The Joycean scholar bringing Chinese enthusiasm for Ireland
Polymath Ambassador drives new investment as Chinese economy burgeons, writes Group Business Editor Dearbhail McDonald
According to Irish myth, pilgrims who kiss the Blarney Stone gain the gift of eloquence - or the gift of the gab.
As I settle into an interview with Dr Yue Xiaoyong, the Chinese Ambassador to Ireland, I wonder if the former farmer, schoolmaster and composer (some of his early occupations before becoming a career diplomat) hasn't stopped by the famous Blarney battlement site en route to our encounter.
The fluent English-speaking linguist, author, Joycean scholar and table tennis aficionado never stops smiling - or talking. He spends the first 30 minutes regaling me about Joyce (yes, he has read Ulysses and Dubliners) and the synergies between Joyce and Beckett. Oscar Wilde, he tells me, is hugely popular in China. George Bernard Shaw is "pure art" and "wrote closer to the Chinese experience."
Shaw, Dr Yue reveals, visited China on several occasions and was "close friends" with many of China's writers and literary critics including Madame Sun Yat-sen, the late wife of Dr Sun Yat-sen, the first President and founding father of the Republic of China.
Another Irish figure it may have been a Hurd, Dr Yue recalls, set up the Qing Dynasty's customs and post office system and helped create China's first set of stamps.
"You would strike a fortune if you found them [the stamps] here," says Dr Yue, who served in Thatcherite Britain, the Middle East, and in the US during the Clinton and early Bush years. Dr Yue, who served in the US during 9/11 - he describes Americans as an "heroic people" but says he "cannot predict" the Trump presidency - has also written a number of books, including one on the 1992 American election and a 2013 tome on the relationship between the US and the Gulf states.
One would be forgiven for thinking the Ambassador's extensive Irish literary exposition is a technique to distract me from my main purpose of discussing China's seismic shift into Ireland as it forges ahead with its global $1 trillion "One Belt One Road" (OBOR) initiative.
But Dr Yue's enthusiasm for Ireland (he has visited 16 counties since his arrival last year and is fascinated by our glacial, drumlin hill landscapes) is heartfelt.
The deepening of Sino- Irish ties has intensified since the global financial crisis and since 2012, when Chinese President Xi Jinping kicked a football in Croke Park.
Since then, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, President Michael D Higgins and a host of Ministers including Minister of State Eoghan Murphy, have travelled to China to lure investment and financial services companies here.
The shuttle diplomacy has paid off: next month sees the Bank of China's first Irish branch open in Dublin, a move viewed as a key post-Brexit spoil that could lead other Asia-Pacific institutions to follow China's lead. Ireland was recently accepted into the $100bn Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and there has been a surge in Chinese nationals applying for immigrant investor visas. Last year 329 people from 16 different countries applied to secure residency in exchange for investing in Irish assets. 316 of the 329 applications were from China. The Department of Justice denies the programme is a 'passports for sale' scheme, insisting that the programme - whose minimum investment threshold is €500,000 - offers no preferential access to Irish passports.
The Chinese march into modernity has been relentless. China grew its GDP from $218.5bn in 1978 to $11.2 trillion last year. And it is at pains to remind critics of its human rights record - the critics have been bolstered by the recent arrests of lawyers who have defended dissidents - that it has lifted more than 700m people out of poverty.
China's foray into Ireland has also been substantial. All of the 'big four' Chinese state-owned commercial banks - BoC, China Construction Bank, ICBC and the Agricultural Bank of China - have aircraft-leasing operations in Ireland, one of three European countries that enjoys a trade surplus with China.
Total trade across all sectors between Ireland and China was worth approximately €11bn in 2015, up from €8bn in 2014. Last year trade between Ireland and China - GDP grew from $218.5bn in 1978 to $11.2 trillion in 2016 - increased some 13.75pc.
Ireland's target of 50,000- plus Chinese tourists for 2017 has already been achieved and this week 13 travel agents from Hong Kong will visit key locations, north and south, following a recent Tourism Ireland sales mission to China.
The tourism potential is staggering: by 2020, Chinese overseas tourism is set to grow from 135m global visits to 200m, a $261bn market that is set to grow to $442bn during that period. A long-awaited and hard fought for direct flight from Dublin to Beijing, driven by Tourism Ireland and the Dublin Airport Authority is also tantalisingly close to take off. The Sunday Independent has learned that senior executives from Chinese airline Hainan - part of the HNA Group which recently bought Irish aircraft lessor Avolon - are due for talks in Dublin within weeks.
Speaking at last week's Asia Matters Summit in Cork, Dr Yue urged Ireland to capitalise on the boom by building more quality hotels to accommodate Chinese tourists. Many are attracted to cult film locations such as Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry, where parts of Star Wars was filmed, and County Antrim, home of the mammoth Game of Thrones series as well as traditional locations such as the Guiness Storehouse, which last year experienced a 40pc surge in Chinese visitors.
Yue predicts China's economic and cultural ties with Ireland will grow exponentially in the next decade and beyond. "Every month I receive new dedications from Chinese companies to ask me how they can do more with their Irish partners," he says at his Dublin residence, without revealing who the interested parties are. Ireland is a natural fit for the Chinese, says Dr Yue, adding that Chinese investment in Ireland has created more than 2,000 jobs. Nearly 10,000 Chinese are studying here, more than half at universities.
"First and foremost, you have very good people, not only friendly, but capable and very professional," Dr Yue says, adding that Ireland has a "really good" education system that is reasonably priced compared to other countries. "The English language helps, as does the common law, your very good economic environment and a stable society". While acknowledging Ireland's "unique position" in the wake of Brexit, Dr Yue is not too perturbed by Britain's decision to leave the European Union or how Ireland will fare in its absence. "We are watching the situation," Yue says. "But we see the positive side, as our President and Premier repeatedly emphasise".
Dr Yue smiles broadly when I ask him if he thinks Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney will succeed Taoiseach Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael and the country. Ever the diplomat, Dr Yue refuses to offer an opinion on the leadership battle, but praises Kenny for promoting Sino-Irish relations. On his arrival last June, Dr Yue was told to expect fewer ministers' visits to China as the Government sought to rein in overseas travel costs.
"They said only those with strategic importance," says Dr Yue. "We ended up having more visits to China. The Taoiseach, the Cabinet and the Irish people are making this country-to-country relationship a very dynamic one". The extent to which Ireland becomes involved in the belt-and-road initiative remains to be seen. President Xi Jinping awed many (myself included) at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos when he positioned China in the vanguard for globalisation when US President Donald Trump has asserted a regressive, protectionist agenda. However, China's plans for a new global economic order has not met with universal approval. Ireland sent a high-ranking Department of Finance official to Xi's Silk Road Summit in Beijing last week. But the EU dealt a blow to Xi's audacious plan. The EU 28 decided not to support a statement about trade prepared by Beijing to mark the end of the summit. Regardless of the vast scheme, Ireland is not wasting any opportunity to benefit from this rising Asia tiger. "You seize the opportunity," says Yue. "The whole [Sino-Irish] picture is very encouraging. You find a way".