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Category: China Page 2 of 3


Empress Dowager Cixi
I immensely enjoyed reading “Empress Dowager Cixi” by Jung Chang, published by Vintage Books in 2014.
It tells the story of a well read young girl, named Cixi, from the Manchu aristocracy, who was selected to be one of the concubines of the Chinese Emperor.  In 1861, the Emperor died young, without a male heir by his wife. Cixi ,had, however, borne him an infant  son, and this son  became Emperor
Power was to be exercised on his behalf by Regents.
But, with the surprising connivance of the legitimate wife of the late Emperor,  the  infant Emperor’s mother, Cixi succeeded in dismissing the Regents,  and, along with the old Emperor’s widow, the exercised full power on her sons behalf.  
In 1875, her son, the Emperor, died,  not long after he reached maturity. Cixi  then managed to have another infant, a nephew of hers, named as Emperor.
Cixi thus continued to be the real power in the Chinese Empire, until her death in 1908.
She  opened China up to modern ideas in public administration, transport and education. She wanted to learn from the West, so that China would not be dominated by the West.
But Japan had been modernised twenty years earlier than China, and had developed a far stronger army and navy. Japan wanted to control China, or at least the Chinese market. When it did not get its way, Japan defeated China in a war over Korea in 1894.  As a result , Japan obtained huge reparations, which further weakened China economically and politically..
Other powers then made  demands on China, which, in 1900, provoked a popular, anti foreigner, uprising known as the Boxer rebellion.
Cixi sympathised with the Boxers, and was forced to flee Beijing when her capital  was taken by foreign troops from a number of nations, including Britain, Germany and Japan, who had intervened to suppress the Boxers. 
The foreign troops  could not , however,  fully  control China without the legitimation of a native Chinese government.  Cixi was thus able to return to power in Beijing after the foreign troops had left.
At this stage, having learned the lesson of the failure of the Boxer revolt,  she set out to prepare dramatic reforms of China, including an elected parliament and turning the Empire into a constitutional monarchy. The laws for this were passes, but Cixi  died before these could be brought into effect.
A few years after her death,   the Empire itself was replaced by  a Republic . This Republic survived, but not as a democracy as Cixi had  envisaged, until 1949.
This book is a dramatic story on intrigue, tragedy and extreme ruthlessness. The character of Cixi, and of her advisors and opponents, is drawn out very skilfully.  So also is  self satisfied and inefficient  social structure of mid nineteenth century China, which Cixi did so much to change, long before China became a republic in 1911. 
Cixi’s role has been downplayed  by both the Nationalist and the Communist Chinese  leaders, because both want to claim the full credit for the modernisations she had, in fact, initiated. 
Above all  this book is the story of how an intelligent  a woman was able to exercise immense power, in what appeared, on the surface, to be a completely male dominated society.
It is also the story of the humiliations suffered by the people of an ancient nation at the hands of foreigners, and explains why China today, is so determined to equip itself to resist unwanted external interference.



I was in China this week. The purpose of the visit was to promote Chinese investment in Ireland. 

I met the Irish Ambassador, Paul Kavanagh and his small team, who are working very hard to promote links between Ireland, and what is now the largest economy in the world.

The Chinese economy is being rapidly restructured.

Services are now the largest sector, 48%, as against 41% in manufacturing. There is now less reliance on exports and more on the home market.
Last Thursday, it was announced that China is to end its one child policy. This is a response to the fact that labour shortages will eventually be a problem for China.

This one child policy was first brought into force in 1980.

It  has been very effective.  The Total Fertility rate globally is 2.5, in developing countries it is 2.7, in the poorest countries it is 4.4, but in China it is only 1.6! 

The Chinese population will peak in 2027 and begin to decline thereafter. In this, China is like Europe.

In contrast, the population of Africa could increase from 1.1 billion to 4.8 billion by the end of the century.  Africa’s labour force will grow whereas that of Asia will remain stable, and Europe’s labour force will fall. As a result, Africa’s economy could enjoy the fastest growth in the world, over the next century, if it can maintain political stability.

A labour shortage is already evident  in China. The number of young people in the 18 to 24 age group today is 108 million, as against 124 million in 2008.   The number in that age group will fall by 7 million in each of the next 10 years. 

At the other end of the age spectrum, the number of retired people will start to grow rapidly. That is bound to have an effect on the overall productivity of the Chinese economy.

More and more Chinese families now consist of four grandparents, two parents, but only one child.. Growing up as an only child is a very different experience from growing up in a  large family and it remains to be seen what effect this will have on society.

Because of the preference of families for sons over daughters, more female babies are aborted, which has led to an imbalance in society. Abortion is contrary to the tenets of traditional Chinese religions, like Taoism, as I saw in a plaque displayed in a temple I visited in Beijing. But it is the policy promoted by the government. The fact that more girls than boys are aborted has not got much attention from the world feminist movement.

The new two child policy will not become effective straight away. Regional laws have to be passed to bring it into effect, and to remove the severe penalties that still apply to having a second child. 

