Saturday 21 October 2017

We can bleat on about rights in China, or listen and learn a lot

THE visit of Xi Jinping, the man almost certain to lead China's Communist Party later this year and his country in 2013, will be an uncomfortable test for the Government and our new president.

China's appalling human rights record makes it a tempting and popular target for protesters, but to focus only on human rights would be a missed opportunity to learn from China and improve the woefully weak economic ties between the two countries.

We need to listen to China and try to understand. We did enough preaching during the Tiger years to last a lifetime.

Last year at a conference in Kerry, I had an eye-popping on-the-record conversation with Chinese diplomats who were completely open about China's problems.

The diplomats acknowledged the gulf between the rich and poor and the tough lives that many Chinese farmers are forced to lead while their urban counterparts get rich quickly.

They also acknowledged the corruption inside the Communist Party that makes life difficult for many people living in the cities.

It was refreshingly honest and contrasted sharply with the endless guff that pours from the mouths of official Ireland.

Even now, after one of the worst busts in history, cabinet ministers still struggle to admit that our hospitals, schools and justice system are substandard after decades of poor leadership and will get worse as public sector employees retire on generous pensions.

They also struggle to admit that the State itself deserves blame for employing the Catholic Church to run the orphanages, laundries and schools which became torture camps for tens of thousands of children.

That the same organisations continue to control many aspects of Irish life is a disgrace -- just as it is a disgrace that China's Communist Party has been allowed to continue long after the worst excesses of Mao became common knowledge, or that certain US presidents are honoured despite triggering bloody wars of conquest.

The main focus of Xi's trip overseas will be the United States where he will meet Barack Obama.

The only other countries he will visit will be Turkey and Ireland, so it is fair to speculate that the visit to Ireland is an important one.

The relationship between China and the US was described earlier this week by China's Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai as "too big to fail".

The same cannot be said of our relationship which is why we will have to work at it. We have a choice when Xi comes here in two weeks' time. We can jump up and down about China's record -- or we can learn a little from a society that has grievous faults, but which is also one of the world's most dynamic and fascinating cultures.

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