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Tensions, taunts and how trade is at the heart of it all: What we learned about Ireland and China’s relationship

For the past few weeks, The Good Information Project has been looking at the future of Ireland’s relationship with China.

OVER THE LAST month, we set out to take a factual look at Ireland and the EU’s relationship with China as part of The Good Information Project. 

Much of what is written about China can be agenda-driven and opinion-based, rather than informative or journalistic, so we wanted to bring clarity and information to the fore, guided by what readers wanted to know. 

Up until recently, Ireland’s relationship with China was mostly seen through the lens of trade and investment, particularly as those in power in Ireland have been keen to cash in on the booming Chinese economy.

In 2020, Ireland had a trade surplus with China of over €3.5 billion after exporting over €10.5 billion worth of goods to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — an 18% increase on the previous year — despite the challenges of the pandemic.

However, the ongoing detention of Irishman Richard O’Halloran in Shanghai and the recent not-exactly-unforced departure of Irish journalists has cast a major shadow on the two countries’ so-called ‘mutually beneficial relationship’.

So to start with, we wanted to gauge the Irish public’s opinion of the Chinese government to see how it compared to other western democracies, many of which had reported a decrease in favorability toward the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Teaming up with Ireland Thinks, we found that some 84% of people surveyed said they either distrust or strongly distrust the Chinese government. It should be noted that other foreign governments didn’t fare so well either – distrust of the British government was at 65% while the US came in at 35%.

When asked what word they would use to describe the rise of China, four of the top five most common words associated with this development were: “Worrying”, “Scary”, “Dangerous”, and “Frightening”. Given this perceived distrust, we thought it all the more important to take a deeper look at understanding Ireland and China’s relationship.

(Business) ties that bind

One of the most common queries readers posed was in relation to China’s footprint in Ireland and how big that foot is exactly.

In 2019, foreign direct investment by Chinese companies in Ireland soared by 56% at a time when Chinese interest in the UK, the US and Europe seemed to be waning. Since 2012, Ireland has become a top destination for high net-worth Chinese investors and their families to live, work and study in. A plethora of Chinese-owned companies have set up in Ireland in recent years, the result of a concerted effort by the government and the IDA.

My colleague Ian Curran found that Ireland’s ties with Chinese companies and investors have strengthened significantly in the past decade, but this has been the case across the board given the country was flooded with international capital since the crash.

One area which has seen substantial interest from individual Chinese investors in Irish property is in the area of social housing. That’s mainly because Ireland operates something called the Immigrant Investor Programme, an initiative that allows investors from non-European Economic Area countries to obtain visas to study, work and live in Ireland. We’re not an outlier when it comes to the programme though, similar systems are operating in several other nations.

When it comes to exports then, China has become an increasingly lucrative market for Ireland in recent years. Last year, Ireland exported over €10.5 billion worth of goods to China (including Hong Kong and Macau) – making China Ireland’s sixth-largest export market and the third-largest outside the European Union, behind only the US and the UK.

Machinery and transport equipment made up the majority of exports (€6.8 billion). Meanwhile, agricultural and live animal exports were worth €810 million, down slightly due to public health restrictions in China over a reported case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) here – putting plans for ramped up beef exports to China firmly on the back burner for now.

The trade war between Australia and China is often flagged as a warning to other nations looking to increase trade with the PRC. Many asked if Irish exporters were to become heavily reliant on the Chinese market, in the way that many Australian producers already are, what’s to stop the PRC from using that as extra leverage to squash criticism of its human rights record as we’ve seen happen down under.

As Anthony Moore SC points out, China has used its commercial muscle to silence those who seek to scrutinise and expose its human rights abuses. He writes that Ireland is vulnerable to Chinese economic coercion aimed at silencing any criticism of China on human rights grounds.

Given that China’s role in the world economy is only set to grow, perhaps there’s no getting away from the pressing economic need to do business there. But CJ McKinney found that the Australian case study is less of a dire warning than it first appears:

“The Australian lesson is that EU governments need to have more confidence in the strength of their position, rather than constantly worrying about what China might do in response to, say, criticism of human rights record.”

The other lesson from the trade war is for companies and countries not to place all their eggs into one basket – no matter how much money is involved.

The biggest issue

China’s record on human rights was, unsurprisingly, also something raised a lot by readers, usually in conjunction with Ireland needing to take a greater stand (so far the country has been careful not to rock any boats).

The UN Security Council seat that Ireland landed last year – on the back of a campaign championing human rights – is often regarded as our biggest chance to flex our muscles on the world stage.

The dynamics at the council are tricky given there are five permanent members who have the power to veto UNSC resolutions they don’t agree with – China being one of them.

China has increasingly used the veto to block draft resolutions and action on human rights abuses as part of a broader strategy to shift the narrative away from a focus on individual human rights to one which emphasises the sovereign rights of states to pursue their national interests – this is in line with China’s position on meddling in internal affairs

From Ireland’s perspective, making a meaningful impact on human rights at the Security Council will require walking a fine line between calling out human rights abuses in China and pursuing creative diplomatic solutions, given China’s tendency to disengage entirely when criticised openly on its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, for example.

All eyes will be on Ireland when it takes over the presidency of the council this September – our chance to  shape the Council’s official agenda

Abuse

As we’ve seen, criticism of China is oftentimes warranted, but how we talk about the actions of the Chinese government can have serious implications.

Racist abuse towards ethnic Asians has swelled globally since the onset of the pandemic, and the racist phenomenon has impacted Asian communities here in Ireland. Chinese and ‘Other Asians’ reported 32% of incidents to the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR) -  though many are believed to have gone unreported.

Similar to the global increase of Asian hate, the language linking Chinese identity/nationality to Covid-19 has been a catalyst for hate crimes against Ireland’s ethnic Asian communities. Data from INAR shows how toxic discourse online can build up and spill over into real-life violent incidents.

An estimated 60,000 people who identify as being ethnically Chinese are living in Ireland, following a long history of migration, starting back as far as the late 1950s. While still a small percentage of the population(o.4%), the community is plenty diverse – based on their historical and socio-economic backgrounds, for example.

The 2003 Irish language short film Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom is a part of the cultural shorthand of Ireland due to its prevalence in primary and secondary schools but the film also doubles as a migrant tale (of sorts).

We spoke with the lead actor Diyu Wu about landing the role aged 16 due to the lack of Chinese actors who could speak in Irish at the time, the film’s legacy, his own family’s story of migration, and the importance of his Irish-Chinese identity (he’s still speaking Irish and regularly promotes it).

During this cycle of the Good Information Project, we also heard from Dr Zhouxiang Lu who gave an insight into one side of traditional Chinese culture – Kung Fu

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And to get a better understanding of modern China, we broke down data on nearly one-fifth of the world’s population

Looking ahead at what the future holds for Irish-Chinese relations, it raises the question of who’s getting to tell that story. 

As ties between Dublin and Beijing continue to strengthen, Irish audiences won’t get the full story while press freedom is not guaranteed for our correspondents.

To get a greater understanding of Irish-Sino relations, and China in general, we need greater Irish media representation on the ground in the PRC. 

As journalist Yvonne Murray put it:  “There are 1.4 billion people in China – there are as many human stories to be told as there are political runes to be read and it’s very hard to do any of that from a distance.

“We lose the nuance and the human connection and we are all the poorer for it.”

About the author:

Adam Daly

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