There are also practical difficulties in the way of parents who may wish to have a second child. Housing is in very short supply in the big Chinese cities and there will simply not be room for a second child. Already many parents, who have gone to work in the cities, have had to leave their only child behind them in a rural village, to be cared for by a relative, because they cannot find room for the child in the city where they work.

A declining labour force and housing shortages are among a number of challenges China must face at the same time.

The country must also
  • orientate the economy away from heavy industry to consumer goods
  • reduce the level of debt of local governments, state owned enterprises, and households. 80% of all public spending in China is done by local governments 
  • reduce reliance on coal as an energy source because coal burning causes so much pollution


The Chinese stock market has fallen 40% from its 2015 peak. By comparison the US market is only 10% down from its 2015 peak, and the Euro zone only 15%.

House prices in major Chinese cities are out of reach of most employees. 

Air quality in the same cities is poor because China relies disproportionately on coal as a source of energy. 

Meanwhile China does not have a comprehensive welfare state, so Chinese families have to rely on savings, sometimes in the form of stocks and shares, and house property, to provide for their retirement. The fall in the stock market will thus have a direct effect on many Chinese families.

I have visited China a number of times in the last few years. 

On one of those visits, in 2013, I drew the attention of my Chinese audience to the then latest IMF report on the country.

It contained warnings that will sound familiar to those who have studied recent Irish economic history.

The IMF talked, even then, of the risks in China of 

  • “a steady build up of leverage eroding the strength of the financial sector”,
  • “a boom in non traditional sources of credit”, and of the need to take
  • “steps to reduce moral hazard to ensure that banks do not engage in potentially destabilizing competition” .

On the other hand, The IMF recognised that China has very well capitalised banks.

Most commentators believed that the Chinese Communist party, with its immense concentration of talented people in key positions, would be able to manage the huge structural changes required in the Chinese economy. It was believed they could impose technocratic solutions more easily than would be possible in a democracy.

The changes required include

  • a  managed  dissipation of the stock market and housing bubbles, 
  • a shift China away from reliance on investment in physical infrastructure to support the economy, to a  western style reliance on consumer spending.At one stage China was pouring up to 40% of its GDP into physical investment. When one is investing to that extent, one is bound to be putting some of the money into projects that will never yield a return.
  • a shift away from coal to cleaner energy sources and
  • the inauguration of a welfare state which would facilitate the development of a consumer led economy and less speculative investment by savers trying to provide for their old age

The fact that the Chinese authorities have now had to revert to a policy of currency devaluation is worrying.

It suggests that the authorities are not as firmly in control of the situation as one might have thought, and may not be able after all to manage the structural changes required, without the sort of political turbulence we have seen in democratic countries.


In 2009, I read “The next 100 years – a forecast for the 21st century” by George Friedman
George Friedman is the founder of Stratfor, a Texas-based strategic intelligence consultancy advising many major US corporations. Although described as a conservative Republican, his views would mirror those of many foreign policy realists in both parties. 

He assumes that military and economic power will determine the future. As he puts it, “anger does not make history, power does”. 

Looking back at the book six years later, it appears to have been prescient in many respects. 

He argued in 2009  that the United States would remain the dominant global power for the rest of the 21st century, because of its huge natural resources of coal and oil, its geographic immunity from attack in its fortress of North America, and its control of the world’s seas and of space.

Just as England’s strategic goal, as an island nation and a naval power, was to prevent Europe’s unification under one power coalition, America will pursue a similar policy on the Eurasian land mass. It will not want any one coalition – be it of Russia, China, Turkey or Japan – to dominate that land mass.

He was critical of the way American politicians sometimes approached foreign policy. Because America is so powerful, it has a much bigger margin for error than others, and it sometimes overuses that luxury. He said America is “adolescent in its simplification of issues, and in its use of power”. In general, I do not think President Obama can be accused of this, but some of his Republican critics can.

Other less powerful countries have less  margin to make mistakes. 

Most significantly in light of current events, he argued back in 2009 that Russia, following the eastward expansion of NATO to within 100 miles of St. Petersburg, was “in an untenable political position” and “unless it exerts itself to create a sphere of influence, it could itself fragment”. This is a credible explanation, offered beforehand, of Putin’s present actions in Georgia and Ukraine.

Both China and Japan he saw as vulnerable, because they are export economies, and they rely on the all powerful US Navy to keep sea lanes open for their exports of goods and their imports of raw material. Since 2009, China has spent heavily on its navy so this prediction may be overturned.

Friedman said that the European Union was a schizophrenic entity, in that its “primary purpose is the creation of an integrated economy, while leaving sovereignty in the hands of individual nations”. The current economic crisis is putting this proposition to the test, and one hopes Friedman will be proven wrong. But he has a point. EU’s states often set ambitious common objectives for themselves, but fail to match them with the necessary central authority.

He argued that there is a divergence of interest between Germany and others who will want easy relations with Russia, and more easterly EU members, who will fear again being sucked into Russia’s sphere of influence. Chancellor Merkel does seem to confronting this dilemma, if reluctantly.

