A Chinese conundrum

Eager to tap into China’s boundless market, Greece has joined a long list of European suitors courting trade contracts and travel deals with Beijing state officials and business representatives. But while Athens is rolling out the red carpet for a steady stream of visiting Chinese dignitaries, it is torn between desire for this lucrative trade and fear it could open the door to illegal immigration. In November, some 50 Chinese tourists were detained for more than a day at Athens International Airport by Greek police who doubted that they were legitimate travelers. «This made a rather poor impression,» conceded a high-ranking official of the Hellenic Association of Travel and Tourist Agencies (HATTA). «From the moment that people acquire a visa, that should take care of everything… but some officials sometimes get overzealous,» the official told AFP. It is zeal borne of experience – Greek consulate officials in China have already dealt with cases of attempted illegal entry into the European Union using Greece as an entry point. «Three months ago, one of my associates was contacted by a Chinese firm which said it wanted to do business with us,» said a Greek entrepreneur who spoke on condition of anonymity. «They asked us to intercede with the Greek Consulate in China to get them travel visas. «When we smelled a rat and checked with the Greek Consulate in Shanghai, we found that they were on an immigration blacklist,» he said. Greece intercepts thousands of illegal immigrants every year. Those who try to stay face a grinding legal process and hefty fees in their quest for a residence permit, which can last up to a decade. While more than a million aliens reside in Greece, the Chinese community is comparatively small – between 15,000 and 18,000 people, according to Robin Wang, chief editor of the China Greece Times, a weekly Chinese-language newspaper published in Athens. «Around 70 percent live in Athens, and 20 percent in the (northern port of) Salonika,» Wing told AFP. The Chinese only began to arrive in Greece in numbers after 2001 but they have already left their mark on Greek life. With at least one shop in every neighborhood, Chinese immigrants do a brisk trade in clothing, thanks to low prices much appreciated by Greek consumers. «A lot of Chinese have come from other EU states,» said Wing. «Greece is not as big economically as other countries, there are a lot of poor people… and most Chinese products have low prices. As one of our sayings goes, ‘Win your friend doing something very well.’» But this quick success is double-edged: while winning favor with Greek shoppers, it has caused tension with Greek tradesmen who complain of unfair competition practices, prompting the Chinese community to maintain a low profile. Few in Athens, for example, know that since June 2005, the Chinese community has operated a seven-floor building near the city center that includes shops, administrative offices and the headquarters of the China Greece Times. «(The operators) don’t want to move too fast,» said Wing. In contrast, Greece is definitely rushing to get its foot in China’s door. A procession of senior government officials have visited the «Middle Kingdom» in recent months, including the ministers of Merchant Marine, Culture and Public Order. And with the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games looming closer, Greece is eager to transmit expertise gained from its successful hosting of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. «After the 2004 Games, and after Karamanlis went to China, the Chinese know much more about Greece,» said Wing. «Many of my friends want to visit.» Greece has no direct flight services to and from China, and it takes about two to three months to issue travel visas,» said Wing. According to the HATTA official, the number of Chinese travelers now visiting Greece is «negligible, so small that we don’t even say it out loud.» But change could be in the air, with HATTA currently hosting a group of 50 Chinese travel agents, airline representatives and journalists on a week-long visit to Greece.