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Ireland Ignores Beijing’s Brutality for the Sake of Beef Exports

This blog is authored by Alyssa Fong. She is the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation's Public Affairs and Advocacy Manager, UK & Ireland.

Last Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Qiang met with Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and President Michael Higgins and the topic that we all had on our minds was finally discussed: Irish beef.

A bilateral agreement between Ireland and China was signed and warmly welcomed by the Taoiseach, with the Irish beef export ban being lifted and a unilateral 15-day visa-free scheme for Irish citizens to China was launched to “facilitate personnel exchanges”. 

This bolster in ties comes just 2 months after the Tánaiste, deputy head of the Irish government, Micheál Martin, flew to China on a four-day visit. So, what does China get from this new deal, aside from a bit more Irish beef and tourists? Why was it so pertinent that the second most senior member of the Chinese Communist Party made a trip to Ireland en route to the World Economic Forum in Davos? Is Beijing gearing up for something big? 

Image credit: David Kernan

More than likely, China sees the Emerald Isle as yet another conduit through which it can influence the European Union (EU) amid growing bids to de-risk relations with China. Many EU countries are reshaping their China strategy, with countries such as Italy pulling out of Chinese-led multilaterals such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

But Ireland cannot have it both ways. Dublin cannot continue to deepen its relationships with China and adhere to the EU’s commitment to de-risking. China has consistently demonstrated their divide and conquer strategy: targeting smaller states as a means to economically coerce and impose their political influence onto them.

Ireland has a history of not simply passively supporting China but has actively taken steps to fortify and advance their economic and strategic partnerships. As Washington and Taiwan tighten their controls on exports of advanced semiconductors to China, almost two-thirds of Ireland’s exports to China in 2022 were microchips, providing a way to feed a microchip-starved China. This comes almost a year after several Teachtaí Dála pressured the Irish government to remove the Golden Visa scheme amid growing concerns that 1500 of 1800 visas were dominated by Chinese businesses, fearing Chinese interference in the economic spheres in Ireland. In a geopolitical climate that is increasingly struggling to determine a coherent China strategy, Ireland is going full steam ahead to deepen their partnership.

There was a brief mention of China’s treatment of Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kong and Macau and there was even a specific mention of Jimmy Lai. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar brushed off these human rights violations by stating “they [The Chinese government] would have a very different view of the facts and dispute a lot of what’s said in the media.” As if their human rights abuses are merely a sensationalised misconception of the “facts” by the media.  

It is astonishing to see the mentions of China’s gross human rights violations occurring in Tibet, the genocide of the Uyghurs, the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong and the ongoing sham trial of Jimmy Trial swept under the rug for the sake of trade.

Predictably, Li Qiang inundated the Taoiseach and President with flattery during last week’s trip, telling the press that there is “huge potential for the two countries” who have set a “good example of friendly coexistence and win-win co-operation and long-standing friendship.” Thanks to Li Qiang’s flirtations, Leo Varadkar has seemingly forgotten that he is dealing with the very country that detained Irish citizen Richard O’Halloran for three years with Chinese authorities demanding €30 million following his release. He now suffers from long-term mental and physical health concerns as a result of the Chinese government. Li Qiang clearly hopes that such sickly sweet sentiments overshadow growing scepticism of Beijing's policies, despite its modest global influence, Ireland seems to be forming a useful pillar of this strategy.

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