Surprisingly, Friedman did not see China becoming as a great power. This was  because of what he saw as its inefficient allocation of capital, its corruption, its profitless exports and its unhealthy reliance on US consumers to buy its goods. Its one child policy will also mean that it soon will be an ageing society. It appears that the current Chinese leadership in confronting these challenges, but reorienting its entire economy will be a very difficult process. 

Surprisingly, Friedman saw Japan emerging as the major Asian power, notwithstanding its lack of resources and its very elderly population.  I believe this is incredible.  An elderly country cannot be a powerful country.

He ignored India altogether. I believe this analysis of the long-term balance of power in Asia was quite unconvincing.

He saw Turkey emerging as the major power across all the former Ottoman lands from North Africa to Central Asia. Here his predictions are more robust in light of subsequent events.  He argued in 2009 that Islamic fundamentalism will run out of steam because its real target, the liberation of women, is irreversible. Since he wrote his book, Islamic fundamentalism has actually increased in strength, but he is probably right in the long term.

Friedman speculated about the likely conflicts of the twenty-first century – including its wars. He believed the wars will be conducted by unmanned aircraft using high precision weaponry and guided from space. They will be backed up by small numbers of highly equipped infantry. The aim will be to destroy the electricity generation capacity and close sea lanes of the enemy. There will be modest casualties. Wars, he believed, would be limited, and would end with negotiated treaties. Pursuit of unconditional surrender would be off the agenda, because nuclear weapons would make it too dangerous. All this is true of wars between the big nuclear powers, but are hardly true of what we have been seeing in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and parts of Africa.

Although some of Friedman’s speculations had a touch of science fiction about them, its basic assumptions about the realities of military power, and it’s reach, are credible and sobering, especially for those who might think that neutrality would protect a country from military conflicts.


For China, the Second World War began in July 1937, and did not end until August 1945. China’s casualties in the war were greater than those of any other nation in the world, apart from the Soviet Union.

Whereas the enmities of the Second World War in Europe have largely been subsumed by the economic integration within the EU, they are still very much alive in the brittle relations between Asian states, notably between Japan and China.

I have just finished reading “China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945, the struggle for survival “ by Rana Mitter, which sets out the background to this brutal war and explores all its complexities.

Throughout the nineteenth century the central government in China had been steadily weakening. The Emperor had to rely on local warlords, raising their own forces to suppress the Taiping Rebellion between 1856 and  1864. The government had to make major trade concessions to western powers and lost effective control of some of its key port and its trade policy. It  had to allow foreign troops, including Japanese units, on  parts of its territories.

After the overthrow of the Emperor in 1911, the Nationalist Chinese Government of Chiang Kai Shek, began to reduce these foreign privileges, and in 1930 took back control of its own trade policy. This was seen by Japan, which from the early 1930’s could no longer rely on western markets because of the protectionist policies of western powers, wanted to create its own exclusive  economic zone, including China.

Japan decided in 1937 that it would demand that China cut its tariffs on Japanese goods, employ Japanese military advisors, and join a military pact ultimately directed against the Soviet Union. It did not intend to conquer China, just to control it.

But a minor incident between Japanese and Chinese troops near Beijing in 1937 escalated into a general war, because the Chinese did not, as the Japanese expected, back down and apologise.

Japanese troops took over large parts of Northern and eastern China, committing major atrocities including the rape of Nanking. There was no outside intervention to defend the territorial integrity of China, by the United States or anyone else. The Chinese retreated inland but did not surrender or make peace, as most people expected they would.

The war in China was costly and Japan needed more resources, and it  decided it had to choose between seizing territory and resources from the eastern part of the Soviet Union, or from South East Asia. 

It decided on the latter option. 

This led to a response from the United States which, in November  1941, demanded that Japan withdraw its troops from both Indochina and China.

Japan saw what was coming and attacked Pearl Harbour a few days later.

This did not solve China’s problem, because the United States gave priority to rolling back the Japanese in the Pacific, and to liberating Europe, over direct US military  intervention in China. Indeed the Japanese continued to advance further and further into China right up to 1944. China sensed that it was being treated as a second class global citizen, and that shapes present attitudes, both to the West and to Japan.


I  have been in Hangzhou in the past week attending a Global Investment Conference organised by Euromoney. Hangzhou was for a time the capital of China and the biggest city in the world. It is about 200 km from Shanghai, or an hour’s journey on the high speed train, a trip that I was told costs only 10 euros.

Hangzhou was a centre of the silk business and was visited by Marco Polo. Silk from Hangzhou went along the ancient Silk Road all the way to Europe, thereby making Hangzhou one of world’s first globalised economies.

I spoke in Hangzhou just as the Asia Europe Economic Meeting (ASEM) of heads of Government was taking place in Milan. As the President of the European Council, I attended the first ever ASEM meeting  in Bangkok in 1996. I met the Mayor  of Hangzhou and key commercial and political figures.

