December 12, 2014, by Tony Hong

When Chinese Eyes are Smiling

By David O’Brien

Assistant Professor, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo

For a small country we Irish box well above our weight diplomatically.

And we take great pride in being masters of soft power. There is no other country in the world which has its national day celebrated with such exuberance and warmth as Ireland’s St Patrick’s Day.

Is there another country which could persuade landmarks as widespread as Niagara Falls, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal and Sydney Opera House to be illuminated green in celebration of that day?

Maybe we could teach the Chinese a thing or two about soft power.

Last year we even managed to persuade the authorities here to turn the Great Wall green for March 17th.

We’ve been at it again this week with the State Visit of our President Michael D Higgins to China where he was greeted by the great and the good, from President Xi Jinping to Alibaba founder (and as of this week officially Asia’s Richest man) Jack Ma.

It seems that President Higgins and President Xi hit it off with the Irish Times newspaper describing their talk as a “meeting of minds and kindred spirits”.

“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,” the paper quoted President Higgins after their meeting.

Higgins also invited Xi to visit Ireland again and it seems the invitation was accepted.

If he does come it will be his second visit to Ireland. Back in 2011 while still Vice-President he surprised many by stopping off on the Emerald Isle in the middle of two high-level trips to the US and Turkey.

During his three-day stay he tried hurling and Gaelic football in Croke Park, attended a medieval banquet at a castle in County Clare, enjoyed an Irish Coffee in the home of a local farmer and even had a calf named after him on the same farm.

It does seem that Xi has a connection to Ireland which may be explained by the fact that his father Xi Zhongxun, who played a very important role in setting up of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, carefully studied the Shannon Industrial Free Trade Zone in County Clare as a model.

Indeed Jiang Zemin himself who would later rise to the very top of Party and State lead a Chinese delegation to visit Shannon in 1980 to report back on what was being done there.

Premier Zhu Rongji; Premier Wen Jiabao; Vice Premier Huang Ju and Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan have all visited Clare since then.

Writing about the 1980 visit Conor O’Clery, former Asia Correspondent for the Irish Times wrote:
“The place that apparently impressed [the Chinese] the most was the Shannon industrial duty-free zone. I’m told they were also very impressed with the informality of their Irish hosts, who took them to Durty Nellies pub afterwards for a sing-song – which may explain the warmth with which the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was greeted by President Jiang in Beijing in 1998.

“The Chinese government subsequently opened four special economic zones in 1980 on the Shannon model, which were extremely successful in attracting foreign investment, stimulating trade and invigorating growth. There are now more than 9,000 such zones all over the country.” [Source]

For both the people of Clare and the rest of us Irish, it’s probably no harm to have friends in high places.

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