China’s self-penned praise calls for dose of scepticism

People’s Republic of China embassy’s Irish Times advertorial failed to mention human rights abuse

July 1st, 2021, was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, which has ruled China since 1949. To commemorate it, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) embassy in Ireland purchased a full-page advertisement in this newspaper. In it the ambassador made the case that the CCP could look back on a record of success and painted a rosy picture of China-Irish co-operation going forward.

On the same day CCP general secretary Xi Jinping was more bellicose. He stood in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and declared to thousands of supporters that China will never be bullied, subjugated or oppressed, and that anyone who tries “will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people”. Yes, this was a speech for a domestic audience, but Xi surely knew this would be the phrase that broke through to the international headlines.

Here we have two images of the CCP. On the one hand is a party that is pragmatic, friendly, open and capable. On the other is a jingoistic party that brooks no dissent and violently suppresses critics. Ireland has often bought into the former image, but it needs to take seriously the latter.

This is not the first time The Irish Times has run “advertorials” for the Chinese government. In fact, the “Irish Times Content Studio” (a native advertising department firewalled from the news operations of the paper) has even produced original content for the People’s Republic of China and PRC-backed entities. They are labelled “sponsored” and appear in the list of normal news articles when you search “China” on the paper’s website. This paper is not alone in accepting money to print advertorials, although many outlets have quietly stopped doing so considering the PRC’s crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.


Ambassador’s job

At any rate, the Chinese embassy wasted no time in tweeting that the PRC ambassador published an article in the Irish Times, neglecting to mention that it was a paid-for advertisement.

Part of an ambassador’s job is to put forward the best image of her/his country. One therefore cannot blame the PRC ambassador for making his case. And like all good PR, the advertorial contains some truth. China is richer, more successful and more powerful than it was in 1949 when the CCP took power.

Private companies that wish to maintain access to the Chinese market are coerced into silence about human rights

However, like most PR, it leaves a lot out and misrepresents a great deal. It obviously leaves out party-imposed humanitarian disasters like the Great Leap Forward famine. The text talks about the party’s high approval ratings, but neglects to mention that there are no elections or competing political parties and that overt criticism of the government is suppressed. A party confident in its approval ratings would give people more choice and would not criminalise dissent. Nor would it chase foreign correspondents like the BBC’s John Sudworth and RTÉ’s Yvonne Murray out of China for their independent reporting.

The advertorial talks about the CCP’s commitment to the “wellbeing of the Chinese people”. Tell that to the millions of Uighurs in China’s west who have been terrorised, imprisoned or surveilled and are having their culture erased. Or speak to feminist activists who have been jailed or forced into exile for calling out gender discrimination. Or consider the lawyers who have been imprisoned for taking on human rights cases. Even Marxist activists have been detained for supporting more worker’s rights. The party indeed may be committed to “wellbeing”, but the party gets to define what wellbeing means.

Charm offensive

The ambassador argues that Ireland-China relations are full of opportunity. Again, he’s not 100 per cent wrong. The PRC clearly is putting on a charm offensive for Ireland. It views Ireland as a potentially friendly vote in the European Union and as an English-speaking base in Europe. For some Irish industries, including my own, China is a lucrative market.

However, there is no mention in the advertorial of the dangers of reliance on China. Consider the way the People’s Republic of China has imposed or threatened trade restrictions on other small European states like Sweden, Norway, or the Czech Republic when people in those states criticise China’s human rights record or engage with Taiwan. Along with trade penalties, the Chinese embassy in Australia last year issued a list of 14 grievances it had with Canberra, including “unfriendly or antagonistic” media reports about China, funding research about Xinjiang and speaking up for human rights in multilateral forums. After Lithuania criticised Beijing earlier this year, an editorial in a party newspaper said that “Lithuania is not qualified to attack China and this is not the way a small country should act.” Private companies that wish to maintain access to the Chinese market are also coerced into silence about human rights, contrary to “win-win” rhetoric.

As a small country that values human rights and democratic principles, Ireland should take note of the risks: the price for a closer relationship with China is often silence or even positive affirmations for human rights abuses. At a recent event about Ireland-People’s Republic of China relations, I asked Financial Times Asia editor Jamil Anderlini what advice he would give to Irish policymakers. His response: do not be overly reliant on trade with a country that is willing to weaponise it like China, and invest in independent expertise about China. The former is pragmatic enough and the latter means that even more people who see “advertorials” in these pages would view them with the scepticism they deserve.

Alex Dukalskis is associate professor at the school of politics and international relations at University College Dublin