Since 2010 there has been a huge surge in outward investment from China in the rest of the world, jumping from 6.1 billion euros to 27 billion euros in just three years. This investment is going into  buying high tech companies, companies with globally known brands, and tourist resorts (like Fota in Cork). Just as China’s export drive enabled it, not only to gain income but also to gain market knowledge, this wave of investment is also designed to strengthen China’s global competitiveness and sophistication. 

Children in the Shanghai are getting the highest test results in Maths, Science and Reading comprehension in the global PISA tests, which shows that they will provide strong competition for European and Irish children in the global economy. Irish Universities are accepting Chinese students and also investing in developing University facilities in China. This will help China to become a high income economy, its people enjoying lifestyles that will make similarly exorbitant demands on global resources, to the ones already being made by  European and American lifestyles consumers.

Wage levels are rising fast in China, as demand for workers is beginning to exceed supply, partly thanks to the one child policy.  China is losing low cost jobs to Vietnam and Mexico, so it has no choice but move higher up the value chain.

There is a shift in the allocation of credit away from big, relatively inefficient, state owned heavy(and often polluting) industries, towards privately owned businesses in the consumer goods sector. While the raw GDP growth rates in China may decline as a result, the life style enhancing quality of future GDP will improve.

China is becoming a middle class country, with middle class tastes and material aspirations. With wealth has come anxiety, with many Chinese wanting to invest some of their savings overseas. This provides opportunities for the Irish international financial services industry.

While I was in Hangzhou, the protests in Hong Kong were still under way. The protesters wanted anybody to be eligible for election, not just candidates approved by a single nomination committee. I read an article on this controversy in the “China Daily”, by an Indian Professor, M D Nalapat,  entitled  “Hong Kong must avoid the democracy trap”, which challenged the notion that, at every level of economic development, democracy is a guarantor of economic success.

He said
“Political chaos can act as a speed breaker for rising Asian economies, dampening the challenge they pose to western counties. Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Ukraine are examples of countries where hundreds of thousands of youths believed that replacing of existing structures through street protest would result in a better life. Instead what they have got are deteriorating living standards and  increasing insecurity.”

This is unfortunately a fair comment, and demonstrates the danger of making exaggerated claims of automatic economic advantages from any change of governmental system. Democracy requires patience and self restraint, sometimes absent in recently liberated societies.

Professor Nalapat went on
“Hong Kong is still moving upward, when the present generation in the US and the EU are worse off than the generations preceding it”

This  is a  superficial comment. Mature economies will never have, or need to have, the same rates of economic growth as economies, like China, which are in the “catch up” phase. Indeed, there is a case to be made that, beyond a certain level of economic development, diminishing returns in human wellbeing and environmental quality set in. 5% plus annual growth rates cannot continue to infinity…..anywhere in the world.

It is not surprising that an article like Professor Nalapats’ should appear in the “China Daily”, but is troubling that it should be written by an Indian, an inhabitant of the world’s largest democracy, a country in which there are 3 million freely elected  legislators at differing levels of government, with real competition between parties unlike the tightly controlled system obtaining in China.

But Professor Nalapat is showing that people in the developing world are watching European and North American democracies, as we squabble about how to restore dynamism and optimism in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, and are drawing conclusions about our systems of government, and the capacity of those systems to enable us to get our economic act together, and democratically to reconcile citizens expectations with economic realities.


I was in the Far East recently doing some work in Singapore on behalf of IFSC Ireland.

It is a part of the world, like Europe, where a sudden bad political development could easily over turn good economic potential. 

The approach China is taking to oil exploration in the South China Sea, claiming the whole of the sea for itself, is deeply troubling to its neighbours. We see this in the riots in Vietnam in the past few days. There is, unfortunately, no agreement to jointly exploit the resources under the South China Sea, and that is a continuing source of tension, and is leading to an expensive arms race. 
Internal economic problems can often lead to external aggressiveness, as a means of distraction, as we have seen in  the case of Russia.

Many of the players in Asia, notably China, Japan and South Korea, despite their rapid recent growth, have internal problems arising from rising income expectations, indebtedness, and ageing.

Wage inflation in China is running at 18%, which will have a long term effect on its competitiveness. Its banking system has many non performing loans.

Japanese corporations are heavily in debt. The Japanese Government has a debt/GDP ratio of over 200%. Japan is one of the most elderly societies in the world, but is reluctant to allow immigration.

A rise in international interest rate would aggravate all these vulnerabilities. Such a rise will eventually happen.

Meanwhile North Korea, with its nuclear arsenal, remains an existential threat to all in the region. 

Conflict in East Asia could have disastrous implications for the world economy, because it would disrupt the complex, interdependent, and fragile multinational supply chains on which global manufacturing is now based.
Meanwhile, China and the United States are pursuing competing agendas. Each would like to incorporate East Asian countries into rival economic blocs.

The US sponsored proposed Trans Pacific Partnership does not include China, but China is offering an alternative, less demanding, trade deal to its Asian neighbours. The choice is important.

