1994, It warned that certain things were not available in China. It listed - most important things first - Irish whiskey (except Jamesons), Cork Dry Gin, Baileys Irish Cream and Irish Mist. It also listed, J-cloths, Brillo pads, Jiff, Pledge, wax polish, washing machine powder, dishwashing liquid, baby foods, milk formulae and disposable nappies. It noted that ginger, chili and fresh garlic were readily available but advised diplomats to bring with them adequate stocks of thyme, tarragon, sage, oregano, Italian seasoning and basil. This tells us as much about embassy cuisine as it does about Chinese shortages. The paper recommended that diplomats stock up at Musgraves Cash and Carry in Ballymun before heading off to China, and that if they got sick there to leave Beijing and go to Hong Kong. Much of that advice was still relevant when I arrived in 1996. But not any more. Everything one needs for everyday life is now available, at least in the big cities. There are well-stocked supermarkets and pharmacies, many of which opened in the last couple of years. Not so long ago cabbage was the main, for some the only, winter vegetable. Now there are overflowing fruit and vegetable stalls in street markets right through the winter. There are computer shops and designer stores and shopping malls. There is even an Ikea store in Beijing now. And two Irish pubs have opened in the Chinese capital, one called O’Reilly’s. It is the first establishment an immigrant labourer sees when arriving in Beijing by train. The other is called Durty Nellies, where Chinese customers can contemplate portraits of Michael Collins and Oscar Wilde over a pint of Guinness. There are now also a number of modern International Medical Centre in the big cities, one in Beijing run by Dr Seamus Ryan from Athy. Just in the last six months the first automated teller machines have appeared on the streets, from which I can draw money from my Irish bank account. Every time I returned home I used to buy a dozen packs of Bewley’s coffee. Now there is are Starbuck’s coffee shops in the shopping malls. When I saw the first Starbuck’s going up near the Friendship Store (Anyone here who has been to China will know where that is) I thought - I’ll never go there - it will just be full of foreign tourists. Actually I’m now a regular. It’s become something of a common room for journalists and a meeting place for yuppie Chinese. The only problem is hearing yourself over the noise of mobile phones. And talking of mobile telephone. The number of mobile telephone service subscribers in China rose by 18 million last year to 43 million. China is also getting wired up. The number of users connected to the Internet rose from 2 to 7 million in the last year. There are Internet cafes everywhere - even one in Lhasa in Tibet. These new enterprises and services are not just aimed at the large foreign community in China but at the new emerging Chinese middle class. The dynamism in the Chinese economy is evident to anyone visiting Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou. The skyline in these cities has been transformed. Some parts of Beijing have become almost overnight like Manhattan - I’ve seen it from my apartment window - with skyscrapers, new office blocks, big modern hotels. What has Ireland’s response been to this global economic phenomenon? The level of engagement since relations were established in 1978 has in fact been largely token and lethargic compared to similar European economies. In China, of all countries, there has to be a productive partnership between private sector business people seeking opportunities and their diplomatic representatives. This is because the Chinese authorities retain a significant role in determining access to market and deciding the rules of trade and choice of partners in joint ventures. But I found when I arrived in China that the Irish embassy was run by a man and a dog, or to be more precise, three diplomats and one Irish trade board executive - and he was based most of the time in Hong Kong. In the tradition of make do with less, Ireland had devoted less resources to China than countries like Lesotho and Croatia. Ireland almost alone in the EU had no representation at all in Shanghai, one of the world’s biggest and fastest growing cities. Let me give you some idea of the level of resources devoted to China by other EU economies. Finland has 10 trade and diplomatic officials, Belgium 11 and the Netherlands 12, and that’s pretty typical. They have trade officials touring China all the time. New Zealand, by the way, maintains a presence of 10 diplomats and trade officials in Beijing, though it has an economy smaller than Ireland’s. You might argue New Zealand is in China’s half of the world. Actually I took out a ruler one day and found on the map that its just as far from Wellington to Beijing as it is from Dublin to Beijing. It’s also true that in today’s contracting global economy distance matters less and less. The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, visited Beijing and other Asian cities in September 1998 and saw for himself how scant were the national resources devoted to China - and indeed all of Asia. When he returned to Dublin he set up an Asia strategy group to look at ways of improving and promoting Irish interests in this long-neglected region. It recommended that the government establish a long-term strategic policy framework to develop foreign earnings in Asia, focusing on China and Japan. It recommended that additional resources be made available to "build up market place presence in the political and commercial area" that is, to let Asian people know where Ireland is on the map, and provide information on the growth of the Irish economy and the potential to do business. As a result of the new