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Opinion: Twinning with China – money maker or moral maze?

Waterford and Haikou City are bonding over the racehorse industry… but should they make it official?

Joe Conway

The authorities in Hainan Province of the Peoples’ Republic of China are working at developing their racehorse industry. They plan to draw on Irish expertise and have recently visited Waterford to discuss plans to move their project forward. Are there inherent pitfalls for the Local Authority?

A LETTER OF intent apparently has been signed between Waterford and Haikou City in the Hainan Province of the People’s Republic of China which could lead to a formal twinning relationship between the two. Like the rest of Waterford’s population, I learned about this through the media – and thus to my surprise – that this was on the agenda. If we are to go down this road, then we should surely be encouraged to discuss and ruminate about such a significant departure.

From the outset, many would agree that twinning – if managed properly – can have significantly positive outcomes for the participating entities. Its history can point to a preponderance of successes between communities, cities and towns.

Twinning, or sister-city, initiative began in earnest after World War II and was generally focused on mending fences that were shattered in the then-recent conflagration. Although there is some historical evidence that such types of cooperation existed as far back as the ninth century, and some connections emerged after the Great War (1914–18), the main thrust for twinning in its various guises progressed with the expansion of the European Union and the establishment of formal structures that allotted, in 2003, a budget of €12m for projects. The initiative is further supported by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions and the Council of Europe.

Sister city agreements 

The co-operation and interchange that ensues generally from these initiatives fosters understanding and development, as well as generating cultural, linguistic, economic and academic opportunities that may well be missing from central government initiative and diplomacy. But, local and regional entities need to be ever-mindful about moral and human rights disparities between themselves and the twinning target. It can generate problems.

For example, many sister-city agreements set up by towns in Europe, the USA and Australia with cities in the former USSR are now being considered for suspension because of what is seen as homophobic legislation. It is an area that few would have foreseen when the initiatives were being hailed as progressive and positive at the outset. Which might just cause us to ponder about the wisdom of twinning with cities, towns or regions in China.

Many people in this country would have an uneasy feeling about the Chinese government’s espousal of human rights. Only this year, we have marked the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, where Chinese army tanks drove over defenceless young protesters – youngsters the same age as our own children – and, in many senses of the word, crushed them and their idealism. There is ample evidence to suggest that things have not improved much in the intervening quarter-century. The latest report [2014] by the international organisation Human Rights Watch includes the following about China:

It [China] places arbitrary curbs on expression, association, assembly, and religion; prohibits independent labour unions and human rights organizations; and maintains Party control over all judicial institutions.The government censors the press, the Internet, print publications, and academic research, and justifies human rights abuses as necessary to preserve “social stability.” It carries out involuntary population relocation and rehousing on a massive scale, and enforces highly repressive policies in ethnic minority areas in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. Though primary school enrolment and basic literacy rates are high, China’s education system discriminates against children and young people with disabilities. The government obstructs domestic and international scrutiny of its human rights record, insisting it is an attempt to destabilise the country.

It goes on to instance a litany of other breaches of human rights, significant among them the frequency of show trials and the fact that there was an estimated 4,000 State executions last year.

So, then… the uncomfortable poser arises: do you treat such regimes as untouchable political pariahs, or do you pinch your nose and engage with them?

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Such scruples did not bother another Irish group nearly one hundred years ago – the Columban Missionary Society. They, under the leadership of Corkman Edward Galvin, went to China in the 1920s and began their work to help and convert the locals, and had extraordinary success. They were not selling racehorses (as it seems we plan to) they were selling God, but the principle remains the same. Does more good come from engaging with people at the other end of the spectrum, or do we engender more good by standing aloof and pointing the finger of righteousness?

Politics is about possibilities and engagement. As a city and county here in Waterford, we have been routinely ignored by central Government for investment and inclusion. What could be wrong with us trying to redress this in some measure through commercial engagement with China? In doing so, we could also bring to bear some measure of paradiplomacy whereby our engagement would underscore some of the more salient features of human rights and democracy- weak though our own paradigm may be.

All told, it is an initiative that deserves solid support.

Cllr Joe Conway is member of Waterford City and County Council.

Opinion: The deepening relationship between Ireland and China

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Joe Conway

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