If Senate Democrats continue to deny President Obama the authority to negotiate trade deals, on which the Senate agrees to vote on as a single package rather than pick apart, there has to be a possibility than the Chinese approach will win out.

This would bring about a significant shift in the global balance of power.


Speech by John Bruton, Former Prime Minister (Taoiseach) of Ireland (1994 to 1997), to a meeting of Zhejiang Chamber of Commerce  at the Guangzhou Baiyun International Convention Centre, at  9am on  Sunday 1 September 2013.

I would like to speak, today, first about the Chinese economy and some of the challenges it faces, which have also been faced by my own country, Ireland.
Second, I would like to say something about the  global political economy, and particularly about Europe and the euro.


The last time I was here in Guangzhou was in 1978 when, as a relatively young member of the Irish legislature, I came here to observe the beginning of the modernisation of China , under the leadership of the late Chairman Deng.
My impression, at the time, was that everybody travelled by bicycle, and wore uniform clothes. The sound of China for me, was the tinkle of a thousand bicycle bells. China struck me, then, as a sensibly frugal society, which let nothing go to waste. There was a sense of order, a sense that people knew where they were going.
I also found a people who were was immensely welcoming towards a European like myself, who came from a continent whose interactions with China, over the previous 150 years, had often been marked, on the European side, by exploitation and racism.
I even saw the remnants of the European concessions here in this city, where, until 1949, European nations had applied their own rules, even though on Chinese sovereign territory. In the French concession I came across a disused Catholic church, that had been converted into a  clothing  factory. I sometimes wonder if it has since been restored to its former use.
I also had a strong sense, then, that China was a society on the move.
Now, 35 years later, I am back in a very different city. In one of the great commercial centres of the world, to see the results of the modernisation initiated 35 year ago.
Most people in the west did not really understand what China was doing then.


Many may have thought that the Four Modernisations were only rhetoric.
I came across a phrase recently that will probably be familiar to many here,  that sums up the  Four Modernisations  policy initiated here in 1978.

It was that the country was
 “wading across a  river, by feeling for stones underfoot”.
In other words, it was a policy of experimentation, of trial and error, of allowing mistakes to be made, of trying different approaches in different regions, and allowing competition between the different approaches and the different regions.
This flexibility explains the difference between Chinese and Soviet economic policy at that time, and explains why the first succeeded, and the other failed.
Indeed, the strength of the western capitalist economic model, is that it, too, encourages experimentation and trial and error, but uses different methods to do so.
China has made huge strides since 1978. It is now well established, on an income per head basis, as a middle income country according to World Bank classifications.


In 1960, there were 100 middle income countries in the world. Ireland was one of them.

By 2008, only 13 of those 100 countries had reached high income status. Ireland was one of the 13 that made it, along with Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius, Spain, Equatorial Guinea, Portugal and Greece. 
The remaining 87 countries, which were middle income countries in 1960, have undoubtedly made progress since, but they are still middle income countries, and some of those who attained high income status by 2008, may now be falling back into the middle income category.
Nothing stands still. Progress to the next stage is not automatic.

Economic growth is, as the economist Schumpeter put it, a process of constant creative destruction. Growth is about change. Change is often painful, and painful, but necessary, change can easily be confused with mindless austerity.   
When a country is moving from less developed, to middle income, status, it is often able to compete by doing things , that are already being done, more cheaply than established competitors can do them. It does not have to come up with brand new technologies. it can use existing technologies, but apply at less cost and with minor improvements.

Moving a country, from middle income, to high income status, in contrast, often requires it to push at the boundaries of technology, to find a niche that no one else if filling, to invest in people and ideas as well as in concrete and metal. 
That is the stage into which China is now moving its 1.4 billion people, a move that promises to be one of the great transformations of human history. 


The size of the transformation involved explains why China is today spending 2% of its GDP on Research and Development (R&D), which is more, as a proportion of GDP, than Ireland, Netherlands, the UK, Norway, Luxembourg, Italy, and Spain and many other European countries are spending. 
Incidentally, Israel, Korea, and Finland are the biggest proportionate spenders on R & D.
But R&D alone will not move a country from middle to high income status. It must be made easy for entrepreneurs to use the R&D, by setting up new businesses and to recruiting talented local people to help them do it.

Here, Ireland has a strong advantage in that it is one of the easiest places in Europe to set up a new business, and one of the easiest in which to recruit young well educated people at competitive salaries. 
This has already attracted 18 different Chinese companies to set up operation in Ireland. Ireland is particularly interested in Chinese companies that are in fields like Life Sciences, Clean tech, financial services and information technology.

Ireland is also active in food exports to China ,which have  grown by 92% in just two years! 
I believe there are aspects of the Irish educational system from which China could benefit . 5000 Chinese students study in Ireland. Numerous agreements exist between Irish and Chinese Universities. These must be built upon, especially in key areas of research ,like financial services.