strategy, Enterprise Ireland offices have been opened in Beijing and Shanghai, an extra senior diplomat is being sent to Beijing, and a consulate is to open in Shanghai. Also a new embassy will open in Singapore. Ireland still lags behind its EU rivals but at least the disparity was recognised. The exercise did not focus however on two shortcomings in the Irish foreign service approach to the world in general, and which affect China in particular. One: there is little continuity in diplomatic links. If a Russian diplomat for example is sent to China he spends much of his working life in related postings there or at home, building up contacts, maintaining friendships. Two: there is no proper provision or time off for language training. Other countries diplomats posted to China - from Australia for example - get two years off to learn Chinese. Irish officials have to cope as best they can, but they cannot achieve the same level of access, knowledge and contacts without the language, or penetrate the Chinese patterns of thought and cultural mores and its business etiquette. Hopefully this situation will change, especially with the establishment of the Asia Studies Centre in ize="3">Ireland at UCD. Trade between Ireland and China fared little better until recently. Up to 1997 China ranked a lowly ninth among Asian countries for Irish exports. But that too is changing. There are now some 80 Irish companies doing business in China, of which Smurfits is the biggest. In Beijing an active Irish Business Network has been operating for the past two years. There are incidentally 100 Irish people living in Beijing known to the embassy, and I keep coming across interesting Irish people in other spheres, working in multinational companies, in financial services, in hotel management, not just in Beijing but all over China. In Macau, Asia’s only dog racing track is partly run by an Irishman from south Armagh. In the last three years Irish exports to China have climbed from 34 million pounds in 1997, to 59 million in 1998, and an estimated 87 million pounds last year. Imports from China are running at 400 million pounds, so there is quite a big trade gap. China for its part is taking note of Ireland’s tiger status. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade recently sent its first - and very successful - trade mission to Ireland representing 10 state and private companies. One Chinese company, on the spot, bought 5 million pounds worth of Irish greasy wool - 60 per cent of the country’s free market production. That single deal increased our exports to China by 6 per cent. There are several areas where Irish trade and business links with China are set to flourish, for example in education services, electronics, software and construction services. As the banking and insurance industries in China modernise with entry to the WTO, there are new opportunities for software and high technology companies. In this respect I came across a couple of examples in China of an interesting trend in Irish enterprise. As you know it is common for foreign companies to use Ireland as a base from which to do business with third countries. Now at least two Irish companies are using their overseas operations to set up shop in China. The computer data company Eurologic is investing in China through its Silicon Valley branch, and CBT, Computer Based Training, has come to China through its Australia operation. The phrase "Irish multinational" is no longer an oxymoron. Education is a big area of potential growth for Ireland. Already 2,000 Chinese students study in Ireland, up from a couple of hundred four years ago. Most are here to learn English. The thousands of foreign students of all nationalities in Ireland learning English already generate 150 million pounds for the economy. There is now a big increase in China in the number of students seeking third level education abroad, especially in English-speaking countries - as English is the business language of China. This is partly due to the growing Chinese economy and the terrific competition for jobs in business and information technology. It is also due to the one-child generation coming of university age. The one child - the little emperor - is now a strapping teenager and all the family resources are going to his or her education. Incidentally China is going through a profound demographic transition due to its one child policy. The growth of the labour force is slowing. Today there are ten people of working age for every pensioner: by 2020 there will be six; by 2050 there will be only three. Because of this I think you will see a relaxation in the policy in the coming years. The UK is already cashing in on the explosion in the number of Chinese students willing and able to afford an education abroad. The number of privately-funded Chinese students coming mainly to higher education in Britain has doubled every year for the last three years and now totals 8,000. This brings in considerable income. Each student is reckoned to be worth 10-15,000 pounds a year to the economy in fees and living costs. It is worth noting that the UK has 70 full time staff in the British Council in China which looks after recruitment of students. Ireland has no such operation. However later this month the first ever mission representing almost all major Irish colleges and universities, including UCD, will visit China, to begin serious recruiting to Irish third level colleges. It is important for other reasons that Chinese students come to Ireland and - the next stage - Irish students go to China. That way future business contacts and relationships are built up. This is crucial in a country like China where guanxi, or good contacts, are everything, and a trusting handshake is sometimes more binding than a written contract.

