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Time for Ireland to start thinking like the Chinese

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China Vice President Xi Jinping with an Irish coffee on a farm in Co. Clare on Sunday

There was a great headline in one of the Irish newspapers last Saturday: “The Chinese Are Coming, Look Busy!”

And over the following three days as China's Vice President and dear leader in waiting Xi Jinping visited Ireland, we did our best.

In fact we were extremely busy.  Not making iPods or any of the other myriad products that the poor Chinese who slave away at Foxconn in China produce for the rest of the world.  No, we were busy kissing ass.

From the moment his plane hit the tarmac at Shannon after arriving from the U.S. and his visit there (where to his credit Joe Biden laid a few truths on him), we gave the poor man no peace.  It was fawning obsequiousness all the way as we relentlessly rattled him through every Irish cliché in the book.

Jinping’s three-day visit had official Ireland pulling out all the stops.  It was a blur of the Cliffs of Moher, Irish coffee, bagpipes, a visit to a farm, harpists at Bunratty Castle, the proverbial pint, a state dinner in Dublin Castle, swinging a hurley, a Gaelic football match at Croke Park, even Riverdance.  You can be sure he slept for a day or two when he got back home after all that.

So why Ireland?   Why would the top man in a country of 1,300 million people want to spend so much time in a country of, er, five million?

According to Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny and his ministers, it’s because China holds us in such high regard.  And because we’re such an important player in Europe, of course!

Some cynics suggested that the real reason was because his jumbo had to refuel somewhere for the long haul back to China.   Other cynics suggested it was because he knows we’re so desperate he was certain of getting an ecstatic, unquestioning welcome here.

That was not something that could be guaranteed elsewhere in Europe where all kinds of issues might have been thrown at him, like human rights abuses, the lack of democracy in China and the decades of suffering in Tibet.
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Even more embarrassing might have been outraged protests in London or Paris or Berlin at the refusal of
China at the UN Security Council to agree to measures to stop the butcher Assad from murdering his own people in Syria.  The risk of meeting such protests  had to be avoided at all costs.

So where could the Beloved Leader In Waiting be sure that the huge media contingent traveling with him would get lots of shots of him meeting adoring people who behaved as though he was as magnetic a personality as Bill Clinton?

In Ireland, of course, with the added bonus of a backdrop of spectacular scenery.  There would be endless shots of him looking presidential and wildly popular to send home to China, proving that we Europeans just love him to bits.

We’ve a lot to answer for.  But at least we’ve got a good excuse.  We’re desperate to get investment and jobs and we’ll do anything to get favored access to the Chinese market.

All that stuff about the Chinese keeping their currency artificially low and screwing up the world economy, about massive trade imbalances, about stealing intellectual property from the west, about obscene pay rates and working conditions for their workers in factories that are bigger than an Irish town, that’s all for someone else to worry about.

Jinping can smile and wave and be as inscrutable as he likes here.  We’ll pour the pints and have the craic and take what we can get.

Apart from rolling out the green carpet for him, we put on a big show to demonstrate what a great place Ireland is to do business and what great products we have to offer.

The most important event during the visit was the China Ireland Trade Forum which gave Irish entrepreneurs and movers and shakers a chance to rub shoulders with and make pitches to the 200 or so top level people who were in Jinping’s entourage.

That went on for hours in the beautiful King’s Hospital complex in Dublin, and everyone who was anyone in Irish business was there, with a waiting list of entrepreneurs and exporters trying to get tickets.

To be fair to Kenny, that may yet be quite productive and he’s off to China in a month with a big Irish business delegation to keep the doors open.  See no evil, hear no evil can have its rewards.

There are huge opportunities for little Ireland in the fast developing Chinese market, of course, especially as the Chinese middle class expands and wants things like quality food products, drinks, prestige brands and so on.  

But there is another way we can benefit from a relationship with China, something that was barely mentioned here over the past few days.  If we could suck up a fraction of their entrepreneurial zeal we would be much better off.

Coincidentally, a friend of mine who is in the housewares business was at the annual homeware trade fair in Frankfurt two weeks ago.   This huge exhibition covers an area the size of several football stadiums full of stands showing all the stuff that fills our homes.  Most of the thousands of trade stands in the huge halls were manned by Chinese showing goods that were Made in China.
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China doesn’t just make most of the world’s electrical and electronic goods (all those tablets and e-readers and iPods and phones and TVs and all the rest of it).  They also make a lot of the other manufactured goods as well.

At the homeware fairs you can get everything from Christmas decorations to chandeliers, all made in China.
But it was not just the mind blowing range of stuff that the Chinese were showing that impressed my business friend.

If a buyer wanted something in a different material, shape, size or color, that was no problem.  Different electronics or mechanics?  No problem.

At one point my friend produced pictures he had taken from magazines and explained that he wanted something like that but tweaked in various ways he specified.  Ten days after the fair finished they were pinging him emails from China, showing pictures and specs of what he had asked for and offering to send samples of prototypes for inspection.   They also quoted killer prices per thousand or ten thousand.

This is what a lot of people in the west don’t get about China.  We’re so used to seeing that Made in China stamp on everything that we think there must be a masterplan, with Jinping and his identikit buddies directing the whole thing.

That’s a common misconception.  Not everything is made in town-size factories run by Foxconn, where Apple produces its sophisticated products.

What China’s success is built on is small businesses, hundreds of thousands of them, all hungry for orders and clever and flexible enough to do things faster and cheaper than anyone else.

We look at some of the consumer goods that come out of China these days and we imagine that they must be made in mega-factories with armies of cheap labor.  The truth is that a lot of what we buy comes from small plants that are no different in scale or sophistication than in most other places, including Ireland.

Yes the cheap labor is a big factor and the endless supply of it that is available from the hundreds of millions still in rural China.  But all that would be useless without the entrepreneurial drive that so many Chinese have, particularly in the small business sector.

Entrepreneurial drive.  That’s what we’re missing in Ireland.

Not completely, because there are notable exceptions, like all the small new software companies.

But as a nation we’re not risk takers or innovators.  Most of us work for someone (and of course too many of us work for the state).  Maybe it has something to do with our colonial history.

The scale of the FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) sector here is seen as one of our great successes in recent decades.   We attract big multi-national companies from around the world, particularly the U.S.  They bring us tens of thousands of jobs (like the announcement this week that PayPal is bringing another thousand jobs here).

That’s all good.  But why is it always someone from somewhere else who comes in and starts a factory here?

Why can’t we do it ourselves?

We’re always boasting about our young graduates and how bright and well educated they are.  But we rarely hear any of them say, “I’m going to work for myself, I’ve got an idea about starting a new business.”

A lot of this goes back to the culture in our schools, much of which is still rooted in the classical education tradition of the last century.  The teaching of business, a relatively recent innovation in the curriculum here, is poor.  The textbooks are written by teachers, none of whom has ever run a business.
And the system is overseen by civil servants in the Department of Education who have never dirtied their hands in the world of commerce.

In universities here it’s much the same.  All the kids aim at getting jobs in big corporations.  Actually starting and growing a business is seen as too difficult or not worth the effort.

The Chinese think differently. We need to do the same.

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