If China is to exploit its investment in R&D to the full , it needs to liberalise its system of local residency permits, which discourage migration within China,  and to make it easier for  new Chinese companies to set up, in competition with existing  state owned or established enterprises.
The European Union, with its 0.5 billion people is a much smaller entity than China with its 1.4 billion people, but in the European Union, there are still restrictions on internal migration, analogous to the Chinese residency permit scheme, in that the EU does not have full transferability of Social Security rights, and full mutual recognition of professional qualifications, for internal migrants within the EU.


But it would be unrealistic for me to come here and fail to refer to some of the recent economic difficulties Ireland has encountered. These difficulties are being overcome. Growth has been resumed, foreign investment in the country is at an all time high, and the government is following a careful plan. But it is also important to analyse objectively how Ireland got into these difficulties, and I believe that would be helpful to a country, like China, that is also undergoing rapid development and  wants to avoid converting that into a destructive bubble.
Indeed, the latest IMF report on China, contains warnings that will sound familiar to those who have studied recent Irish economic history. It talks of the risks of “a steady build up of leverage eroding the strength of the financial sector”, of “a boom in non traditional sources of credit”, and of the need to take “steps to reduce moral hazard to ensure that banks do not engage in potentially destabilizing competition” in China. On the other hand, it recognises that China has very well capitalised banks.
A few years ago, these risks existed in Ireland, and were not adequately addressed by the authorities in Ireland itself, or in the European Union. We have suffered for that, and these are useful lessons for China.
As I see it, this is what happened in Ireland. Thanks to artificially cheap credit, and rapidly rising property prices, Ireland experienced a property bubble between 2000 and 2007. This bubble led to a radical distortion of the country’s economic structures, and to a big increase in private and government debt.
The cheap credit was available because of decisions taken by the US Federal Reserve and by European Central Bank. Both favoured low interest rates. They did so to avoid dislocations to the economy, that might have arisen from the dot com burst, 9/11, and the costs of German reunification. In these goals they succeeded.
But the extra credit found its way across national boundaries into housing markets in various countries, causing a bubble in prices, most notably in Ireland.  In 2008, the bubbles burst.


The bubble distorted the Irish economy in ways that will take years to repair. There was distortion in the form of
 a doubling in the size of the construction sector,
 large and uncompetitive pay increases across the economy, and
 rapid increases in numbers of people employed in the public sector. The fact that money flowing in, temporarily, to government coffers, made it hard to resist demands to increase the size of the government sector, permanently.

In just five years from 2001 to 2006, the share of the workforce in the public sector reached 29%, as against 19% in Germany.  The numbers in top grade positions in the civil service grew by 86% .
Bubbles misallocate human capital. Instead of choosing careers and skills, for which there is enduring global demand, talented people were drawn, by quick rewards, into activities for which demand is inherently temporary, like construction.


In a way, it is easy to see why people made the mistake of thinking, in the 2000 to 2006 period, that house prices in Ireland (and household wealth) would never stop rising. Recent history seemed to suggest that the only way house prices could go was up.

House prices had already risen  by 133% between 1994 and 2000. These increases were justified by rapid economic growth, immigration, and new family formation, all of which created a genuine demand for housing.

The trouble is that the increase in house prices continued after 2000, and was financed, not by improved competitiveness, but by excessive lending, and by income generated from, inherently temporary, construction spending. 

The assumption of the bankers, who were lending this money, seemed to be that demand for housing could go on growing, to infinity. A moment’s thought would have shown how nonsensical that was. 

But, in the middle of a boom, people are often too busy, to take a moment to think
The revenue of the Government became unhealthily dependent on taxes derived from property sales such as stamp duty, capital gains tax, and VAT on house sales. Property related revenues reached 18% of all revenues in 2006, whereas they were only been 8% in 2002.  But once house sales stopped or slowed down, of course, that revenue growth stopped, leaving a huge hole in the Government’s budget.

Again, a moment’s thought would have shown how dangerous it was, to build up permanent spending programmes, on the back of inherently temporary streams of revenue. But very few people, in politics or outside it, took a moment to think. 
For a country like China, the relevant question to ask about Ireland’s recent experience is
 “How can sensible, and generally public spirited, people make mistakes like this, and how can such mistakes be avoided ?”


I would identify two tendencies of policy making in both the public and private sector, that were at the heart of the problem in Ireland 
1.  “Silo tendencies” within institutions, charged with mitigating risks,  where people only thought about their own immediate responsibilities, and did not question wider assumptions.
2. A “consensus approach”, which encouraged a single view to be taken of any issue. Human beings are followers of fashion. We need institutions that deliberately challenge fashionable  assumptions, and those institutions did not work, in Ireland or in the wider European Union.
These errors can occur in ANY country, under ANY political system. They are not unique to Ireland, Spain, Arizona, California, Florida, or any of the other parts of the world where property bubbles arose.
 China must be wary that these problems do not arise here, and I know the authorities here are fully alive to these risks.

These are the five big problems that the counties of the world must come together to tackle. They are all loosely related to one another. With the exception of the finance problem, they are all problems that are silently creeping up on us, so silently in fact that it is difficult to create a sufficient sense of immediate crisis, to get anything done about them.
Technology will provide some of the answers, and I know China is devoting a significant proportion of its R&D to some of these issues.

