As Ireland’s trading relationship with China continues to expand, so too does the interest of the Chinese Communist Party in using this as the basis for expanded political influence. Total bilateral trade between the two countries in 2019 was over $15 billion, with a balance of around $5 billion in Ireland’s favour.
That in itself is good, you would generally assume, if this trade was governed simply by normal international relations. However, it is evident that China’s immensely ambitious economic expansion, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is closely tied to its objective to turn its vast corporate and financial clout towards advancing its strategic and indeed its ideological ambitions. The BRI has been described as “Beijing’s primary mechanism in re-ordering the global geo-political system” (Hamilton and Ohlberg, Hidden Hand.)
For most of the time since the Communist victory in 1949, the Chinese regime has appeared to be content with minimising any external threat and reducing the potential for conflict with either its neighbours like India and the former Soviet Union or the United States.
It has always laid claim to Taiwan but has become more aggressive in pursuit of that claim since acquiring sovereignty over Hong Kong where it is now in the process of imposing the same totalitarian restrictions that apply to the citizens of the mainland People’s Republic. Internally, the regime has utilised modern technology to subject its minority populations like the Ugyhurs and any other potential dissenters to severe repression.
While Ireland in common with other western democracies has had since the 1960s a tiny Maoist fringe, now seemingly confined to the more pathetic extremes of retro republicanism, the Chinese state has little interest in such infantilism. Its ambitions here are loftier and by all accounts bearing fruit.
The Ireland China Institute was founded by former Labour MEP and European Union propagandist Brendan Halligan. It’s objectives include working to “raise the level of knowledge of China in Ireland with particular regard to China’s social and economic development and its role in international affairs”. If, however, you think this might include shining a light on detention camps, on police brutality and widespread civil rights abuses, on the beating down of democracy in Hong Kong, or the continued muscle flexing against Taiwan, you’d be sorely disappointed.
The formal launch of the Institute in October 2019 was co-hosted with the Department of Foreign Affairs and was attended by a range of political and business heavy hitters and addressed by the Chinese Ambassador He Xiangdong.
The institute describes itself as an “independent think tank” committed to fostering greater understanding between the two countries. It’s Board of Directors includes quite a number of familiar names.
Among them are two former Taoisigh; Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny, as well as former Labour leader and Tánaiste Ruairí Quinn and former President of the European Parliament Pat Cox. Others include Eileen Brennan a lecturer on “social justice” at Dublin city University; Marc Coleman, the former economics editor of the Irish Times; Chairperson Ken Duggan, the owner of China Portals and former director of the Irish Refugee Council who accompanied former President McAleese and Enda Kenny on their missions to China; Odran Reid, who was on Dublin City Council’s planning and property development committee; and Mary Ruane of the Ireland Chinese Business Association and the Confucius Institute.
Another board member is Eddie O’Connor, former CEO of Bord na Móna, and then Airtricity from whose sale he is reported to have earned €45 million before founding Mainstream energy group. Amongst Mainstream’s directors was Liming Wang who is a former Chinese government official, and has been a key promoter of Chinese students coming to Ireland to study at UCD and Queens, and is a member of the Advisory Committee of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Council which is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department (Hamilton/Ohlberg, p93.)
That the friendliness of Irish politicians, business people and academics with China goes beyond fostering better relationships or cultural affinity is shown by the clear support that some have given to the Chinese state. In a paper by O’Connor in July this year, he spoke of his admiration for Confucian philosophy which he stated is based on “the sense of mutual respect between the citizens and the ruler”.
He clearly believes that this is what defines the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people and contrasts this favourably with the “populism” evident in western democracies where people get to do mad things like vote and express their opinions freely, and practise their religion and so on. He referred to minor details such as the mass starvation and terror of the past, which implies that all of that is now history which of course we know that it is not, and concludes that “We in Ireland should aim to be part of the Belt and Road Initiative … Mr. Xi Jingping’s great $7 trillion achievement.”
O’Connor’s former Mainstream co-director, Mr. Liming Wang is also involved with the Confucius Institute in Ireland which has four Irish branches at UCD, UCC, NUI, Galway, and the Ulster University at Queens. The Confucius Queens Institute, without a shadow of a blush, has on its web page a link to the Modern Slavery Statement, despite the estimated million Uyghur people in Chinese internment camps and the country’s horrendous record on forced labour.
These are among some 480 Confucius Institutes worldwide. They were established by CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao in 2004 to expand the Party’s intellectual influence in the west. David Shambaugh has described them as being funded and controlled by the CCP Propaganda Department (China Journal, January 2007.)
According to Hamilton and Ohlberg, “there have been credible reports that some institutes facilitate spying,” and in October 2019, the Director of the Confucius Institute at Vrije University in Brussels, Song Xinning was barred from entering any EU state for eight years over alleged espionage. The day to day work of the Institutes is to try to ensure that nothing critical is said about China in the host countries, especially with regard to internal oppression and issues such as Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
It would seem that this is what they do here, apart from soft promotion of China as an affable chum which has “lifted one billion people out of poverty,” and a country that loves Ireland. There has been little questioning of that narrative despite tacit recognition that the Confucius Institutes and the student programmes are a part of a significant Chinese state investment in Irish universities.
The Institutes seem ready and willing to comment on issues outside of student matters. For example, the University College Cork Confucius Institute lists one Kiri Paramore as its director. In December 2019, during the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, Paramore was asked by the RTE website to pen his thoughts on what was going on. His argument was that Chinese success was exposing faults in Hong Kong, hence the “violent” reaction by what he implies were pampered students engaged in “personalisation and emotionalisation” of such trivia as “democracy, rule of law and freedom.”
Another prong of the Chinese love bombing of Ireland has been the twinning programmes. There are currently six Irish electoral areas with links. They include Dublin which was twinned on the initiative of the City management in 2011 but approved by a majority of the elected Council. Then Sinn Féin Councillor Killian Forde, who subsequently resigned from the party although not over its later pro CCP position, opposed the twinning and stated that it should not have been used to “drum up business links.”
And of course it is lucre that oils the wheels of the relationship, but the ideological aspect is ignored at our peril. While the Chinese economy operates to all intents and purposes as a capitalist entity with all the trappings of vast wealth for those who head its corporations, it is also part of the Communist Party’s ideological project to extend its own brand of socialist totalitarianism to the rest of the world.
If you were to look for an historical model, the best one perhaps is not the Soviet Union but Nazi Germany. Under the Nazis, while there was significant state control of the economy, they allowed large private companies to continue to exist as long as they complied with state direction under the regime’s plans.
China is run similarly and there is no real distinction between the massive corporations and the Party elite. Xi himself is estimated to have accumulated personal wealth in the region of €1.5 billion. Like other members of the Party elite this is mostly based on a Sopranoesque partnership in corporations who know better than to reject offers they can’t refuse. Wall Street and London are replete with stories of Party brats being given highly paid positions to smooth investments and relationships.
So are these the sort of chaps that Ireland should be cosying up to? There is nothing wrong with economic relationships but in an era when all of these are subject to all sorts of politically correct monitoring there is curiously little about the nasty underside of Ireland’s relationship with China.
Not only has this contributed to a pretty muted reaction from the Irish elites in regard to the oppressive and often murderous actions of China to its own citizens, but has descended into the farce of hard-nosed business people and political pensioners engaging in embarrassing paeans to a monstrous ideology in order to turn a few bob or be seen as some sort of bargain basement statesperson.