President Higgins speech Fudan University, Shanghai, China

Address by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

Fudan University, Shanghai, China

Friday, 12th December 2014

May I thank you, President Xu, for your kind introduction and the warm welcome to Fudan. I am honoured and delighted to have been asked to deliver an address at one of China’s oldest and most prestigious Universities.

As President of Ireland, it is an immense pleasure to be here in China. Our two peoples are united in friendship – a friendship for the building of which the two visits to China by my predecessor, former President Mary McAleese, as well as the 2012 visit to Ireland of then Vice-President Xi Jinping were of such significance; and a friendship which this State Visit acknowledges and, I hope, will contribute to deepening even more.

There is of course a long history of cultural engagement of the Irish with China, which predates the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, in 1979. For example, it is interesting to note that it was an Irishman of the name of Augustine Henry who greatly expanded Europeans’ knowledge of China’s flora by sending back to Europe thousands of dry specimens and seeds in the late 19th century. Augustine Henry’s knowledge of botany and medicinal plants was recognised in China, when one of the buildings of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology was named in his honour.[1]

Then of course, Irish people had had an early account in their own language of one of the first documented interactions between Europe and China when Marco Polo’s chronicles of his travels to Khubilai Khan’s court at Beijing, in the late 1200s, were translated into the Irish language within a century, about a hundred and fifty years before they were translated into English.[2] Ireland was, at that time, experiencing the consequences of the Norman invasion, that began in the early 12th century.

Because of its subsequent subjugation to British rule, Ireland was long unable to establish relations with China in its own right. But after we gained our independence, in the 1920s, Ireland was one of a small number of Western countries who, between 1957 and 1971, was anxious to support the process which led to the representation of the People’s Republic of China at the United Nations.

It struck Ireland as incongruous, back then, that the mass of the people of a nation of then around 500 million people, with such a distinguished and ancient history, was not represented in the hall of the United Nations. And our Minister and his delegates were forthright in offering that opinion. In 1971, Ireland therefore supported the People’s Republic of China’s recognition and admission to the UN.[3]

With the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries, in 1979, the reciprocal friendship between the Irish and the Chinese has gone from strength to strength. Our relationships have widened and deepened through productive and mutually beneficial cooperation, through academic, cultural and commercial exchanges, and through that multitude of encounters which our mobile and globalised world fosters between Chinese and Irish people. Ireland’s Chinese community is one of the largest migrant groups in our country, one that greatly contributes to enriching contemporary Irish life, and I know that China, and this city in particular – Shanghai – is home to a young and vibrant Irish community.

Although geography, scale, and our respective historical journeys differ considerably, there are significant aspects of the collective experience of the Irish and Chinese peoples which enable us to conduct a historically informed conversation, one that perhaps differs from those which China may have with other countries from Ireland’s part of the world.

China fully appreciates the fact that Ireland is exceptional in being a Western European country without a colonial or imperialist past, and that, as a consequence, we can be expected to engage in international relations in a way that recognises the freedom and emancipatory struggles of other peoples. Ireland attaches great importance to cultural freedom, which it sees as a wellspring of its own independence.  And so, when Ireland and China come to exchange views on important matters, we can do so in all sincerity and with genuine mutual respect for our shared experience of resisting domination.

Such is the spirit which has infused all of my conversations with Chinese leaders throughout this State Visit, and such is also the spirit with which I have prepared my remarks for today.

Ireland’s and China’s collective experiences resonate in other ways too. Here are two peoples who, at several points in their respective histories, have been required to modernise in response to change. Ireland, for example, was forced to embrace a new language – English – which it went on to mould to its own creative purposes, as is evidenced in the work of W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney and so many others. China also modernised many times throughout its history, and the Chinese people know that there is no single model of modernisation, despite the scholarly pretentions of, for example, the Princeton studies of the 1960s.

Then, too, within the short period of little more than a generation, China and Ireland have stepped out of several decades of relative economic isolationism to a globalised world of trade. Both of our peoples have swiftly shifted from a predominantly rural way of life to an urban-based economy, driven by industry and increasingly, in more recent times, services.

Of course such rapid transformations have always brought their own challenges, both practical and intellectual, to which Ireland and China are called to respond. In Ireland, the insertion of our national economy in emerging global value chains, from the mid-1990s onwards, coupled with access to the EU Single Market, were factors which underpinned a period of positive economic growth. However, the Irish economy was then engulfed in a credit-led, speculative property bubble, underpinned by very light regulation in financial markets, which was part of the global financial meltdown of 2008. The social, economic, political and moral consequences of this collapse have been devastating in Ireland as they have been in the rest of Europe.

