China confirms resumption of Irish beef exports and easing of travel rules

Higgins and Varadkar raise Irish concerns about human rights in China during visit by Chinese premier Li Qiang.

Irish beef exports to China can resume immediately after the Chinese government confirmed it would reopen its market during the visit to Dublin of premier Li Qiang.

The announcement was made by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar after his meeting with Mr Li, who is widely seen as the second most powerful figure in China after president Xi Jinping.

Bilateral relations including trade and economic ties, EU-China relations and issues such as climate change and wars in the Middle East and Ukraine were on the agenda for the talks between Mr Varadkar and Mr Li during his one-day visit to Ireland.

Both President Michael D Higgins and Mr Varadkar also raised Irish concerns about human rights in China with Mr Li.

The Chinese market was closed to Irish beef last November after the detection of atypical BSE in a cow during a routine check by the Department of Agriculture.

The reopening has occurred much more quickly than a previous 2020 scare related to BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease, which saw exports to China suspended for 2½ years.

The news that exports can resume was welcomed by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA).

Irish beef exports to China are a small fraction of the more than €2.7 billion worth of beef Ireland shipped internationally last year, though the Government hopes the business there will grow.

The exports to China were worth €38.8 million in 2019 before the May 2020 suspension and some €25 million between April and October, the short period during which access to the market had been restored.

The Taoiseach said China had accepted Ireland’s scientific data that the BSE case was an atypical case.

“That allows us to reopen that export market which is important for Irish farmers … the more markets we have, the better price we get and the less risk of volatility as well,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said the resumption of market access was one of two “tangible outcomes” from the meeting with Mr Li.

The other was China liberalising its travel rules for Irish citizens, who will be allowed to stay for up to 15 days without a visa.

Mr Li began his engagements in Dublin with a meeting with Mr Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin which featured a discussion on climate change, global poverty, food security and conflict.

Speaking through a translator during a brief exchange open to the media, Mr Li told Mr Higgins that co-operation between China and Ireland “has made steady progress and produced rich fruits”.

He added: “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.”

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.

Áras an Uachtaráin 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.

After his meeting with Mr Li in Farmleigh Mr Varadkar said he had “raised our concerns about the situation in Xinjiang, in Tibet and Hong Kong … and also the forthcoming trial of [Hong Kong newspaper publisher] Jimmy Lai.”

Mr Varadkar said the 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 delegation were willing to have such issues raised but also said: “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.”