Ruadhán Mac Cormaic: At the Brexit crossroads, go east
Government’s Brexit message differs in subtle but important ways depending on audience
Guangdong Communist Party secretary Hu Chunhua. One of the most influential people you’ve never heard of spent three days in Ireland last week. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.
It went largely unnoticed, but last week one of the most influential people you’ve never heard of spent three days in Ireland. Between visits to Israel and the United Kingdom, Hu Chunhua, a low-key 54-year-old official in the Chinese Communist Party, asked for a stop-off in the Republic, where he met Government Ministers and business leaders and toured a farm in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare.
Hu’s star is on the rise at home. As party secretary of Guangdong, a province with a population of 106 million in China’s booming southeast, he presides over a region whose GDP of $1 trillion makes it a global trading centre, a national economic powerhouse and a laboratory for many of the changes taking place in Chinese society. Hu attained that position after a rapid rise through the party ranks, where his stellar academic record – he came first in the country in the university matriculation exam in 1979 – unassuming manner and rural background marked him out from early on. Hu, who comes from a farming family in the rural province of Hubei in central China, is emblematic of a younger group of party officials of modest backgrounds who stand apart from the polished and predominantly urban “princelings” descended from former revolutionary leaders.
Hu became a member of the Politburo in 2012, the same year he was made Guangdong party chief, and is expected to be appointed to the seven-man Standing Committee at the party’s national congress later this year. He is even tipped as a contender for the presidency.
In coming to Ireland, Hu was following a well-worn path. Jiang Zemin, who would go on to become president, visited Shannon in 1980 to study the Shannon Free Zone – a model that was later adopted across China. Xi Jinping, the current head of state, visited Ireland in 2003, when he was party secretary of Zhejiang province, and again as vice-premier in 2012, shortly before he ascended to China’s highest office.
But Hu’s visit last week took place in a very different context. Brexit hardly impacts China in the same way as it does Ireland, but Beijing is concerned nonetheless. Its leaders see the European Union as a force for stability in the world, and they worry about the implications for trade in general and the future of large Chinese corporations in the UK in particular (there are 1,000 companies in the UK from Guangdong alone).
It’s an open secret that the Government’s message on Brexit differs in subtle but important ways depending on the audience. At home and at EU level, the focus is on the serious and potentially disastrous consequences for the island, specifically on trade, the Border and the peace process. In Asia and elsewhere, however, the incorrigible optimists of the IDA and other agencies are more inclined to frame Brexit as an opportunity for Ireland, which they argue is well placed, given its location, languages and common law system, to attract more investment, tourists and foreign students as Britain withdraws into the periphery.
It will have been lost on nobody that Hu was accompanied last week by 250 officials and business leaders, including many multinational executives. One of the open questions is whether Chinese firms will pull out of the UK and, if so, where they might go instead.
As it happens, Ireland is focusing its attention on China like never before. At the heart of the Government’s trade strategy is the need to diversify, towards Asia in particular. The Irish Embassy in Beijing has doubled in size in the past year and is now the State’s third-largest bilateral mission, while the Irish agencies in the country have pioneered collaborative structures that have since been emulated elsewhere.
luma infant formula, which is produced at a Wyeth plant employing 600 people in Askeaton, Co Limerick, has 8 per cent of the national market in China
The results are already showing. Between 2013 and 2015, trade in goods and services between the two countries jumped from €7 billion to €11.1 billion. Food and drink exports from Ireland to China trebled in the three years to 2015, and China is now Ireland’s third agrifood market. Iluma infant formula, which is produced at a Wyeth plant employing 600 people in Askeaton, Co Limerick, has 8 per cent of the national market in China.
By European standards these figures are striking. Ireland’s trade with China is growing faster than trade between China and any other EU state, and Ireland is one of only three EU countries that have a trade surplus from the relationship.
Two big projects dominate the current Sino-Irish agenda. First, Dublin hopes to get the green light soon for a resumption of beef exports, which were suspended from the whole of the EU 17 years ago over mad cow disease. In 2015, Ireland became the first EU country for which the Chinese lifted their ban, and the Government hopes the technical work to allow for shipments to resume will be completed later this year. The second project is a direct flight between the two countries. It is understood one airline has applied for a licence for the route and hopes to begin the service in the next six months.
The Chinese example is telling. While the Government gnashes its teeth about Brexit at home, further afield it is quietly positioning itself to reap whatever windfall the upheaval may bring.