If Crete of the legendary monster isn’t Greece’s new Chinatown, the volcanic cauldron of Santorini is. This is the bright new China with the world’s widest gap between rich and poor. It prefers Greek folk-dancing to Labour Day rallies, punishes workers who dare to mention trade union rights, sells tinny Indian manufactures under the Chinese banner and woos Greece as the gateway to Europe and the world.
It’s a different Greece, too, from my recollections of 46 years ago. The denuded Parthenon suggests that Lord Elgin has been on another rampage — but, no, most of its treasures are now housed in a glittering glass museum. Instead of stomping in solidarity marches, 11 Chinese couples flew to Santorini on May 1 to celebrate their nuptials with traditional Greek dances. Sixteen brides and grooms from China exchanged vows of eternal love and devotion in Crete’s idyllic Aptera Fortress. But Greece isn’t only fun and games. It’s China’s beachhead for the world. Du Qiwen, China’s former ambassador, stressed in a eulogy titled “I believe in the future of Greece”, Athens commands the “crossroads connecting Europe, Asia and Africa”.
China fits easily into this land of contradictions. Greece’s communist party is one of Europe’s strongest, but grey-bearded black-robed priests are everywhere murmuring the traditional greeting, “Chronoia pollia… Many years!” Gone are the days when suspicious looks and whispers of “Spy!” forced Kythera’s solitary Chinese shopkeeper to pull down shutters and flee the island. Now, China and Greece have discovered they represent glorious ancient civilizations. Both face troubles in the contemporary world. After the storm, they will dazzle the world again with their vigour and vitality marching hand in hand into a rosy capitalist dawn. A Chinese was the first beneficiary of Greece’s scheme to bestow residency rights on foreigners who invest 250,000 euros (Rs 20,825,000) in real estate in this crisis-ridden country.
The keyword is crisis. Five years ago, Greece faced bankruptcy and feared ejection from the Eurozone. The European Union’s bailout packages worth 240 billion euros only aggravated public wrath. For one thing, the loans carried interest. For another, the stringent conditions compounded distress. Nor did the money help Greece’s stricken economy: it went to repay German and French banks that had earned higher interest from Greece than they would have done by lending at home.
Angela Merkel is seen as the villain of the piece. Demonstrators in Nazi uniform brandishing swastika-daubed banners chanted “Get out Merkel” when she visited in 2012. Critics of Antonis Samaras’ conservative New Democracy government accused her of visiting Athens “to praise the government’s destructive work and make sure that austerity continues”. If her last visit in April, which lasted only a few hours, passed off without ructions, it was only because thousands of armed policemen and water cannons cordoned off her route while a helicopter hovered overhead. Greeks hope a 2.5 billion euro primary budget surplus (meaning before counting debt-servicing costs) will improve their negotiating power for the next deal with the EU.
Anguish generates anger. The depression has wiped out more than 25 per cent of Greece’s output. The public debt is 175 per cent of gross product. With a record 26.7 per cent unemployment, poverty levels are rising inexorably. When pay and pensions were slashed, only the court’s intervention forced the government not to cut police and military wages too. You need only wander away from the main squares of Athens, Sparta or any other town to see crumbling plaster, padlocked doors, boarded-up shop fronts and deserted cafés. Taxi drivers sit around by their idle cars. The price of the best Valencia oranges in Lakonia, which survives on cultivating oranges and olives, has plummeted to six cents a kilo. Olives fare slightly better only because Italians mix the locally made olive oil with their own. It was supposed to be one of the thrice-weekly late-night shopping days in Piraeus (Greece’s biggest port and adjoining Athens), where I am writing this, but the street below my balcony and the still-open shops were deserted. “A lot of money is poured in,” people say, “but it leaks away!” Leak has become a popular word.
China is the saviour, ready to buy into Greece’s future when no other country will. Apparently, it’s not for the first time. “They invested in Greece during Costas Karamanlis’s premiership, bought 6 billion euros’ worth of bonds during George Papandreou’s government and finally put pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she flirted with the idea of throwing us out of the eurozone,” wrote Alexis Papachelas, a respected columnist in the Athens daily, Ekathimerini. This time round, China’s maritime and port operations giant COSCO has undertaken a long-term 700-million euro project to turn Piraeus into the leading container terminal in the Mediterranean region. China is proud that Hewlett-Packard chose Piraeus as the base to distribute its products in Europe, North Africa and West Asia.
The connection extends beyond Piraeus. A factory just outside Athens producing a carbonated drink called Frutop tripled exports last year by selling to China. Simplified visas for the Chinese and a direct Athens-Beijing flight meant a 202 per cent rise in Chinese tourists — boosting Greece’s biggest industry — though the number is still relatively small. Chinese stores sell cheap readymades and household goods at almost every streetcorner. Stopping at one such establishment, I noticed their steel utensils were Indian! Their quiet confidence is unlike the cheerful scruffiness of the Pakistani selling smuggled cigarettes or a sad Bangladeshi lurking in the empty wharf with a clutch of showy sunglasses. They escaped the net when most illegal foreigners were rounded up.
“We are global shipping powers and we can cooperate in many areas,” Li Keqiang announced when Samaras took 87 Greek businessmen to Beijing exactly a year ago. Acknowledging “heightened cooperation since 2010”, Li proposed investing in Greek railways, roads, airports and other seaports. Agreements already cover cooperation in asset development, banking, tourism, real estate, energy, telecommunications, transport and investment financing. The Chinese company ZTE (among the world’s five leading manufacturers of telecommunications equipment in over 140 countries) is expected to turn Piraeus port into a transit and logistics hub for ZTE products in Europe. Huawei is creating a centre for research and innovation and cooperating with Greek universities to train young people.
Not all Greeks are enamoured of China. Although exports to China have grown substantially and were worth more than 420 million euros last year, it’s a familiar refrain that these sales amount to only one-twentieth of what China sells Greece. Giorgos Gogos, general secretary of the Piraeus dockworkers’ union, accuses China of preying on a “vulnerable Greek economy” for its own benefit: “Nobody gives money for nothing, especially Chinese companies and the Chinese government.” The Piraeus project “didn’t create the jobs it said it would.” It reportedly employs about 1,000 Greeks. Greece’s shipping minister says another agreement to further expand port facilities will create 700 direct and 1,500 indirect jobs. But the complaint that COSCO ill-treats employees remains. In practice, it doesn’t allow trade union activity. Dmitris Batsoulis, a sacked COSCO dockworker, presents a grim picture of oppressive management, violated safety regulations, bulk temporary recruitment through subcontractors and a flat refusal to entertain collective decision-making on any matter.
The bigger questions are whether China alone will be able to nurse Greece back to health and if so, what price it might extract. A scholarly Greek friend says that despite traditional cultural exclusivity, underlined by the Greek Orthodox Church’s dominant role, a nation that has been ruled by Turkey, Venice, Genoa, the Knights of St John, Russia, France and Britain can come to terms with the reality of Chinese power. Greeks will get off lightly if all China demands is Li Keqiang’s stated hope that Athens will help to improve Beijing’s relations with the EU.