Ireland-China relations: Exporting beef or principles?
Message understood to mean, as clearly intended given its recipient, that the reopening of China to Ireland’s beef exports is now in jeopardy
It was notable that during his 2014 China trip President Michael D Higgins’s usually unconstrained championing of human rights and the underdog was muted. He quoted from George Bernard Shaw in Shanghai in 1933 – “It is not for me, belonging as I do to a quarter of the globe which is mismanaging its affairs in a ruinous fashion to pretend to advise an ancient people striving to set its house in order” – suggesting, as his grateful hosts will have noted, that Ireland understood that China does not appreciate public criticism.
A pro forma acknowledgment of difficulties on human rights would be about all we would get, nothing to upset the talks on burgeoning trade and agriculture links. China’s reputation for bullying international critics, leveraging trade when necessary, was well understood.
Fast forward to March 2016 and a rare and welcome declaration by 12 states to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) delivered by the US. It was joined by Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK in denouncing China’s recent rights crackdown and detentions of up to 250 lawyers and activists since last summer – most have been released, including five Hong Kong booksellers forced to confess on mainland TV their “crimes” of smuggling illicit books.
In the week that China closed down internet links to stories about their leaders’ connections with Panama-linked offshore companies, it is worth noting that the booksellers’ real crime was publishing books on China’s elite, using a mix of rumour and pure fiction. One, The General Secretary’s Eight Love Stories, claims that President Xi Jinping has had numerous affairs, including one with a TV presenter. That’s subversion!
Last month China also reacted strongly at the UNHRC, of which, bizarrely, given its record, it is a member. Chinese diplomat Fu Cong accused the US of hypocrisy with no little chutzpah, and said it was guilty of crimes including the rape and murder of civilians. “The US is notorious for prison abuse at Guantánamo prison, its gun violence is rampant, racism is its deep-rooted malaise.”
And, it appears, China also cranked up its diplomatic machine, dispatching a message through a “mid-ranking” official to the Department of Agriculture to the effect that our siding with the “gang of 12” could have consequences.
Although Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan insists “no explicit linkage has been drawn by the Chinese”, the message was understood to mean, as clearly intended given its recipient, that the reopening of China to Ireland’s beef exports was now in jeopardy.
The Minister may plead we were doing no more than echoing long-standing EU policy, about which China was well aware, but a confident Beijing these days has no qualms about throwing its weight around. And we should not be bullied.