ECONOMY

Outgoing Cosco chief Wei Jiafu speaks to Kathimerini ahead of retirement

“We have a saying in China: You cannot hold a golden bowl to beg for food. You must sell the golden bowl, buy some food and use the rest of the cash to invest. Soon you may have enough money to buy five golden bowls. If you choose to hold on to the bowl you will soon have no food to eat, and no clothes to wear. You will be dead, holding a golden bowl,” said Captain Wei Jiafu, just days before his retirement on Tuesday from the post of chairman of the board at Cosco, after 13 years at the helm of the Chinese shipping giant.

Is Cosco ready to take the next step and acquire a majority stake in Piraeus Port Authority (OLP)? There is speculation about a near 1-billion-euro deal. Are you ready to make this big move and take full control of the port?

Cosco Pacific is a publicly listed company. No plan can be disclosed before a decision has been approved by the board, so I cannot tell you any details. The only thing I can tell you is that we are interested in any program that concerns our core business. When a decision will be taken depends on the Greek government. Thirty years ago in China we wanted to open a port up to foreign investors but the management of the time was not happy with the idea. They said: “Why invite more investors? We are doing very well.” But you cannot have the same result only based on your own strength. Joint ventures with American, European and Asian investors at Cosco’s terminals brought fast growth. So this is the right way to get a fast-growing economy. You cannot let a port, or any other asset for that matter, sleep. All managements of state assets must understand this.

Does your vision of Cosco’s presence in Greece over the next five years include an investment in rail operator Trainose or in a second port, such as that of Thessaloniki? Is Cosco interested in any other investments in Greece at the moment?

I have talked about the railway issue with your minister of infrastructure and your minister of development. After I return to China I will send experts back here to look into it and hold talks with railway officials. Logistics is our business. Your railways and land transportation can distribute more cargo to more areas that do not have sea ports.

How about a second terminal in Thessaloniki? Can two ports fit into Cosco’s future plans?

We first need to fulfill our concession agreement for Piraeus so that this port will become No 1 in the Mediterranean region. Having been equipped with state-of-the-art loading facilities, it can host 18,000 TEU container ships. The port of Piraeus is already a world-class port.

Because of the global situation in the shipping industry – which is not very good overall – and because Piraeus is now one of the most dynamic and fastest growing parts of your business, would you say that we have reached a point where Greece needs Cosco’s investments while Cosco also needs Greece?

Yes, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, a win-win situation. The Greek government has decided that privatizations are a key measure to improve the economy. I think it is the right decision: Open up and reform the system – similar to what China did 30 years ago. Initially not everyone understood why we needed to open up. Now everyone has faced the fact. China has changed a lot. It has modern ports and factories, people’s living standards are going up. We must continue to open up and adopt reforms, do away with bureaucracy, adapt to a market economy, join the global village. We must exchange ideas, exchange knowledge and support each other – this is the right way. I think that the Greek government has made the right decision. I believe that Greece, with its ancient culture, can wake up and evolve into a first-class modern country.

When we last met two years ago in Beijing, you were optimistic that Greece would overcome the crisis. Have you seen any changes in Greece that make you more optimistic about the future?

Ever since I first contacted former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis I think that Greek government leaders are wise people with a global view. [Ex-PM George] Papandreou was very much a gentleman and continued to follow the same policy and supported Cosco, and together with our premier visited our port. I do not care what party they belong to. I only respect the government leader. And now with [Antonis] Samaras, I have thought the same. He is pushing the existing policy forward. At the opening ceremony for Pier III, I formally invited him to the cutting of the ribbon to tell the world that Greek people are wise people, the Greek government is a wise government, and that despite the debt crisis their economy could be confident, their economy can improve. And Cosco is a Greek terminal, not a Chinese terminal. We are a Chinese company but we have done things for Greece. So we held a ceremony on Pier III, which can handle 18,000 TEUs, saying that here there will be huge demand.

Greek opposition parties are saying that because the government is under a lot of pressure to push through privatizations, it is giving away too much for too little in return. What is your opinion?

I do not want to interfere in your domestic politics. But from my personal view, from an international global view, your government’s policy is the right policy. They must take measures to welcome global forces, modern technology and talent to come here together with local people to carry out projects that will be mostly to Greece’s benefit.

If they had adopted a conservative policy no overseas investor could do anything in this country. Everything would be yours 100 percent but nothing would bear fruit. So, for example, why did it privatize Piraeus? Because there were fewer ships, there was less cargo, there was less demand for jobs. After Cosco, it hit 2.1 million TEUs in 2012 and will reach 2.5 million this year. Every month, we bring in 170 vessels because your government leader made a decision to allow it.

Going back 30 years, when the Chinese government decided to open up, many people thought if you invited foreigners you would have to cut the cake up for others. Especially the bureaucrats, who were used to making decisions alone. But investors form a board and then the board makes the decisions. The collective opinion is more correct and more accurate. The small cake became bigger and 60 percent was bigger than the original 100 percent. The people supported the opening-up policy. China has continued to grow at a double-digit rate for 30 years and recently GDP growth has dropped to 7 percent but is very high because the base is much bigger. If they continue with the opening-up policy, it will not matter who is in charge.