Fortunately, the Irish people once again called on a resilience hard-earned. They have made great sacrifices, they have worked very hard to come out of the depths of this crisis and embark upon a renewed journey of what we hope will be sustainable prosperity for all. Today Ireland is seeing the fruit of such hard-won efforts: our economy is growing again, and it is important to note that, even during the recession, parts of our real economy – particularly our agri-business and its related exports – were actually growing.

Despite such positive trends, it is, in my view, crucially important that we do not let go to waste the opportunity of addressing the root causes of the recent and worldwide crisis. It is important that we interrogate the values, the model of society, and the vision of international relations that failed, not only us Irish, but so many on our planet. Indeed there is a context to this crisis that must be recognised: over the past couple of decades, most governments in the world have been under pressure to orchestrate a shrinking of state action which left an enormous institutional and regulatory void in governing globalised markets and created a lack of accountability. This model, postulating the efficiency and sustainability of the self-regulated market, was grounded in a very narrow scholarship and a partial vision of economic theory, one which, however, became hegemonic – claiming a near exclusivity in the teaching and research of economics departments across the world. From such failed paradigms and narrow intellectual formations we must break free.

We must seize this opportunity of exploring alternative models of socio-economic and cultural development. And it is my profound conviction that China has much to contribute to the conversation, a conversation already underway in many parts of the world, on the possibilities that exist for building a new pluralism and a diversely sourced, but shared, ethic at the heart of our globalisation.

The emergence of new poles of economic and demographic vitality, and the re-emergence of older ones, are necessarily lapping the waves against an international architecture which was designed in a very different era. As the world’s fastest growing economy for the last thirty years, as a country comprising one fifth of the world’s population, China is to the fore of these transformations. There is currently no major global issue that does not involve the Middle Kingdom or require its cooperation.

Thus contemporary China is faced with a unique opportunity of being able to engage with the world without being constrained to adopt an externally-imposed model of development, such as happened in the 19th century, when a path of aggressive mercantilism was forced onto your nation. Today the Chinese people are in a position to freely and creatively engage with change and explore the possibilities for new models to be crafted. These models will hopefully be inclusive of the mass of the people, in terms of social protection, political participation, and cultural expression – so as to facilitate a real democratic achievement.

My wish – as President of a country which deeply values multilateralism – would be that China seizes fully this opportunity, not just to foster cultural and socio-economic progress among its own people, but also to enhance and extend the standing and effectiveness of those multilateral institutions that are concerned with humanity’s common good.

There is a new world to be made, requiring a new architecture of revitalised and well-resourced multilateral institutions based on mutuality, diversity, long-visioned commitment, and a recognition of the intergenerational nature of our collective responsibility towards our shared planet. This new architecture must also confer the capacity to anticipate and provide an alternative to a violent uprising of the excluded or oppressed, otherwise we may find ourselves reeling from old and revived fundamentalisms.

Multilateralism must be revived, then, as more than an aspiration or a locus for inauthentic rhetoric. In recent years, how often has the Security Council been in the position of responding to crises in a reactive fashion only, on the basis of concepts borrowed from the urgency of humanitarian operations, because it had failed to reach agreement on fundamental political objectives? Be it in the areas of global security, trade, or climate change, multilateral organisations have fallen short of concluding important negotiations over the last decade, and we have had to be content, rather, with intermediary agreements that postponed to the future definite and durable solutions.

Such a state of affairs is highly unsatisfactory – all the more so in light of the great common challenges that face humanity in this new century. I know that your country has, through the voice of its leaders, pledged to act as a “responsible player” in the multilateral system. Ever since its accession to the United Nations, in 1971, the People’s Republic has taken on increasing political and economic responsibilities on the world stage, by joining numerous existing international organisations and establishing its own structures of cooperation, in particular in the regional context. It is with this in mind that I warmly encourage China to continue to actively seek to contribute to putting the multilateral system back on tracks, and to be creative in the design of a revitalised multilateral architecture.

Let us pause a moment and ask: what is the alternative to multilateralism? As a Head of State from a continent which has been devastated, in the last century, by two World Wars and a Great Depression, it is my profound conviction, shared by many Europeans, that a world where peace depends merely on balanced power relations between states, and where each state makes decisions according to a narrow conception of its national interests – such a world is a dangerous one.

