PresidentMichael D Higgins of Ireland looks set to embark on a State Visit to China in December, which will cover the cites of Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou.
Thirty-five years since Ireland and China formalised diplomatic relations with one and other, Ireland is a country genuinely admired by China’s Communist Party leadership and business elites.
It is safe to say that both countries enjoy an excellent political, business and cultural relationship, much to the envy of Ireland’s European partners. The current state of Ireland’s relationship with China, a priority trademarket for Ireland and the world’s second largest economy, can be best reflected in the frequent exchanges of high-level visits between our two countries.
Underpinning ever closer relations, although no official announcement is likely until the end of November, the President of IrelandMicheal D. Higgins looks set to embark on an historic State Visit to China in early December 2014 as the guest of President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, whom he previously welcomed to Ireland in 2012, when Xi Jinping was still Vice President of China.
If the visit goes ahead as expected, it will be the first State Visit to China by a President of Ireland since June 2010 when the incumbent President of Ireland Mary McAleese embarked on an official visit to China.
As highlighted recently by the several significant business deals secured for the Ireland’s food and financial services sectors, the deeper Irish-Chinese relationship is bringing profit to both countries and a follow up State Visit to Ireland by President Xi Jinping can now be expected to occur over the next 18 months.
Irish trade with China is close to €9 billion a year, with a strong trade surplus in Ireland’s favour, with Irish business increasingly viewing China as a key market for Irish exports.
Habemus Papam (We have a Pope!) 我们有一个新主席 (We have a new President!)
Within 24 hours of each other two men assumed centre stage as leaders of the two greatest populations on our planet: In the Sistine Chapel Pope Francis – Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires – was elected the 266th pope and head of 1.2 billion Catholics (and Sovereign of the Vatican State), while inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the PeopleChinese Communist Party (CPC) leader Xi Jinping became the seventh President of the People’s Republic of China, ruling over 1.4 billion people.
China and the Vatican have had no official relations since 1951 – for 71 years, the Vatican has maintained diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally known – and yet even with the uneasy relationship between China and the Catholic Church both newly appointed leaders actually have quite a bit in common. For instance:
Pope Francis and President Xi JinPing will rule over populations experiencing remarkable transformation, in which ‘21st century’-minded reformists and historical followers are losing faith – growing increasingly skeptical and critical of what they view as obsolete and outmoded traditional methods of governance and doctrine. However, there are still many conservatives within the Catholic Church and China who for the most part are opposed to reform, preferring to maintain the status quo and keep things the way they are.
Pope Francis and President Xi JinPing will lead hugely powerful and rich institutions whose very raison d’êtres are concern for the marginalised and disadvantaged, but whose supporting structures benefit from levels of advantage undreamed of by most of those they are meant to be serving. Both therefore want to be seen as thrifty, humble and genuinely concerned with the plight of the vulnerable and tackling the causes of poverty.
– By choosing the name synonymous with the self-denial and poverty of the revered 13th Century preacher and friar, Italy’s patron saint Saint Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis, the son of an immigrant railway worker, already known for his humility, selflessness, and championing of the poor and vulnerable, signaled his intention to place the plight of the poor and marginalized at the heart of his papacy.
– Despite his celebrated family ties to the CPC hierarchy, being the son of veteran revolutionary Xi Zhongxun (the reforming architect of China’s Special Economic Zones), at the age of 15, during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution he was part of a work brigade sent down by the CPC to the countryside village of Liangjiahe, an insignificant cave dwelling community located in remote and desolate yellow soiled mountains of Shaanxi province in northern China, to serve and learn from the grassroots. There he made a cave his home, patiently “ate bitterness (吃了苦头) like the rest of us (villagers)” Source: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/11/world/la-fg-china-xi-20120212 , and laboured the yellow earth for seven years. Aligned with his rise as paramount leader, Xi Jinping has gone to considerable lengths to reconnect with such formative years by cultivating an image as a man of the grassroots who prefers frugality, humility and self-reliance. Recently, in the run-up to his inauguration as President he vehemently spoken out against extravagance while underlining the need to close China’s yawning income disparities and pull its poor people out of poverty.
Pope Francis and President Xi JinPing both need to address damaging scandals caused by abuses of power and discord among their membership ranks that threaten the very fabric of their organisations. Pope Francis needs to tackle the series of detrimental moral and financial disgraces involving the Vatican administration, Cardinals and other clerics that have afflicted the Catholic Church for years. Xi Jinping’s pressing task is to tackle unchecked corruption among officials that is eroding trust and belief in the CPC. Leadership changes at the top of Catholic Church and CPC have raised the hope that at last meaningful reform and revitalization is on the way. The future cohesiveness of both organisations lies in whether Pope Francis and Xi Jinping can successfully reverse the rot.
Pope Francis and President Xi JinPing are both known to be unwavering traditionalists on key issues.
– Those amongst the burgeoning middle classes in China who like to think that Xi Jinping’s accession to the seat of power is going to result in a wave of political reforms will be sorely disappointed. Holding a doctorate in Marxist theory and ideological education from Tsinghua University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and as a former President of the CPC Central Party School, Xi Jinping is believed to hold much more conservative views than his father Xi Zhongxun (who expressed his opposition to the nature of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 4th June 1989), a supporter of former ‘liberal’ CPC General Secretary Hu Yaobang. In speeches Xi has frequently called on rising cadres to immerse themselves in Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, declaring that political morality, “Marxist rectitude” and loyalty to the CPC are more important than professional competence. Source: “PLA Gains Clout: Xi Jinping Elevated to CMC Vice-Chairman,” China Brief, October 23, 2010. He was also an avowed supporter of the ‘Chongqing Model’ for upholding “core socialist norms”. Source: People’s Daily, December 13, 2010; Sina.com, December 10, 2010. [Note: The Chongqing Model was the series of social and economic policies adopted by Bo Xilai, the Chongqing CPC Chief, which epitomised increased state control and the promotion of a neo-leftist ideology. Following Bo’s removal in March 2012 the policies were either discontinued or scaled back.]
Pope Francis and President Xi JinPing were appointed to power through a guarded process in which the only persons who were allowed to participate were old men who are fully dedicated to the cause they stand for.
In terms of the likelihood of the Vatican one day switching its affiliation to Beijing, the similarities between the two established leaders as described above are cosmetic at best. Despite the growing appetite for spiritual values within mainland China’s officially atheist population, there is little prospect the CPC will recognise a foreign pope, rather than the secular Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, as the leader of all Chinese Catholics. Besides faced with momentous internal challenges both the Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping will be too focused on ensuring the survival and prosperity of their own increasingly unmanageable institutions to care.