How the Irish are building relationships in China

The Irish community in Shanghai was out in force for Michael D Higgins’ visit this week


I was privileged to attend an event in Shanghai this week hosted by the Consul General of Ireland, Austin Gormley. The reception formed part of President Michael D Higgins’ recent State visit to China, with his wife Sabina Higgins, and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan

At the reception, President Higgins spoke eloquently of the perhaps surprising historical ties between Ireland and China, and also, happily, of his wish to develop those ties further during his visit. President Higgins’ relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping is now long-standing, and the value to Ireland of this relationship is inestimable.

In China, relationship-building is called “guanxi”, (pronounce “gwan-shee”) and an individual’s guanxi reflects their success and influence. In this context, President Higgins has superlative guanxi in China. Kudos!

The idea of real connections between our two countries might be surprising to some, particulary so given that those ties are disproportionately strong for a country of Ireland’s size. Typically, this is simply an example of Ireland punching above our weight on an international stage, an idiosyncratically Irish trait in itself.

To borrow President Higgins’ illustrative example of these connections, there are currently nine GAA clubs in China. At the event, I had the pleasure of meeting the captain of the GAA team in Shanghai, an alumnus of the Athlone Institute of Technology, and a man with strong connections to China: he’s Chinese.

The Irish community in Shanghai was well represented at this event, with around 200 in attendance looking for opportunities to galvanise connections, building our own “guanxi”.

The scale of the Irish enclave in Shanghai surprised me, but then, the scale of things can often surprise in China.

For example, Pudong was the venue for the event, and it also houses Shanghai’s financial district. By night, Pudong is magical. When the lights are on, the tall buildings glitter and shine with illuminated displays and video walls, a fluid neon skyscape that is truly awesome.

The newest arrival in this vista is the Shanghai Tower, nearing completion now, and soon to be the tallest building in the world. Seen at close quarters, it is hard to deny that the tower is a visceral symbol of China’s newly flourishing economic strength.

Douglas Adams once described a machine that could reduce an individual to a tearful shambles, by suddenly revealing their place in the larger universe, relative to the scale of everything that exists. Naturally, this machine was a figment of Adams’ vivid imagination, a comic metaphor, perhaps describing the author’s own wish to punish the perceived cardinal sin of hubris. He called his invention the Total Perspective Vortex.

China can knock the hubris out of you in a similar way, frequently providing moments of total perspective when faced with incomprehensible scale. The Tower does it, just like the Pudong skyscape, but also, glancing out the train window on my way back from Shanghai to Changzhou - the city I call home these days - I see construction projects fly by. Road networks, apartment blocks, schools; all immense projects.

At my destination, I am reminded that Changzhou is a “second-tier” city by Chinese standards. With five million residents, it has a bigger population than Ireland. However, nestling serenely between Shanghai and Nanjing, it somehow conspires to avoid great attention in China.

By neighbouring the old and the new, Changzhou is an interesting representation of larger China. Changzhou’s old city, with its picturesque canals and Byzantine streets, is flanked by a “new district”, built completely from scratch in the last ten years. This new district (Xinbei) is where I now call home.

In Xinbei, streets are wide, public transport is cheap and efficient. A subway system is currently under construction. Shopping malls do great business, and international brands are all here. Changzhou, like most of the East coast of China, is opening up to the wider world, quickly and quietly.

As head of an international school in Changzhou, I work with Chinese students every day who represent China’s newly voracious appetite for international connections. I am fortunate to have made some good friends here, and with Chinese colleagues and students alike, we regularly laugh over “the little differences” between our cultures, forging new common ground and getting to know each other better all the time.

So, the scale of China is immense, like a Total Perspective Vortex on which a man from the Dublin suburbs should certainly not dwell for too long. But so far here in Changzhou for this Irish export, it seems like the deceptively simple approach of forging individual relationships is the way forward. No hubris required.

Building up the guanxi, just like Michael D.

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