Looking east for a new trade frontier

The visit to Ireland of China’s pro-business vice-president Xi Jinping could mark the start of a significant increase in trade between the countries, but we must be ready to grab this golden opportunity with two hands, writes Dan Buckley

When Xi Jinping was sent as a teenager to the countryside for “re-eduction as a peasant,” he showed his mettle by lugging sackfuls of wheat on his back.

At least, that’s the official version of the rise to power of China’s vice-president who is destined to replace Hu Jintao as president next year, becoming, arguably, the world’s most powerful man.

He arrives in Ireland today on a visit being co-ordinated by Enterprise Ireland. It is part of a three nation tour of the US, Ireland and Turkey and is expected to focus on tourism, trade and education links between the two countries.

Business analysts say his arrival in Shannon from the US could mark the beginning of a significant increase in business between Ireland and China. It comes at a time when Ireland seeks to develop inward investment from China and to grow export markets in key sectors such as dairy produce, technology and tourism.

Xi is due to hold talks with Enda Kenny as well as business leaders. He is also expected to tour some of the country’s key tourism areas. Television coverage of this in China is expected to improve the prospects of capturing a greater portion of the Asian tourist market.

Chief executive of the Irish Exporters Association John Whelan said the visit offered a unique opportunity for the Government to create a long lasting arrangement between the countries that could accelerate both business investment from China as well as expand export trade to the EU based on Chinese companies locating here.

“In particular, the Shannon region with its historical links going back to Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, and the Shannon Development team, offers a ready-made proposition for the Government to offer to create a Special Export Zone for Chinese businesses who wish to access the EU27 markets.”

According to state news agency Xinhua, from 1969 to 1975, Xi worked as an “educated youth” sent to the countryside in his home province of Shaanxi.

He showed true grit by winning wrestling matches against locals and carrying “a shoulder pole of twin 110-pound buckets of wheat for several kilometres across mountain paths without showing fatigue.”

It is the kind of image you might see in any Hollywood war movie and, by all accounts Xi is a fan.

In China he is regarded as one of the privileged “princelings”, the children of revolutionary leaders who rose to positions of power under Mao Zedong. His exile to the countryside coincided with a period of political turmoil in China. His father, Xi Zhongxun, one of the founders of modern China and also a vice-president, was purged from his position in 1962 on the cusp of the Cultural Revolution.

At one stage, Xi had to live in a cave and it is that image of the hardened, struggling man that the Chinese leadership is anxious to portray.

Xi Jnr didn’t have to haul those wheat buckets for very long. His intelligence and ability saw him rise quickly through the ranks of the Communist Party. He served as a party official in poor rural areas of Hebei, the northern province around Beijing.

In 1985, Xi took the first of several posts in Fujian, becoming governor of the province in 2000.

In 2002, when Hu Jintao came to power, he was transferred to Zhejiang, which he helped turn into an economic powerhouse.

Xi is also seen as a hard grafter and is untainted by allegations of corruption that has been the downfall of many other leaders in the Communist Party.

In 2007, when allegations of corruption struck Shanghai, he was brought in to root out those responsible. He promised to “be a good learner, a good public servant and a good team leader,” and kept his word.

During the last National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, Xi was named one of the four new members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

Xi has earned a reputation as a pro-business campaigner. He is held in high regard by international business leaders with former US treasury secretary Henry Paulson describing him as a “guy who knows how to get over the goal line.”

In the autumn, Xi is set to inherit the title of chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. His role marks him out as the obvious successor to Hu Jintao, who must retire as chairman in the autumn and from the presidency in March of next year.

Analysts also see Xi’s appointment as vice-chair of the Central Military Commission, which controls China’s armed forces — a position Hu held — as a key indicator that he will succeed to the leadership.

Although well known in China, he remains something of an enigma to the rest of the world. His sister emigrated to Canada and he has a brother in Australia. His daughter, Xi Mingze, is studying at Harvard under an assumed name.

He spent the summer of 1985 working on a soya bean farm in Iowa. During his US visit, he made a nostalgic trip back to meet the family he lived with.

To many people in China, he is best known for his celebrity wife — the singer and actress Peng Liyuan. She is also a major-general in the People’s Liberation Army. They have been married for more than 20 years.

Xi is a plain, even a blunt, speaker. During a visit to Mexico in 2009, he railed against international concern over China’s growing economic might. “Some foreigners with full bellies have nothing better to do than engage in finger pointing at us.

“First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”

Last summer, he vowed to “smash” any attempts to destabilise Tibet and fight against “separatist activities” linked to the Dalai Lama.

The importance of Xi’s visit should not be underestimated here, says Frank Bai, managing director of the Irish branch of Huawei, an international communications company employing 100,000 people worldwide.

“The fact that he has chosen to come here, as well as to the United States, shows how important he views the country. Chinese industrialists see Ireland as a bridge between Europe and America and you should take full advantage of that.”

Trade between Ireland and China was worth almost €8.3bn in 2010. Exports were worth €2.7bn, with €257m from indigenous Irish companies.

Bai, 38, has been in Ireland for four years and sees huge potential for building on trade links with China. For that to happen, though, attitudes must change.

“Irish people have a lot to offer but the promotion of Ireland in China is not very active and that needs to change… You have sophisticated IT and medical sectors, in particular, and farming is also strong. You have a young, educated and talented workforce but you need to build on that. Learning to speak Chinese would be one way to do it… If you can speak my language, no matter how badly, you will be regarded as a very special friend and relationships like that are important in China for doing business.”

Getting to know Xi Jinping

* Born: 1953.

* ‘Re-education’: 1969 to 1975, Xi worked as an “educated youth” sent to the countryside.

* Education: From 1975 to 1979, Xi studied chemical engineering at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

* Party: Xi joined the Communist Youth League in 1971 and the Communist Party of China in 1974. From 1979 to 1982 he served as secretary for his father’s former subordinate Geng Biao, the then vice premier and secretary-general of the Central Military Commission.

* Career: 1985-2000 Moved to Fujian becoming governor of the province.

* Shanghai: Xi was transferred in March 2007 to become the new party chief of Shanghai.

* Politburo: Appointed to the standing committee at the 17th Party Congress in October 2007.

* Election: Xi was elected as vice-president of the People’s Republic of China in March, 2008.

* Family: Xi married the famous Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan in 1987 — his second marriage. They have a daughter named Xi Mingze who enrolled as an under graduate at Harvard University in 2010 under a pseudonym.

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