He Xiangdong: ‘We hope Ireland will be a bridge between China and the EU’
The Chinese ambassador on Uighur ‘camps’, Huawei, Trump’s trade war and buying Irish beef
He Xiangdong, China’s ambassador to Ireland, and Irish Times journalist Colm Keena at the ambassador’s residence in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
“Personally,” says the Chinese ambassador to Ireland, He Xiangdong, “I do not accept the word ‘camps’, because it will remind people of the camps at the time of Nazi Germany.”
We are sitting in the front room of the his luxurious detached residence in Ballsbridge, Dublin, for an interview to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and China, and the 70th anniversary of the coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party.
The ambassador prefers the phrase “educational and vocational training centres” for the facilities in the Xinjiang region of China where, international observers believe, up to 10 per cent of the 10 million-strong Uighur population are currently being held.
“The purpose of it is to tackle the issue of religious extremism and radicalism,” the ambassador says.
He can’t confirm how many of the predominantly Muslim Uighur population are in the facilities, but does say that some try to “exaggerate” the numbers involved.
China’s treatment of the Uighurs forms part of a wider conversation about whether China will have to liberalise its political culture as its importance in the global economy continues to grow.
“I think all of us need to understand each other more,” he says, as the world gets “smaller and smaller and all countries get closer and closer”. It can’t be “you accept all of my ideas, or I totally accept all of yours”.
The ambassador’s redbrick residence on Raglan Road featured prominently in a 2013 High Court case where businessman Denis O’Brien successfully argued that it was not his permanent residence in the 2000/01 period.
The decision meant that, based on his being resident for tax purposes in Portugal during the period, he avoided capital gains tax on the profit he made from the sale of Esat Telecom. It reportedly saved him approximately €57 million.
Among the arguments made in the case was that the house was unusable during the period, because of renovation work that was being carried out.
Now rented out by an O’Brien-owned company, with the Chinese ambassador as its tenant, the house, with cream walls, heavy curtains and Chinese art on the walls, is a fitting residence for an ambassador representing the world’s second-largest economy.
In 1979, when Ireland and China opened diplomatic relations, bilateral trade totalled $5 million (€4.5 million), says He, a Wuhan University economics graduate. “In 2015, the figure was $7 billion, or almost 1,800 times greater.”
Last year, the trade figure grew to $14.5 billion and, in the first eight months of this year, bilateral trade has increased by 24.5 per cent when compared with the same period in 2018. “That is incredible.”
As well as products produced by Ireland’s substantial multinational sector, China has since last year resumed its purchasing of Irish beef. The number of Irish beef processing plants approved for exports to China increased by 14 this week, bringing the total to 21. The ambassador believes there is huge scope for increasing the volume of beef bought for the Chinese market.
“If we import more, that will benefit not only the processing facilities, but also the farmers,” says He. “This is a basic principle of economics. When the demand is higher, it takes the price higher.”
While Irish investment into China is substantial, the level of investment in the other direction is growing at a faster rate. Last year, Shanghai’s WuXi Biologics chose Dundalk for its first overseas facility; Waterford-based environmental engineering company FLI Group was the recipient of a €10 million investment from China Minsheng Investment Group, and the State-run Ireland Strategic Investment Fund joined forces with Chinese sovereign fund CIC Capital Corporation in a €150 million technology investment project.
In August of this year the Chinese telecoms multinational Huawei brought Irish journalists to Shenzhen to announce its plan to invest €70 million in research and development in the Republic over the coming three years.
The multinational, which employs about 180 people in Dublin, Cork and Athlone, said the investment was for video, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and site-reliability engineering.
Against a backdrop of security concerns being expressed about Huawei by US president Donald Trump and others, Huawei has transferred many of its mobile software services from China to its Irish subsidiary, Aspiegel.
Some industry insiders believe the decision is an attempt to show the company has nothing to hide when it comes to data security.
The Dublin subsidiary has responsibility for business operations and development for all of Huawei’s mobile services outside of mainland China, and is an indicator that Ireland could potentially play a similar global role in relation to Chinese multinationals, as it already does with US ones.
According to He, Chinese companies find Ireland an attractive location for investment and Chinese people find the Irish to be “very friendly, very outgoing. They feel very comfortable here in Ireland,” says the ambassador.
“We hope that Ireland will play a role as a bridge between China and the EU. After Brexit, Ireland will be the only English-speaking country in the EU. English ranks number one in terms of Chinese students studying foreign languages.”
As part of its “Made in 2025” policy, announced in 2015, China aspires to become a world leader in a number of sectors, including IT, robotics, green energy, medicines and medical devices.
The Chinese economy is shifting from a “made in China” economy to a “created and invented in China” economy, says the ambassador. His country will now contribute to the world not only by way of “hard work, but also with our brains and intelligence”.
Asked about the trade tensions between China and the US, He responds: “I think trade is trade, war is war. The term trade war is absurd. The nature of trade is give and take; both sides get something from the deal.” But with war, “the winner takes all. There is no compromise.”