We should strive, rather, to reinvigorate a genuine “society of nations” between and among whom a real dialogue is organised – one that would allow for a concerted undertaking of common actions governed by the rule of law, and aimed at advancing our shared interest in global peace and prosperity. I believe that this can be achieved without undermining national sovereignties – that it is possible, in other words, to achieve a transnational consensus on values that manifest the fundamental dignity of the person and her context, while also recognising the legitimate authority of the state.

Unfortunately, such a dialogue between nations is currently impeded by the upsurge of dangerous versions of nationalism and fundamentalism across the world – in Europe, Africa, America and also here in Asia. Multilateralism, as a set of principles, relies on an interlocking of institutions, from the national to the regional and global levels. It is based on a vision of spaces and interests as being in solidarity rather than exclusionary, and of identities as being complementary. It calls upon us to recognise that decisions are improved through negotiation with others, and that mutuality and interdependence are a strength, not a weakness.

These are times, then, when all the nations in the world are faced with both unprecedented opportunities and challenges. For a country like Ireland, committed as we are to a harmonious, legitimate and efficient multilateral system, it is vitally important that China’s rise be recognised in context and accommodated in a collegial manner that brings this multilateral system together at a higher level for a new century. Indeed the global nature of the great challenges we are facing can only be tackled effectively through concerted action grounded in an ethical consciousness of our fundamental interdependency – and vulnerability, too – as human beings who dwell together on this fragile planet. That consciousness must not be limited to a narrow individualism but take history, culture and diversity into account.

I would now like to turn to some of these great challenges, which broadly overlap with those which your esteemed President, Xi Jinping, whom I had the honour to meet both in Dublin two years ago and earlier this week in Beijing, has identified as the defining issues for our times, namely peace and prosperity – which in my view includes environmental sustainability – and the progress of civilisation.

As for the first challenge – the building and sustaining of international peace – I am delighted to be able to say that both Ireland and China are constructively engaged in supporting the work of the United Nations in conflict prevention, mediation, and resolution. Indeed Ireland’s membership of the UN is central to our foreign policy and, for over half a century, the Irish Defence Forces have actively participated in peacekeeping operations throughout the world. I know that China’s commitment to the United Nations is similarly based on a longstanding respect for the centrality of the UN in the maintenance of international peace and security.[4]

At present, Ireland has soldiers serving as peacekeepers in UN operations across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. I am particularly pleased to note that Irish troops and officers are serving alongside Chinese counterparts in a significant number of these operations – for example in Cyprus, Côte d’Ivoire, Western Sahara, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, South Sudan and in Lebanon. Being just back from a visit to Ethiopia, where I witnessed at first-hand the predicament of almost 200,000 refugees from South Sudan, I was also very pleased to learn that some additional 700 Chinese peacekeepers are expected to join a UN mission in the Republic of South Sudan at the start of 2015.

China and Ireland thus share a similarly deep commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes and resolution of conflicts. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, addressing the UN General Assembly in September of this year, emphasised the importance of political solutions to current global challenges. He said that “history and reality have repeatedly demonstrated that to meet violence with violence will not lead to enduring peace.”

I fully share these sentiments and I hope that our two countries, together with our partners, can continue to promote the pacific settlement of international disputes in line with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. It is my firm conviction, too, that together we can advance proposals so that natural resources, so often the cause of conflicts, might become instruments for post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation.

May I now turn to the second global challenge facing our multilateral system – namely the need to foster balanced socio-economic development across the planet and more particularly, to ensure the food security of the world’s poorest. I would like to start by emphasising how, in meeting this particular challenge, the world has much to learn from China’s demonstrated ability to take far-sighted decisions when confronting complex policy questions.

For example, it is widely acknowledged that China’s current economic development is the result of careful, long-term planning initiated back in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up policy. Such ability at setting, and then meeting, long-term targets was strikingly illustrated in the way China managed to achieve some of the world’s sharpest reductions in poverty and chronic hunger over the last two decades. Uniquely, your country was ahead of schedule in meeting the first of the Millennium Development Goals – namely, the aim of reducing by half the proportion of chronically hungry people between 1995 and 2015.

