“Ireland has a rich history and culture as well as amazing natural beauty. It is a success story of moving, in a short period of time, from an agro-pastoral economy to a knowledge economy,” - Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping.
The Chinese Vice-Premier's visit to Ireland this weekend has struck me as slightly surreal. Entering into the 5th year since the crash, with endless talk of austerity and hard times, it's a change to hear some of the old Celtic Tiger speak of Ireland's economic example. (Although given the China's industrialisation and size and the Irish crash, I wonder how much China has to learn from us). The government has seized on the visit with both hands: Ireland is the only Eurozone state to be visited by the Vice-President, and Xi was shown around Irish farms and countryside as well as Irish sport and culture. Trade and economics form the hard base of the relationship, with deals signed on business and the invitation for Irish visits to China in March (Ireland also apparently does quite well out of its Chinese trade: we've managed to run a trade surplus for the last 3 years).
To me this seems like it should be a bigger boost than the visits last year. As important as the British and US visits were for economic and historic reasons, Xi Jinping can hardly be accused of visiting as a way to boost his political profile among an Irish-Chinese community or to set the seal on the troubles of the relations of the past - so the interest in Ireland is a bit exciting (and the reported interest in Irish culture in China - though I don't know how far that extends. I don't expect to see a Beijing Gaelic football team to appear alongside the London and New York teams).
Of course, it would be naive to think that this relationship will ever be as deep as Ireland's traditional relationships (I can't see a cabinet minister presenting the Chinese President with a bowl of shamrocks every St. Patrick's Day), and Ireland's EU links are probably the most important political reason for the visit, but the sheer fact that a country of 4.5 million people can get so much global cultural and political notice probably says something about the national talent for self-promotion. Still, for all the government pushing of the line that we're the only EU country to get a visit, Ireland's EU links and the upcoming Irish presidency of the Council of Ministers probably helped convince Xi extend the Irish leg of his journey longer than a pit stop by the Shannon would usually warrant. I wouldn't be surprised if any Irish talk of human rights was a brief mention beside discussions of what the Irish Presidency agenda might be...