What to expect from Chinese Premier’s visit to Ireland

Chinese Premier Li Qiang is visiting Ireland today for the first time, in a state visit that’s been welcomed by Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

The two leaders will hold a bilateral meeting and a working lunch at Farmleigh House on Wednesday, where they’re expected to discuss global issues, bilateral issues and EU-China relations.

Mr Li will also meet with President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin that morning.

It’s the first time such a high-ranking Chinese official has visited Ireland since Mr Li’s predecessor, Li Keqiang, visited Ireland in 2015.

Prior to that, Xi Jinping visited Ireland in 2012, before becoming President of China for the first time in 2013.

President Xi is now serving an unprecedented third term, making him one of the most powerful figures in China’s history.

Former taoiseach Enda Kenny with then Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his visit to Ireland in 2015

Who is Li Qiang?

Mr Li was handpicked by Xi Jinping to the role of premier, the second in command to the president.

Appointed in March last year, Mr Li was perhaps best known previously for overseeing the strict Covid lockdown in Shanghai in 2022.

The unpopular measure saw some of the city’s 25 million inhabitants complain about access to food and medicine during the more than two-month lockdown.

Previously the Communist Party chief in Shanghai, Mr Li replaced the retiring Li Keqiang, widely perceived to have been sidelined as Mr Xi tightened his grip on management of the economy.

A career bureaucrat, Li Qiang was revealed as the pick for China’s number two role in October 2022, when Mr Xi unveiled a leadership line-up stacked with loyalists.

Despite his reputation as the architect of the Shanghai lockdown, Mr Li was instrumental in pushing for China’s unexpectedly sudden end to its zero-Covid policy in 2022.

He abruptly decided to activate the reopening plans sooner than intended, trying to contain the economic toll of the zero-Covid campaign and protests that had rattled the leadership.

The upshot was a chaotic reopening in December that year, when China suddenly ended lockdowns, mass testing and other restrictions.

People who have interacted with Mr Li say they found him practical-minded, an effective bureaucratic operator and supportive of the private sector – a stance that would be expected in someone whose career put him in charge of some of China’s most economically dynamic regions.

Xi Jinping during a visit to Croke Park in 2012

Turning towards Europe?

Since lifting its Covid border restrictions, Beijing has welcomed world leaders, hosted business groups and promoted trade and investment opportunities in China.

Europe, in particular, has been the focus of Beijing’s recent diplomacy.

Premier Li Qiang’s first major international trip since taking office was to Germany and France last month, where he emphasised economic opportunities over geopolitical differences, partnership over rivalry.

European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have also become regular features in Beijing.

These efforts are allowing China to deepen its economic ties with Europe.

In so doing, Beijing is hoping to undermine US efforts to develop a transatlantic approach toward China, including policies of de-risking or de-coupling their economies from China.

Representing China at the G20 summit in New Delhi last September, Li Qiang made clear his intention to cooperate with Europe.

China’s premier, Li Qiang (Left) and Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz during a joint news conference in Berlin last June

China and Europe should “unite and co-operate” against global uncertainties, the premier told European Commission President, Ursula Von der Leyen, on the sidelines of the annual summit.

Mr Li’s call came as the European bloc grows warier of the risks of engaging China, defined as its partner, competitor and “systemic rival” since 2019.

Will beef be on the agenda?

One issue stakeholders hope will be on the agenda of bilateral talks, is the suspension of Irish beef exports to the Chinese market last November.

Exports were stopped after a case of atypical BSE was detected in a bovine animal in Ireland, just months after the Chinese market had reopened to Irish beef.

The Irish Farmers Association said: “The engagement with the Chinese Premier is an opportunity to raise this matter with him and secure a return to the market as soon as possible.

“Given the nature of the case which brought about the suspension, there should be no delay in regaining access.”

The visit is not without controversy, however, and is not being welcomed by all quarters.

The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation said: “There’s a growing apprehension about the influence of China on various facets of Irish society, including political decision-making, the economy, and university campuses.

“Premier Li’s visit, coupled with the warm reception from the Taoiseach, has raised eyebrows among communities such as Hong Kongers, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other Chinese dissidents residing in Ireland, as well as those concerned about China’s economic sway over Irish affairs.”

Policing operation

As with all State visits, there will be a policing operation in place, but it is anticipated to be quite significant, as Mr Li will be accompanied by a number of ministers and Government officials.

The Garda Press Office said that the visit will be concentrated in the Dublin area, including Phoenix Park and Dublin South City Centre.

“In general, traffic restrictions for the visit will be kept to the minimum required and it is intended that any impact on the public will be localised and minimal. Where necessary further specific details on local road closures and traffic diversions will be published in advance of the visit,” the press office said.

“The Chinese Premier will arrive and depart at Dublin Airport. Normal operations will continue at Dublin Airport at all times, however travelling members of the public should allow additional time to arrive at the airport due to possible rolling road closures, in particular on the evening of the 16th and afternoon of the 17th January.

“An Garda Síochána can confirm at this stage that the following Traffic Management measures, for security reasons, will be put in place: The Phoenix Park will be closed to all access, traffic and pedestrians, from 7pm on Tuesday to 7pm Wednesday.

“Arrangements will be in place for access for residents, staff and stakeholders only through the following gates: Chapelizod Gate: Exit from Chapelizod Gate. Cabra Gate: Exit via North Circular Road Gate.”

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