A prominent academic has warned of a "distinct possibility" that the planned Chinatown development in Athlone could become a ghost town if it ever materialises.
Professor Jerusha McCormack, who divides her time between Dublin and Beijing, where she teaches in the Foreign Studies University in the city, was speaking in the wake of news of a major $3.5 billion town built by the Chinese in Angola lies almost empty, more than a year after it was built.
In all, 750 eight-storey apartment buildings, a dozen schools and more than 100 retail units were developed in Kilamba, some 30 kilometres outside the Angolan capital, Luanda, by the state-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation. Spanning over 12,000 acres, the development is the largest of several new satellite cities being constructed by Chinese firms in the African country, designed to house half a million people, however, the vast majority of the area is completely uninhabited.
Asked whether a similar situation could arise in Athlone, where the Ä175 million European China Trading Hub first phase at Creggan received the backing of An Bord Pleanála back in May, Prof McCormack said: "I think there is a good probability because we don't really understand the Chinese way of doing things. Even in developed countries like Sweden there were problems," she said, citing the case of a similar trading hub to the one proposed in Athlone, which now lies abandoned in Kalmar in the Scandinavian country.
"I'm in favour of developing enterprises with China but they should give equal back. We're just going to be giving without getting much in return. That's my fear," she said.
"Kilamba (the Angolan development) fits into everything I've learned and I'm not surprised," the noted academic and author of the book 'China and the Irish' added.
Promises of a jobs boom and an influx of investment will not arise either, Prof McCormack believes, as the Chinese will fly in their own construction workers and house them on-site in Athlone, standard practice for their developments, and even when up and running, very few local jobs will be created, she claimed.
Backers of the massive hub plans say some 1,200 construction jobs are promised in phase one, along with 1,520 permanent posts - of which two thirds would be for Irish and EU nationals.
"Once up and running it will be an insular development. There will be work for whatever Mandarin speakers are in Athlone, but the Chinese will fly in their own people who speak Mandarin to work there. They won't want to deal with English speakers. There may be work for some interpreters, but my question is what is in it for Athlone?"
She fears that the development, should it ever go ahead at all, could become a complete ghost town or a "ghetto of wealthy Chinese" away from everyone else, where most of the goods, services and people will be imported in from elsewhere.
As a result this would create major disenchantment among the local population, according to Prof McCormack given the amount of jobs they have been promised, saying that this kind of insular project would not integrate into the town at all either.
Mystified as to why the Westmeath town would be a suitable location for such a hub, the academic said she could see why Liverpool might be a choice for such a project, given that it is a large city, has an international airport, port and established Chinese community, but not Athlone.
"If it does materialise I would fear for it becoming a ghost town like Kalmar (Sweden). We have enough ghost towns here in Ireland already," she stated.
Stressing that she is not opposed to enterprise with China, the US-born Professor said there are a lot of opportunities for this country to do business with the Asian country where we can gain too, giving the example of exports of dairy produce, baby formula, the horse industry and others as areas the country can exploit.
However, she cautioned that we should educate ourselves about doing business with the Chinese before this can happen to the benefit of both sides.