New Role for China in the Modern World Fr. Seán McDonagh,

Traditionally, China was known as the Middle Kingdom, whose unbroken cultural roots stretched back almost 5,000 years. In the years between 1405 and 1433, the Ming Emperor sponsored a number of naval expeditions. The size of some of these expeditions  were enormous, and the ship bigger and better than anything in Europe could make at the time.  Trade was not the only purposes of these voyages. Equally important was the wish to impress people across the Asian continent and beyond about  the power and prestige of the Chinese empire.  Admiral Zheng He led a huge fleet consisting of between 200 and 301 fleet and  28,000 crewmen across the Indian Ocean visiting  Arabia, Brunei, East Africa, India, Malay Archipelago and Thailand. During their stop-over in various ports they gave gifts to the local rulers and in turn received gifts for the Emperor.  Among these gifts were   gold, silver, porcelain and silk. In return the Chinese received novelties such as ostriches, zebras, camels, ivory and giraffes.

In 1424, the Hongxi Emperor who reigned only for a year between 1424–1425, decided to end the voyagers. While they were resumed under his successor, they were completely stopped by 1435.  In the subsequent centuries China turned in on itself and  suffered extraordinary humiliation at the hands of foreigners during the Opium wars of the 19th century. The Boxer Rebellion between 1898 and 190, further weakened China. As I wrote in my first article on China, the 20th century was not very kind to it either.

Now, however, China is back on the world state.  I wonder when the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao visited Athens in October 2010, did he remember the travels of Admiral Zheng He in the early part of the 15th century.  Like the Admiral he was bearing gifts worth billions of dollars in business deals and investment in ailing economies in Europe, such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland.[1] The Chinese believe that the financial crisis now engulfing some European countries is an ideal opportunity for them to buy up assets which have been depressed by the global financial crisis. Chinese Premier pointed out that China had acted as “a friend” of financially troubled European countries by buying their bonds when other investors had fled the market.

For the past two years there has been consistent rumours that Chinese investors are looking at some towns in the Irish midlands in order to set up a major Chinese business presence in Ireland and most of Western Europe.  Since the town of Athlone has been mentioned, some of the local wags have referred to the proposal as “Shanghai-on-the-Shannon. [2] The local newspaper the WestMeath Independent describes the project as the “greatest commercial and trade centre, tour centre, cultural conference centre in Europe.”[3] The massive project will include a convention centre patterned on a Chinese palace, two five-star hotels, apartment complexes, a railway station, two bus terminals, a medical centre, fire station and golf course.  This centre would act as a massive trading hub which would allow Chinese companies to display their products in large exhibition halls, so that prospective buyers would not have to go to China to make their purchases, because all commercial transactions could be conducted at this centre. One of the attractions of Athlone is that its Institute of Technology under the direction of Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin has already established exchange programmes with research centres and universities in a number of Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Dalian.   The New York Times reported that the Irish Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, would be delighted if Chinese chose Athlone as an “investment gateway to Europe,”[4]

But like all investors, the Chinese entry into European markets is not driven by altruism.  Like Admiral Zheng He, current Chinese politicians such as the Prime Minister and the President Hu Jintao, will be hoping that their new “European friends” would support them as they come under increasing pressure to free up their currency, the Renminbi (RMB).  In recent years and at the G20 meeting in South Korea in early November 2010, China has come under enormous pressure to allow its currency to float. The Chinese oppose this policy believing it would undermine their export-oriented strategy which has served them well. The Chinese are back, and it would seem this time to stay.


[1] Liz Alderman, “Looking for Investments, China turns to Europe,” New York Times. downloaded on November 1st 2010

[2] Mary Fitzgerald, “Welcome to Shanghai-on-Shannon,” The Irish Times, November 8th 2010, page 3 (WeekendReview(

[3] ibid

[4] Liz Alderman, op.cit.


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