President and Taoiseach raise human rights issues with Chinese premier during Dublin visit

Varadkar says beef exports to China to resume soon after BSE scare as Li Qiang says co-operation between nations has ‘produced rich fruits’

President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar raised human rights issues with Chinese premier Li Qiang during their meetings on Wednesday.

Mr Li, the second most powerful political figure in China after president Xi Jinping, was greeted by Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina in the State Reception Room when he visited Áras an Uachtaráin.

A statement from the Áras confirmed that human rights matters were discussed during the talks, with Mr Higgins referencing points likely to come up at this month’s Universal Periodic Review on China by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Áras an Uachtaráin did not set out the specific issues raised.

Human rights organisations have long criticised China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur people of Xinjiang Province and a crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong.


Mr Varadkar also said he raised human rights issues with Mr Li, including “our concerns about the situation in Xinjiang, in Tibet and Hong Kong ... and also the forthcoming trial of Jimmy Lai”.

Mr Lai is a former newspaper publisher currently on trial in Hong Kong on charges of endangering China’s national security and publishing seditious material.

He was the publisher of the Apple Daily newspaper that criticised the Chinese Communist Party and was a strong voice for the preservation of freedoms in Hong Kong.

Mr Lai has been in prison since 2020.

Mr Varadkar said: “It’s fair to say that the Chinese government have a different perspective on these things than we do but they were certainly willing to have them raised.

He said Irish concerns over human rights relate to issues in China’s Special Autonomous Regions and Ireland’s view is “we needed to be frank about these things, that China is on the UN Human Rights Council and has international responsibilities”.

Mr Varadkar added: “Any country, including our own country, should be judged by the way it treats minorities.”

Asked about Mr Li’s response, Mr Varadkar said the Chinese premier was “happy to have it raised”.

“I don’t want to speak for him. But I think it’s fair to say that they would have a very different view of the facts and would dispute a lot of what has said about China in the media.

“But I think the fact that it was raised, that we were able to discuss it for a period of time, that he was willing to talk about it, I think, means that it’s something that is going to stay on the agenda and something that we can talk about again into the future.”

Mr Varadkar said he had a “very good” meeting with Mr Li and his team on bilateral relations, EU-China relations and “matters of global importance, like climate change, like the situation in the Middle East and also in Ukraine”.

He said: “We’re very honoured that he’s chosen Ireland’s one of the first European countries to visit and there’s a clear desire on both sides that we should strengthen and deepen relations between Ireland and China based on trust and respect and also being able to increase trade investment, people-to-people exchange, education exchange, cultural exchange between the two countries.”

The Áras statement added: “The President referred to the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Ireland and China, and in that context noted the value of enabling straightforward dialogue on issues between countries with friendly relations to the benefit of all in a fundamental and long-term sense.

“In this regard, the President referenced the forthcoming meetings of the Universal Periodic Review taking place in Geneva, the points that are likely to arise during that process, and gave the background to the Irish position on those matters.”

The statement added that “the President resumed conversations which he had with President Xi in 2014 with regard to the interacting crises of climate change, global poverty, food security, global conflict, and recasting development to take account of debt”.

It said Mr Higgins “further took up some of the points on the five macroeconomic principles which Premier Li advanced in his recent special address in Davos”.

During a brief exchange that was open to the media, Mr Higgins welcomed Mr Li, noted that President Xi visited Ireland in 2012 when he was vice-president, and mentioned his own visit to China in 2014.

Speaking through a translator, Mr Li said it was a “great pleasure” for him to make acquaintance with Mr and Mrs Higgins and he conveyed the “hearty greetings” of Mr Xi and his wife.

He described President Higgins as “a seasoned political leader in Ireland and you have all along attached the importance to Ireland-China relations and followed Chinese development”.

He highlighted how China was one of the first countries Mr Higgins visited at the start of his presidency and how on that occasion “you also had an in-depth exchange of views and a frank meeting with President Xi, and reached common understanding on a wide range of issues”.

Mr Li added: “Over the years our results-oriented co-operation has made steady progress and produced rich fruits.

“Our relations have set a good example of mutually beneficial co-operation between countries that are different in political systems, cultural divisions, and geographic size,” he said.

After talks between the two leaders, Mr Li crossed the Phoenix Park and was greeted by the Taoiseach at the official State guest house before he reviewed a Defence Forces guard of honour. The two were to have talks in advance of a bilateral meeting and working lunch at Farmleigh House.

In his toast before the lunch Mr Varadkar hailed 45 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and China, “flourishing people-to-people ties and cultural exchange and also our growing economic relations”.

He added: “We want to have a very strong and constructive relationship with China, one based on trust and respect and one informed by our values and the multilateral system in which we’re both stakeholders.

“Of course we won’t find agreement on everything but I hope we’ll always speak frankly and respectfully to each other and candidly as we did today.”

The menu for the working lunch offered Kenmare Salmon or Roast Irish Hereford beef sirloin. Irish beef exports to China were suspended late last year after a case of atypical BSE was detected in a cow during routine Department of Agriculture tests.

Mr Varadkar later announced that China is to reopen its market to Irish beef and that the move was “imminent”. The Department of Agriculture said the market had reopened immediately.

The Phoenix Park will be closed to traffic until 7pm this evening as a result of Mr Li’s visit.

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Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times