[If I could digress and point out that one of the reasons for the excellent relations between Ireland and Malaysia, on all levels, is the fact that so many Malaysians have studied in Ireland. Wan Azizah Ismail, the Moslem wife of the imprisoned deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, trained as an eye surgeon for six years in the Dublin College of Surgeons. It certainly helped when I asked for an interview. She wanted to know all the gossip about the tribunals in Dublin. She showed me her college yearbook. Someone wrote in it, "You will always be remembered on the Dublin buses as the friendly nun who didn’t bless herself going past churches." I asked her how she coped with being mistaken for a nun and she replied "I just said - bless you my child". She also told me something I didn’t know - that the Irish had a harp for a symbol because they were always pulling strings.]

The importance of contacts applies equally at government level. Another recommendation of the Asia strategy group was that there should be a programme of ministerial visits to China. I found when I arrived in Beijing in 1996 that there had not been a single ministerial visit to China for three years - while other European countries were averaging four or five a year. To illustrate the lack of engagement between the two countries, let me tell you a story. Since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, all EU countries had annually censured China at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. In 1997 the Chinese realised that several European countries, including Ireland, were going to continue censuring it over human rights at the UN Human Rights commission in Geneva, while France and Germany would opt for dialogue instead, as China wanted. Beijing decided to take action against the offending countries. It canceled a big trade mission from Denmark for example. But how to punish Ireland? There were no ministerial visits planned, or big contracts that they could cancel. Well just before the vote, China called in the Irish ambassador and told him that Ireland could expect a visit from Premier Zhu Rongji. This was a very big deal indeed. There had never been such a visit before. Then after the vote, they said - Hey, we’re canceling it, as a protest. It may have been coincidence. I wonder to this day did they set the visit up just to knock it down. Chinese diplomacy is highly skilled. Despite the recommendation that there should be a programme of ministerial visits to Beijing, nothing has yet changed. No full minister has been to China since the Taoiseach in 1998, and no ministerial visits are planned for the year 2000 that I know of. Ireland’s relations with China are of course not just one-to-one. The European Union takes the lead on such issues as membership of the World Trade Organisation and human rights. Its main objective, which Ireland shares, is for China to be integrated rapidly and fully into the international community, both politically and economically. In 1998 the EU decided collectively not to censure China at the annual UN Human Rights session, as it had done since 1989, but instead to give dialogue rather than confrontation a chance. Dialogue of course means that the issue does not interfere with trade, as its critics have pointed out. That year the first EU-China summit was held, aimed at forming a "comprehensive partnership" with China, noting, hopefully, China’s plans to move towards democracy by introduce free elections at village level and working towards a law-based society. The move towards democracy in China is however, in my view, hampered by the great fear of instability among the Chinese. There is a sort of unwritten contract between the communist government and the people. This says that the people are free to do more or less what they like to make money and have a better life, so long as they do not challenge the ruling party on political, social or religious issues. Anyone who does will be dealt with very harshly." It may therefore take decades for the rule of law to established a firm foothold in China. The reason is not the lack of laws, but inadequate will and enforcement. The Taoiseach, when he came to China, suggested that dialogue had "the potential to yield very positive results" Ireland’s contribution to the human rights dialogue has been to send four High Court judges to China to give a series of seminars on the workings of a society based on the rule-of-law, and last year four Chinese High Court judges visited Ireland, all at Irish taxpayer’s expense. This gives Ireland a direct interest in progress on human rights in China. The human rights issue can intrude on Ireland-China relations in unexpected ways. Three Chinese students studying in Ireland have been prevented from returning after the New Year break because of their activities as members of the Falun Gong movement. Falun Gong is a meditation and breathing discipline which includes elements of Buddhism and Taoism and whose leaders claims spiritual healing powers. Since its organisers staged the biggest demonstration in Beijing since Tiananmen Square in 1989, it has been banned by China as an evil cult, responsible for the deaths of people who refused conventional medicine. One of the three students is in detention and the other two are under house arrest, including Zhao Ming, a postgraduate student in the Computer Science Department, Trinity College, who is the subject of a student campaign at Trinity to allow his return. This year the United States is proposing to censure China over human rights when the UN Commission on Human