Greece, China and a sea of opportunity

The Chinese and the Greeks have never been closer than they are today – with all the opportunities that this provides for developing commercial, economic and cultural ties. At the same time, it poses the danger of Greece missing the opportunity to build upon the positive image that another nation has of it. Both nations are rightly proud of their past, with the difference that today the Chinese are building a modern civilization while the Greeks stand at the edge of the precipice of bankruptcy and humiliation. In antiquity, the Greek and Chinese civilizations developed separately. Alexander the Great never reached China. Even though caravans were carrying goods between China and the Greek and Roman world at that time, we have no record of Greeks reaching China nor of Chinese discovering the Greeks, until Byzantium. The last years of Constantinople coincided with China’s only (and brief) opening to the world, when, from 1405 to 1433, the legendary admiral Zhang He sailed around southern Asia to east Africa, down to today’s Tanzania, with a fleet of 300 ships. He opened routes for trade and cultural exchanges long before the Europeans landed in America, rounded Africa and reached Asia with their plans for conquest. Then, suddenly, China turned inward and isolated itself for nearly 600 years. For centuries, whatever contacts there were between Greeks and Chinese were at a personal level, between traders and sailors. Greek adventurers were children of the world, forerunners of today’s globalized economy. And it is natural that today Greeks and Chinese are meeting again in the spheres of trade and shipping. Today the Chinese are opening themselves to the world as never before. In their country, they are building new, modern cities; they hosted a spectacular Olympic Games in 2008; on May 1 they are inaugurating Expo 2010 in Shanghai; they send students to the world’s top universities and traders across the planet (in Greece alone they are estimated at about 30,000. Even small towns in Crete now have Chinese stores). The biggest customers of Chinese shipyards are Greeks, while Chinese companies charter Greek-owned ships, continuing a relationship that began in the 1960s and 70s, when China was still in deep isolation. Indicative of the early warming of ties between Greece and China is the prestigious location of the Greek ambassador’s residence in Beijing, right next to his US counterparts – a reflection of the early recognition that Greece extended to Mao’s China. Today, for the first time since Zhang’s missions, China’s commercial fleet is spreading across the planet. The container terminal at Piraeus that Cosco Pacific will be managing in a 35-year concession is the first such investment made by the Chinese company on its own and not in a joint venture. That is why Cosco and its president, Captain Wei Jiafu, place great store in the venture’s success, despite the initial difficulties, such as a strike by Greek dock workers. It is a matter of prestige and a step toward China’s leading shipping company’s expansion in Europe. Greece can become a beachhead for Chinese trade – or, if things go awry, could cause the Chinese to look for easier places to do business. As Captain Wei says, «Cooperation begins with the port and can expand to port-related activities.» These include logistics, ship repair and other services. «Whatever we do will come after much research,» he adds, in an indirect reference to the difficulties already encountered in Piraeus. (From an initial target of moving 900,000 to 1 million containers at the Greek terminal this year, Cosco officials are now aiming for 800,000.) Apart from these contacts, though, a Greek in China can only be surprised by the interest Chinese people show in Xila, as they call Greece. It is not only the fact that both countries hosted back-to-back Olympics that revived Chinese interest in Greece’s ancient civilization and modern incarnation, but also the sense that Greek thought serves as an introduction to Western thinking, notes Elena Avramidou, the Greek Embassy’s educational and cultural attache. She adds that there are hundreds of students learning Greek – both Ancient and Modern. Recently she was involved in organizing a conference on Confucius and Socrates, the two most notable figures in their nations’ thinking. Many people – in government, in business, in the news media – speak knowledgeably about the similarities and differences between the two ancient civilizations. This unexpected familiarity between the two nations – like the Greek revival columns that sprout up everywhere, from a skyscraper in Shanghai to provincial shop-fronts on Hainan Island – leads many Chinese to want to visit Greece. Last year, though, only 19,000 got visas from Greek officials. Whether this is the fault of the Schengen Treaty’s conditions or is a purely Greek dysfunction, this is a problem that must be solved immediately. When Greece is in crisis and its tourism under threat, the increase of visitors from China and other Asian countries could be a lifesaver. On the other hand, the danger is not limited to our missing opportunities when we don’t take action: We need to remember that the Chinese have entered the Internet era in a big way (400 million are connected) and when visa applications are treated with indifference or rudeness, this immediately becomes widely known through blogs and chatrooms, with disastrous consequences for Greece’s image. The relationship between Greece and China offers unique opportunities for both countries. As long as this familiarity does not lead us to waste them.

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