This is a most remarkable achievement, indeed one of global significance: the 114 million people whom China has rescued from hunger since 1990 represent nearly two-thirds of the total 173 million people who were lifted from food insecurity worldwide over the same period. This progress is rightly celebrated as an economic triumph, but it is first and foremost a human triumph, in that so many of your fellow citizens are now able to enjoy lives free from food insecurity.

At a conference a year ago, the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, lauded “China’s tremendous feat of feeding 20% of the world’s population with only 9% of its arable land and 6% of its fresh water.”[5] The FAO’s Director General also praised China’s effort at sharing its expertise with other developing countries, notably in Africa, in areas such as irrigation, livestock, fisheries, crop production and agroforestry. Everyone here will agree that it is greatly impressive to see China thus transforming itself, within such a short period of time, from a recipient to a provider of technical assistance, development solutions and funding to other developing nations.

I am convinced that your country, recognised for such achievements, will continue to play a vital role in contributing to delivering what is one of the most fundamental of human rights – namely the right to food and adequate nutrition.

For Ireland, as a country that has been affected by a devastating famine in the 19th century, combating global hunger and malnutrition is also a key priority. 20% of the Overseas Development Aid Budget managed by Irish Aid is thus directed to hunger reduction. I am pleased to say that my country has been appointed, with Kenya, as one of two co-facilitators of the UN negotiations on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. I can assure you that Ireland looks forward to working closely with China and our other partners to contribute to a strong and measurable global development agenda that will seek to eradicate extreme poverty in the next generation, through a process which gives voice to those most affected by global inequalities.

Prosperity, of course, cannot be measured only through the prism of growth rates, or even solely in economic terms. There are serious reasons to believe that the current path of global economic growth, and the metrics that go with it, are not sustainable and might end up, if no radical action is taken at global level, in an irreversible destruction of our natural environment. As anthropologist Margaret Mead once put it:

“We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment.”

One of the most pressing issues of our times, therefore, is to find ways of balancing sustainability and the right to development. What forms of development can be made to fit with the higher values of environmental protection and human welfare? What are the respective responsibilities of industrial and developing countries in that regard? In engaging the dialogue on such questions, we must make sure the visions offered are informed by long-term consequences, if international justice is to be achieved.

I know that the consequences of the environmental crisis are acutely felt in China: water pollution and water shortages; soil pollution and desertification; energy scarcity – these are all issues which the Chinese government recognises and to which it is actively seeking to respond. The astounding pace and scale of urbanisation, and the question of the sustainability of mega-cities, also raise a specific set of challenges. The search for new models of regional and territorial balance, the exploration of new forms of rural development and urban planning are indeed a great challenge to both scholarship and policy.

We in the West should exercise restraint in any urge to propose ready-made solutions to China’s environmental problems. China will have to develop its own model of inclusive and sustainable development, and I believe that it has the capacity, the required long-view and the intellectual heritage to choose to do so. Indeed Westerners can hardly invoke moral superiority on environmental matters when, through history, they have contributed significantly to pollution in developing countries.

Given our recent experience in the West, rather than hectoring, it might be appropriate for some commentators to recall the words of Irish writer George Bernard Shaw in the message he addressed to the Chinese people on the occasion of his visit to Soong Ching Ling, in Shanghai, in 1933:

“It is not for me,” Shaw wrote, “belonging as I do to a quarter of the globe which is mismanaging its affairs in a ruinous fashion to pretend to advise an ancient people striving to set its house in order.”

Those who have not yet initiated a sufficient process of critical reflection in relation to their imperialist past and to the damaging version of economic growth they have contributed to spread around the world, may have quite some ground to make up before they might be in a position to lecture other nations.

However, once any tendency to adopt a morally superior standpoint has been renounced, I believe that there is room for, and great benefit in, cooperation on environmental issues, and on the detail of responses, through exchanges of experience and expertise in areas such as urban planning, rural development, renewable energies, or sustainable transport.

An area, let us be very clear, in which multilateral cooperation is not just mutually beneficial but absolutely essential, is that of global climate change. Indeed climate change is perhaps the most serious threat our planet has ever faced, one for which there simply is no other option than a collective and co-ordinated global response. Global warming shows us that rather than a patchwork of nations, we are in fact deeply interdependent and interconnected as members a common humanity (and beyond, as part of a global ecosystem we also share with animal and vegetable species).

