Saturday, 18 February 2012

Cosying up to China

Every country in the world wants to do more business with China - Chinese officials must be deluged in invitations and requests for meetings. The Irish and Canadian governments have been cosying up to the Chinese in recent days: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been on an official visit to China, whereas the Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping is currently in Ireland.

In Canada there's been a public debate about whether the government should soften its previously quite firm stance on human rights for the sake of generating trade and investment. I'm not much of a fan of the Harper government, but I think its principled approach to China has been correct. But now there's the scent of Realpolitik in the air, with the worry that China will go elsewhere for its resources. So as outlined recently in the Globe and Mail, Harper and his government will continue to raise the issue of human rights, but without upsetting the Chinese in public. 

Will that "softly, softly" approach achieve anything? Not in the short term, obviously, but it seems to me a valid long-term strategy to nudge, annoy and cajole China to a different position. Of course, Canada is in a reasonably strong position given its resilient economy and abundant natural resources that are much coveted by China. Ireland has only a begging bowl and is simply trying to find any source of investment to revive its economy. From such a position of weakness its hard to believe that Irish politicians will allow human rights to get in the way of a few yuan, sadly.

Ireland's position wasn't always so feeble. Back in the early 2000's, China was extremely interested in Ireland's economic success (as it seemed then) and in particular in its software industry. I established an R&D centre in Beijing for my employer, the leading Irish software company of the day, and in China I was presented to the Mayor of that huge city. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Ireland in 2004 he visited our office and I met him for a short chat. Did I raise the question of human rights, you ask? Well did I heck.

Larry Lumsden meets the Chinese President Wen Jiabao

H.E. Mr. Wen Jiabao, Premier of the State Council of the
People's Republic of China, meets Larry Lumsden, the
BigLooLaa, in May 2004. His delightful interpreter seems
quite amused. 
I did think about it beforehand - and I chickened out. I cracked a small joke with the premier and his interpreter, chatted about the contrasts in organizing software development in our respective countries, and said precisely nothing about Tibet or the Tienanmen Square protests. My employer would have been shocked had I done otherwise of course, but other than the intimidation factor of meeting His Excellency and a desire to be courteous I've no good excuse for why I didn't take the opportunity to make a quiet point to the little man in front of me. So much for my principles, sadly, but what will Taoiseach Enda Kenny do this week? What would you do?

No comments:

Post a Comment