Higgins and Xi: meeting of minds and kindred spirits

Ireland and China set stage for next chapter of especially promising relationship

As the People’s Liberation Army honour guard marched by in the Great Hall of the People, every one at least 1.9m (6ft 2in) in height, the presidents of the world’s second largest economy and Europe’s fastest growing economy, respectively, retired to have their conversation.

Through the chilly mid-autumn smog, Ireland and China flags dominated the skyline on Tiananmen Square. And when President Michael D Higgins emerged, he expressed his admiration for Chinese leader Xi Jinping's sharpness and intellectual breadth.

This was a meeting of minds.

While the scale of difference between the two countries is immense, Ireland is punching above its weight when it comes to China. Indeed when it comes to philosophy and theory.


Higgins is clearly an intellectual and a poet in the traditional sense, something which has a deep resonance within the trading community in China, with its profound respect for learning and inquiry.

Except for the horrific period of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, when Chairman Mao Zedong tried to obliterate the intellectual class, including Xi’s father, China has valued its intellectuals. And Higgins has been received positively as a thinker and a teacher.

“We discussed issues of language and diplomacy, the long history of China and China’s different histories and transformations and, if you like, the appropriate discourses that our countries might have with each other,” said Higgins after talking to Xi.

Higgins has sought to emphasise Ireland’s intellectual and poetic strengths, with regular references to Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of a Man under Socialism, which name-checks ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi and inspired the 1911 revolutionary movement. It was this faction which led to the removal of China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, and established a republican state.

As well as being a political sophisticate who has worked his way to the top of China's ruling Communist Party, Xi is an intellectual. He wrote his thesis about the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, whose critique of Christianity was inspirational for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Their talks brought in social philosophers like the “poor sleeping” Max Weber, the out-of-favour but hugely influential sociologist who is very important in China. And the critical theorist and social philosopher Juergen Habermas, which Higgins read as a sign that Xi was well up to speed on the public debate on broader issues of society.

Wicklow mentioned

A spirit of academic inquiry formed the backdrop to the day’s discussions.

Higgins outlined the strengths of Irish scientists at an event organised by the Science Foundation Ireland in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which celebrated the collaborative work that is underway between institutions in China and Ireland across a range of scientific disciplines.

During this presentation, he even managed to get in a mention of how Ludwig Wittgenstein had spent time in Wicklow.

Meanwhile, Jim Browne, President of NUI Galway, and Chen Xu, chairman of Tsinghua University Council, signed a memorandum of understanding on behalf of their respective universities on areas such as joint research exchange of faculty and students and joint organisation of seminars and academic meetings, as well as exchange of materials in education and research.

Xi and Higgins have links to the universities as Higgins is an alumnus of NUI Galway, while Xi graduated from Tsinghua University.

“The Irish interest in China is not just an interest in new markets, but is about people to people relationships.