But sacrifices and compromises will be needed between and within nations.
Pension entitlements will have to be limited in some countries, working lives extended, and elder care   vastly expanded with the aid of technology.
Migration will have to be accepted in ageing economies, and that is a big cultural challenge.

CO2 emissions and pollution will have to be tackled by making the ultimate polluter meet the full cost of what he does.

We may eventually need some form of global taxation, to meet the cost of preserving out common global heritage, but, in the meantime, we need to restore the tax base of states, in a cooperative way. We cannot expect Governments perform functions if its revenues are artificially depleted.
And finally we need to put banking on footing that will be sound enough to allow incompetent banks to be closed down without putting the whole economy at risk. “Too big to fail” and “ too interconnected to fail” should no longer be characteristics of our banking systems.


The existence of the euro, the single currency, has not created the economic crisis in Europe.

This was going to come anyway because of lost competitiveness, the emergence of new competitors, like China, for traditional European industries, and the progressive ageing of European societies. Expansionary monetary policy could only have postponed the emergence of the symptoms, it could NOT have prevented the illness.
What the existence of the euro has done is impose discipline and mutual solidarity on Europe.
Without the euro, countries would have pursued the route of devaluation and inflation in response to their problems. Savings would have been wiped out.  This is not possible now, and that is good. Instead problems are now being tackled at their source.
Without the euro, wealthier and stronger European countries would not have come, so quickly, to the aid of other European countries in difficulty. They have now done so on a systematic basis, and that too is good.

The EU is moving toward a common system for winding up banks that need to be wound up, without putting the overall system at risk. It is moving toward a common system of deposit insurance. These are issues that also require attention here in China.
Much better systems are now being put in place in the European Union, to ensure that, in future, public finances, and underlying competitiveness, do not get out of line again.  Out of the crisis, we are now facing up to problems we had ignored for the past 20 years in Europe.

The euro will survive. Not only that, I believe it will eventually be imitated in other parts of the world. 
To sum up, the euro
  • is a protection against the expropriation of savings, through inflation and devaluation.
  • is a factor for economic stability in the world, and
  • is a major political step forward for unity Europe. 


I have just spent an enjoyable day and a half in Naples, capital of the Italian south
It is a beautifully situated city, near Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, and endowed with some of the most remarkable churches in the world.
In one of these I discovered the tomb of an Irishman I had never heard of before, Luke Concannon born in Kilbegnet in Co Roscommon in 1747, and a Dominican priest, who was the first ever Catholic bishop of New York. He died in Naples in 1810, presumably on his way back to New York after a visit to Rome.  
I was struck by how clean and well kept Naples was, contrary to its reputation, and by the number of young people and small children on the crowded streets of the old city.


Italy is facing many economic problems at the moment and I saw signs calling for demonstrations against the policies of the Monti Government.
Economic growth has been lagging in Italy since the 1990’s, and Italy has been hit particularly hard by Chinese competition, particularly in fashion goods. Meanwhile pay has increased far faster than productivity.
 Italy had the same balance of payments situation as Germany in 2000, whereas in 2010 Germany has a large surplus and Italy a large deficit.


This is because Germany has been able to export engineering goods to the expanding Chinese market, while Italy has lost market share to China in its speciality, fashion goods.
 In a way, the opening up of China has created unanticipated new imbalances in the euro zone that have arisen since the currency was launched. Some of the German commentary on the euro crisis has ignored this fact.


Italy has a big Government debt, but most of this debt dates back to the 1990s, when services expanded while revenues were contracting. Today, Italy almost has a primary surplus on its Government accounts, in other words, it is collecting as much in tax, as it is spending on all Government services apart from interest on past debt. In this regard, it is in a much better situation that the rest of the euro zone.
In contrast, Ireland has a smaller government debt as a proportion of GDP, but has a substantial primary deficit….Ireland’s day to day spending on all services, apart from debt interest, still exceeds its day to day revenue by one of the largest margins in Europe.
Italians have a much lower level of private debt, 130% of GDP, as against 350% in Ireland, and 250% in Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. There was no property bubble in Italy, in sharp contrast to Spain, something that needs to be explained.
Italy’s problem is that its medium term growth potential is less than that of either Ireland or Spain . This is partly because Italy has an older population, and partly because Ireland has a more modern industrial economy. 
Italy has a large black economy (15% of GDP), and it takes ages to enforce a contract or set up a business in Italy. A judicial process that would take 52 days in the Netherlands, 49 days in the US, or 183 days in Spain, would take 630 days in Italy!


Italy’s educational system is open to criticism.
A large number of students, particularly boys, drop out of school with no qualification at all, and its universities fail to prepare students for the jobs that actually exist. This is strange for a country, so many of whose prominent politicians are university professors! 
Only 15% of men, and 24% of women, in the 30 to 34 age group have a university education. 
As in other countries, the educational system is failing boys more than it is failing girls. Similarly, in Ireland, the unemployment rate among boys is higher than it is for girls.  


