THERE was a time when China was associated in Irish minds with foreign marvels such as kung fu, fireworks and tinned lychees.
Now Enda Kenny is there in search of other exotica not readily available at home, namely growth, consumer confidence and cash.
Such importance is being attached to the Taoiseach’s trip, and to the preceding visit to Ireland by China’s president-in-waiting Xi Jinping last month, that it would be understandable to think that this level of contact between the two countries is unprecedented.
In fact, Sino-Irish relations have been a formal work in progress for 33 years, officially beginning in 1979 with an agreement to establish reciprocal embassies, a step taken the following year.
Over the next 18 years, there were 18 official visits between the countries by ministers and senior government figures, followed in 1998 by taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s landmark trip which was first to China by an Irish head of government.
It wasn’t all polite smiles and hearty handshakes in between. The year 1979 also saw the introduction of China’s one-child policy which alarmed liberal lay people and conservative Catholics alike here.
Ten years later, the massacre of demonstrating students at Tiananmen Square also united Irish people in horror.
In 1996, the Chinese Ambassador to Ireland refused to attend a meeting of the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee after members said they would raise the abandonment of babies left to die in state orphanages by parents facing punishment for breaking the one-child rule. There had been protests outside the Chinese Embassy and, soon after, the Chinese government clamped down on the fledgling internet lest word spread internally of growing international disquiet at the country’s human rights record.
Despite the diplomatic tensions, this was also the year the first Irish pub opened in China and Aer Rianta won the contract to the develop the first duty free retail hub in that country.
Again the following year there was an interesting dichotomy between political ideology and commercial reality. Ireland declared support for a United Nations resolution condemning China’s human rights record despite many other European countries declining to back it and the Chinese government in return cancelled a planned visit by then vice-premier Zhu Rongji here. At the same time, the Irish Trade Board, now Enterprise Ireland, announced it would open an office in Shanghai, China’s largest city and its financial and commercial capital.
Then in 1998, there came a thaw in the diplomatic cold spell with China extending an invitation to the UN Human Rights Commissioner, the recently appointed former president Mary Robinson, to come talk about the issues concerning the west.
A visit by then taoiseach Bertie Ahern followed swiftly as did a recommendation that Ireland beef up its diplomatic and trade personnel in China. The big breakthrough in relations came in 2001 when Zhu Rongji, by then premier of China, undertook his much delayed visit here.
The dual approach of friendship and pressure applied by the Irish side was credited with securing the release from a labour camp of Trinity College student and now full-time Irish resident Ming Zhao who had been detained and tortured for two years for his activism in the Falun Gong movement.
The ensuing decade saw several high-profile jollies between Ireland and China. President Mary McAleese travelled in 2003 accompanied by the largest ever Irish trade mission and Riverdance, the biggest western touring show ever to play China.
Chinese vice-premier Huang Ju visited here in 2004, we dispatched Bertie Ahern again in 2005, Brian Cowen followed in 2008 and President McAleese went one more time in 2010.
China changed rapidly during those years, becoming ever more a country trying to balance still powerful central control with straining individual freedom and to increase its involvement in world affairs without being made vulnerable by the vagaries of global events.
But that trip by Brian Cowen in 2008 signalled even greater change to come this side of Sino-Irish affairs. His visit was delayed by the protests over plans to scrap the over-70s medical card, one of the dramatic budgetary measures that hinted at the looming economic disaster here.
So now Enda Kenny is there as a representative, not of a country on the up but a nation on its uppers, trying to push the country’s products without selling its soul.
At one time the relationship between our two countries was dubbed Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger and the traditional dance between the two was one of celebration.
The dragon is still flying but the tiger is limping. The choreography that can be created by the two will be interesting to observe.
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