Working with China

President Hu Jintao’s visit next week underlines the great store that China has put in developing ties with Greece. Trade between the two countries, weighed greatly in China’s favor, has developed in great leaps, reaching 2.9 billion euros last year – a rise of 52 percent from a year earlier. China is now Greece’s seventh-largest trading partner but is quickly gaining on the leading countries. Chinese investment in major Greek ports is bound to increase trade between the two countries, notwithstanding the difficult times expected on account of the global financial crisis. Hu’s visit coincides with a period of great introspection in Greece, as the government struggles with a razor-thin majority in Parliament while trying to limit the damage from the global crisis and from a seemingly endless scandal involving dodgy land deals. This means that the government is not focused absolutely on improving the investment climate through the necessary reforms. Also, the trouble faced by cash-strapped banks could hinder some projects that would help boost commerce. At the same time, increasing lawlessness in central Athens, where many Chinese immigrants have established their stores, is likely to have a serious effect, as shopkeepers will have to pay to increase security even as turnover drops because customers stay away. President Hu’s hugely important visit, ironically, also underlines how unobtrusive the Chinese community has been in Greece, even though it has now grown to an estimated 30,000 people. Most of them are involved in importing cheap goods from their homeland – and in staying out of the limelight. They face problems with work permits and with the Greek state’s endemic indifference to solving problems or nurturing entrepreneurship. Shopkeepers have even had to join together to contribute funds toward making their business district safer. They do all this without making their concerns public – and public officials, who are not known for their effectiveness, are more than happy to keep the Chinese community’s problems under the carpet. The other side of this laxity is that it has allowed many people to immigrate illegally and establish their businesses – more easily than they would have done in other European countries. As China becomes more assertive on the international stage, we should expect it to become more concerned about the way its nationals are treated, wherever in the world they are. This, in addition to the increasingly strong role that China and Chinese immigrants are playing in Greece, should help the Greek authorities’ minds focus a little more, leading to the solution of problems. Over the past few years, the shared experience of hosting consecutive Summer Olympics, the increase in trade and cultural exchanges have helped bring the two countries closer. Greeks and Chinese like to talk about their both being the descendants of great, ancient civilizations. The truth is that in antiquity the two never quite met and today the one is a great power rising and the other a shell haunted by memories of grandeur. The forces of globalization have now brought the two countries together. The Chinese have made their interest in trade clear but also in having their people learn about Greek civilization. The Olympics helped further, in creating common ground and increasing traffic between the two countries. Now it is up to the Greeks to work seriously toward increasing exports to China (being more consistent in the quantity and quality of goods) and toward attracting further investment here. In the global economic crisis, China, with its massive reserves of cash, will wield disproportionately great power. For Greece, strengthening the relationship with China offers one of the few hopes for riding out the crisis with the least possible problems. Now is the time to ensure that this can happen.