He is hopeful talks between the two economic superpowers will have a positive outcome, but adds: “Striking a deal is a two-player party. You can’t dance the waltz by yourself. You need the co-operation of a partner.”
Asked if he accepts that Western governments have legitimate reasons for security concerns about Chinese telecoms companies, the ambassador’s response is definitive.
“No. Definitely not. If you put the question in terms of security concerns, I would say definitely not.”
The only way forward is through compromise and talks, he says. “Take for example the cybersecurity issue. It is a concern for all the countries . . . China is a victim of cyber attacks. Every day there are thousands of cyber attacks targeted against China from abroad.”
Does he mean China has been attacked by state actors? Criminals, but also sovereign governments, he responds.
“Everyone knows about the Prism programme.” (Prism is the US security operation revealed to the world by Edward Snowden and involving access by the US National Security Agency to data held by US communications companies.)
The programme involved “spying on foreign countries, and even [the US government’s] own allies here in Europe. Not only data, but also spying on phone conversations of its own citizens and foreign leaders,” the ambassador says.
It is unfair, when discussing cybersecurity, to just point the finger at China, says He. “People are talking about possible back doors installed by Huawei on its equipment but, in the past few years, there has been no concrete evidence provided by the accusers.”
What does he think of the proposition that there is no reality to suggesting that a Chinese company would refuse a request from its government’s security services?
“That kind of story is stigmatising of the relationship between the Chinese government and the private sector in China.”
The internet is a relatively new phenomenon and the international community needs to sit down and devise a regulatory regime for it, he argues, in a similar way to the requirement for a new regime for taxing ecommerce.
“We need to co-operate with each other, while also finding new technology to help us tackle these issues, including cybersecurity.”
It is then, as part of this discussion about politics and China’s growing role in the global economy, that The Irish Times raises the issue of the “camps” in Xinjiang, and the ambassador makes his objection to the use of the word.
Ireland was among 22 countries that signed a letter in July addressed to the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, calling on China to end its massive detention programme in Xinjiang.
A few days later, a group of at least 37 countries, including Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela, sent a letter to the same agencies praising China’s achievements in the region, and the suppression of any “terrorist” unrest there.
Xinjiang is a sparsely populated region in northwest China that is approximately three times the size of France. The ambassador says that the majority of the “weaker people” in the region are Muslim, and have been targeted in recent decades by “extremists” who want to encourage them towards “jihad”.
In the more remote areas, people are badly educated and many do not speak Mandarin, he says. This isolates them from the rest of the Chinese population, and makes them prone to Islamic radicalisation.
Asked if he has seen the widely-publicised drone footage that appeared on YouTube in September, apparently showing Chinese police leading hundreds of blindfolded and shackled inmates from a train in Xinjiang, the ambassador said he had not. “I can’t say if it is fake or not fake.”
The purpose of the “education and training centres” is to help people get “vocational training and give them a chance to learn Mandarin and to learn basic skills and then they can find a job, they can do something in their society”.
Poverty is an important factor in people adopting radical ideas, “so I think it is very important that we need to do something before it gets worse, and give them the opportunity to get access to society and help them get on their own feet and have a chance for a better life.”
When it is put to him that the scale of what is happening in Xinjiang looks like a mass infringement of human rights, the ambassador says it is important to bear in mind the size of the Chinese population, and the size of the population in Xinjiang.
He raises the issue of drug addicts being held in treatment centres. “I am not comparing the two things, but there is some similarity in logic.” Sometimes, he says, in a lot of parts of the world, drug addicts are taken to facilities to help them stop using drugs. “That is the same logic.”
He believes it is important to “keep a balance” between individual human rights and collective rights. “Every country has its own tradition and culture and history, and every country needs to protect the human rights of its people according to its history, tradition and stage of economic development.”
A similar point is made when the four decades that the Chinese Communist Party has ruled China is raised.
For approximately 100 years, after the first Opium War in 1840 when China was invaded by Britain, “the Chinese people [tried] very hard to find a way out, to get freedom and independence”.
There were rebellions, wars, the invasion by Japan, all involving the Chinese people and various parties trying to “find a way out. But it turned out to be only the Chinese Communist Party that led the people to independence and liberation from foreign invasion, and [brought] China on the path to security, development and independence.”
As a member of the party, He says he is very proud of the role it has played in the economic development of his country, just as the Irish people are very proud of the “Celtic economic miracle” that occurred under its political system.
But can the Chinese Communist Party’s control continue if China is to play an ever more important role in the global economy, as educational levels rise in China, and as the population has increased contact with the West?
The ambassador responds by saying that China is still a developing country. It is the second-largest economy in the world, but per capita income is “not that big”. When looked at in terms of per capita income, “Ireland is a big country, and China is relatively small”.
The number one “priority, obligation, and responsibility” for the Chinese government is to make the Chinese people better off tomorrow than they are today.The former US president Franklin D Roosevelt spoke in 1941 of the four freedoms: freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear. The most of important of these,the ambassador says, are freedom from want and from fear.