I know that Chinese leaders take climate change very seriously, and that China has invested substantially in renewable sources of energy and energy efficiency.[6] I was delighted to hear of the joint announcement made last November, on the occasion of the APEC Summit, by President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama on the emissions goals to be proposed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris next year.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, by increasing the use of clean energy sources, such as solar power and windmills, to 20% by 2030 is highly commendable. Although those goals have yet to be put into a formal agreement, the fact that the world’s two largest economies were able to announce solid numbers after months of negotiations must be strongly welcomed.

It is the job of governments to define objectives, make policy decisions, and take action accordingly. As leaders we are called to show conviction, clarity, courage and consistency in our actions. However, it is the job of young people, of students like yourselves, who will inherit the planet, to make sure your decision-makers remain focussed on the goal of handing on a safe and hospitable world to future generations.

In speaking about some of the global challenges we, Irish and Chinese, jointly face in this 21st century, I have endeavoured to address some of the areas where there is a need for a new, effective form of multilateralism – one that has pluralism and mutual respect at its heart. The lessons learned by humanity throughout the 20th century must not be forgotten or lost in any renewed hubris of the strong.

In the task of forging this new form of multilateralism, there is a role for large and strong countries such as China, as well as for smaller but intellectually and diplomatically active countries such as Ireland. And there is a role in all of this for the sincere, open and, inevitably, sometimes challenging, dialogue that Ireland and China are willing to pursue with each other – the unlimited exchange of friends who are concerned with and respectful of one another.

Such a dialogue will only succeed if it is underpinned by genuine mutual understanding and vibrant intercultural exchanges. As an Irish scholar put it in his account of a failure of British-Chinese diplomacy, in the 1700s, we must never forget, I quote:

“The importance of remaining open, in pragmatic, as well as ideological terms, each to the overtures of the other. Building cordial relations is not just about profit, it means learning to read the cultural cues as well.”[7]

Such an observation has lost none of its validity in today’s world. We live in an era of unprecedented mobility. People are moving from the countryside to cities, between cities, between countries, between continents and, let us never forget, between cultures. Such mobility demands an ability to adapt to new modes of thinking and living, and at the global level, it requires a deep understanding of, and openness to, other cultures, the diversity of memory, and the integrity of imagined futures.

I know that these are views that are shared by President Xi Jinping, who said, in his speech to the College of Europe, in Bruges, last April – I quote:

“To move our relationship forward, China needs to know more about Europe, and Europe needs to know more about China (…) Only when we know where a country has come from, can we possibly understand why this country is what it is today, and which direction it is heading to.”

I profoundly believe that students, and academic institutions such as Fudan University, have a fundamental role to play in advancing the kind of deep intercultural conversation we need between China and Europe, and between China and Ireland. May I avail of this occasion to salute the work of Professor Dai Congrong who has made a major contribution to the appreciation of Irish literature in China through his translation of the first volume of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. Professor Dai is, I am sure, a very meticulous and patient person!

I know that Fudan has several joint programmes in place with University College Dublin, and I was also delighted to witness, earlier today, the signing of two Memoranda of Understanding with another Irish university, Trinity College Dublin, to promote student exchanges and joint research in the humanities. Cooperation with our oldest university will also contribute to the development of the Trinity Centre for Asian Studies, which will be important in advancing scholarship on your great Chinese civilisation.

May we, then, in our collective efforts now, and in the future, breathe new life into the spirit of internationalism and cross-border solidarity that infused the visit of George Bernard Shaw to Shanghai in 1933 – so that, together, we may craft a truly peaceful, plural and humane world civilisation, worthy of our peoples and their futures.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh – Xie Xie dajia.


[1] This Institute, founded in 1928, no longer exists.

[2] Shane McCausland. 2009. “Empires at Odds: The Qianlong Emperor and Earl McCartney’s British Mission.” in China and the Irish, edited by Jerusha McCormack, RTE’s Thomas Davis Lecture Series 2008, New Island, p.14.

[3] Greg Spelman. 2005. “Ireland at the United Nations 1965-1969: evolving policy and changing presence.” in Obligations and Responsibilities: Ireland and the United Nations 1955-2005, Eds. Michael Kennedy and Deirdre McMahon.

[4] For China, intervention requires a green light from the United Nations and consent by the state parties involved (as opposed to factions or groups).

[5] 2nd December 2013 (cf. “FAO and China mark 40 years of cooperation in hunger fight”)

[6] China excels at some technologies, such as bio-gas digesters and solar heaters

[7] Shane McCausland. 2009. Op.cit., p.25.

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