I have been travelling a lot during 2011, and  that has given me time to read  some good books.
I find that it is only when one has a limited choice of things to do, that one can concentrate on reading a book  and enjoy it fully, and there is a limited choice of things to do on a airplane.
The best book I read in 2011 was “Napoleon in Egypt” by Paul Strathern.
It is about the invasion, in 1798, of an Egypt that was then nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, by an army of Revolutionary France, led by General  Napoleon  Bonaparte.
 Napoleon brought with him a large number of French academics and scientists, and his plan was to bring the benefits of the European enlightenment to this part of the world and, in his own mind at least, he intended to use Egypt as a jumping off point for an invasion of India,  and the eventual  establishment of a global empire.  He modelled himself on Alexander the Great.
 Napoleon was an atheist, in the French revolutionary tradition, but he put himself forward  to the Egyptians as a friend of Islam. He wanted  to make the invasion acceptable to the locals, some of whom initially welcomed the overthrow of the previous Mameluke military regime.
He told them that the “French are true Moslems”.  But, as time wore on, the main local support for the French came from the Christian and Jewish minorities, who suffered most when the expedition eventually failed.  As is the case today, there was a wide divergence of values between French secularists and devout  Muslims, and for all his efforts Napoleon never bridged that gap.
The Mamelukes, who Napoleon initially defeated, were  a military caste who had  been created by the Ottomans  from  among people they  enslaved in European  parts of their Empire. The Mameluke  system of administration had been  corrupt and unpredictable.  Napoleon tried to modernise it,   and, to assist in the process, he brought the first ever printing press to Egypt.  The French also opened first  shops in Egypt  where prices were fixed , rather than to be bargained.
Napoleon’s soldiers were the first Europeans to travel to the upper reaches of the Nile, and to see some of the glories of ancient Egypt, like Luxor and Thebes. The French also discovered the Rosetta Stone, which eventually explained the ancient Egyptian language.  They assiduously mapped the plant and animal life of Egypt.
 Militarily, the expedition was doomed, when Nelson defeated the French navy at the battle of the Nile and thereby cut Napoleon off from supplies from home. His communications with France were haphazard after that, and most of his reports back to Paris were captured by the British Navy.
In an attempt to break out of this situation, Napoleon invaded Palestine and Syria in the hope of getting  back to Europe by fighting his way through Turkey to the Balkans.  But, as in Russia in 1812, he overextended himself and lost many soldiers from exposure to harsh weather conditions. While in Palestine, he issued a proclamation describing the Jews as the “rightful heirs of Palestine”. It is not recorded what the locals living there at the time thought of that.  He certainly felt he could remake the world without too much concern for the views of local inhabitants.  Napoleon eventually abandoned his army in Egypt to return to France, and insert himself successfully into French politics. About 15,000 Frenchmen were killed or died of disease during the two year occupation.
I read “Earthly Powers” by Michael Burleigh. It deals with the clash of religion and politics from the French Revolution to the Great War.
The French Revolution was strongly opposed to Christianity.   By 1794, masses were only being celebrated in 150 of France’ s 40,000 pre Revolutionary parishes , and  monasteries had all been broken up. In the suppression of the Catholic  anti Revolutionary risings in western Franc e, up to a third of the population in some areas were put to death.  I saw a monument to some of these people on a visit to Angers during 2011.
The Revolution’s rejection of religion removed  restraints on human behaviour, and contributed to disorder. One of Napoleons first initiatives  to restore order when getting power was to  negotiate a Concordat with the Catholic Church . Under it the Concordat, a new episcopacy was formed, some of whom included bishops who had cooperated with the Revolution and some bishops who  had remained loyal to the Pope. Clergy were obliged not to marry couples without a prior civil ceremony, something that remains the case in France this day.
Burleigh argues that the Concordat reduced the pre existing role of the laity in the French church, a role that they had been forced  take on while the church was being actively persecuted by the Revolutionary authorities.
In Britain, socialism and Christianity were frequently allied, whereas on the continent Christianity was more frequently allied with conservatism, perhaps in reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution.  In working class areas of London in 1900, 15% of the population still went to church on Sundays,  whereas only 1% did so in similar areas of Berlin.
I found the subject fascinating, but the book to be a bit too long, and diffuse.
I read “China, the Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2009” by Jonathan Fenby.  I strongly recommend it to anyone visiting China, as I did during 2011. When one reads of the chaotic conditions that existed for much of China’s recent history, one comes reluctantly to understand why authoritarianism has a certain appeal.
“The Quants ,”  by Scott Patterson who shows how some of the financial innovators, who devised the  innovative financial products that helped bring about the  2008 crash,  had stated their lives as mathematicians applying Maths  to professional gambling in  Las Vegas.
In fiction , I enjoyed  two books that explore human relationships and keep the readers interest right to  the last page, by Irish author , Deirdre Madden,  “One by one in the Darkness”,  and “Molly Fox’s Birthday”.  I also greatly enjoyed “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett.

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