Rights holds its annual meeting in Geneva next month. The resolution claims that the human rights situation in China is deteriorating, with further suppression of organised political dissent and of the imposition of harsh controls on religion and spiritual and ethnic movements. Amnesty International has accused China of a range of human rights abuses from a high number of executions to the torture of Falun Gong members, and is urging the EU to move beyond "dialogue" and censure China, arguing that a "weak and divided response from the international community" will allow Beijing "to act with virtual impunity." The European Parliament last month called on the European Commission to "continue to exert pressure on China to improve her human rights record in accordance with international standards" and "to make clear to the Chinese Government that progress in EU-China relations, including China's WTO accession, is linked to such an improvement." The EU however is almost certain not to support America. Quite simply because it cannot achieve consensus. France and Germany will not go along with any proposal to censure China. Ireland cannot break ranks as it did in 1996 and support the motion, as the EU no longer allows individual member states to co-sponsor non-EU proposals. So in this respect our foreign policy on China is determined for us by the EU. Which is quite convenient to say the least, as it avoids Dublin taking a principled decision which could damage Irish-Chinese growing relations. Incidentally the fact that Ireland is not part of NATO didn’t save the Irish embassy from getting a pasting from angry students after the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade - but that was simply because of its unfortunate location right beside the American embassy, and the stones which shattered the Irish embassy windows were clearly meant for the Americans. Ireland’s neutral status did however help me personally. I was able to mingle with the anti-NATO crowds stoning the British and American embassies, though I grew hoarse explaining that I was Irish and that Ireland is not in NATO. The whole incident coincidentally helped Irish-US relations. During the four-day siege of the American embassy, the US ambassador and 20 of his staff were holed up inside, and they made much afterwards about living on marine rations. But I can reveal to you that all that time Deirdre Hayes, wife of Irish ambassador Joe Hayes, was quietly passing over the garden wall an assortment of comfort foods, from Indian curries to chocolate doughnuts. China’s relations with the United States have improved since the NATO incident though the question of Taiwan could prove the biggest source of instability in US-Chinese relations and in Asia itself in the coming months, especially if the US Congress passes into law a bill already passed by the House of Representatives authorising closer military ties with Taiwan. Every world leader who comes to China, including Bertie Ahern, is told that reunification with Taiwan is the number one priority for the Chinese government, especially now that Hong Kong and Macau have returned to the motherland under the one country-two systems policy. Taiwan will not however consider reunification under any formula with an undemocratic China. Beijing for its part has threatened to invade Taiwan if it declares independence. A very tense period is coming up with presidential elections in Taiwan next month. You may remember that during the last presidential elections in Taiwan in 1996, China fired missiles into the Taiwan Straits and the US sent two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the scene. Beijing is building up its military power and by the year 2020 may be able to challenge the strategic role of the United States which has helped keep the peace in the Asia-Pacific. Many analysts say that the Taiwan issue will remain a source of potential conflict which will only be resolved peacefully if and when China become a multi-party democracy. On a final international note - Ireland may soon join China on the UN Security Council where the two countries will be working together on UN issues. I’ve already come across a small instance of Chinese-Irish cooperation on the international stage which may amuse you. If you go to East Timor you will find that a dozen policemen from the People’s Republic of China are today patrolling the capital Dili in UN uniform. You will also find that they are responsible to the UN-appointed governor of Dili - who is called John Ryan and comes from Rathgar.

I’d like to close by saying how grateful I am to the Irish Times for giving me the opportunity to live and work in China - by opening the first ever Irish media bureau in Beijing in 1997 my newspaper established another important link between the two countries. You all know the phrase: "May you live in interesting times". To the Chinese it is a curse. To a journalist it means a very exciting life. These are exciting and interesting times to live and work in Asia. Some say it is the dawning of the Asia century. I agree. As Ireland expands its horizons in this ever-contracting world, there is a great need for a focus of study of Asia, its language, its culture, its politics, its economies. This can only enrich Ireland and its relations with the world’s future superpowers. As Confucius said: "By nature men are pretty much alike, it is their learning and practices that distinguish them." I therefore wish the Centre for Asian Studies every success.

 

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Copyright Centre for Asian Studies, U.C.D. 2000