Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping accepts a piece of bog oak from Shannon Development CEO Vincent Cunnane

One of the most unusual stories involving Ireland and China unfolded in the Shannon region recently.

On the afternoon of February 18. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the future premier of China, spent several hours at the Shannon Development Zone paying homage to the region that inspired the Chinese economic miracle.

Yes, you read that right. The next leader of what many consider will be the most powerful superpower of all in this century made clear that the inspirational example of Shannon and its economic development
zone had been a major factor in the rise of China.

Shannon Development pioneered the set-aside economic zones, the creation of the first ever duty free and, not to be forgotten, the invention of Irish Coffee.

Last week in New York, Shannon Development CEO Vincent Cunnane recounted how the rural corner of Ireland became an inspiration to Communist China.

Back in the 1980s as China emerged from the dreadful excesses of the Mao era, leaders began searching the world for an economic model.

Deng Xiaoping, a huge reforming figure, sent Jiang Zemin (who was to become president from 1993 to 2002) and a team on a world tour to investigate new models of economic development.
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The Chinese landed in Shannon and were blown away by the duty free zone and how it worked. As Cunnane points out, the zone was a perfect example for the Chinese as they could not turn the entire country into an economic powerhouse overnight, but they could see how specially selected economic zones could work for them.

As Irish Times journalist Conor O’Clery noted, “The place that apparently impressed (the Chinese) the most was the Shannon industrial duty free zone. I’m told they were also very impressed with the informality of their Irish hosts, who took them to Durty Nellies pub afterwards for a sing-song – which may explain the warmth with which the Taoiseach (President) Bertie Ahern was greeted by President Jiang in Beijing in 1998.”

The Chinese government subsequently opened four special economic zones in 1980 on the Shannon model which were extremely successful in attracting foreign investment, stimulating trade and invigorating growth. There are now more than 9,000 such zones all over the country.

In the past 20 years, powerful Chinese leaders have come to Clare and studied Shannon Development. 
They included President Jiang Zemin; Premier Zhu Rongji; Premier Wen Jiabao; Vice Premier Huang Ju and Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan.

Xi was just the latest in a group of leaders to undertake what has become a pilgrimage for Chinese leaders. Cunnane believes that China will now become a major player for Ireland’s economic recovery, and that Shannon will lead the way.

It is a believe it or not story, but one that now looks like it will have a happy ending.