Beijing is looking at new investments in Greece after the successful running of Piraeus Port by China's shipping giant COSCO, says China's ambassador to Athens. The diplomat spoke with EurActiv Greece in an exclusive interview.
Chinese Ambassador Du Quiwen was interviewed by Nikos Lampropoulos and Sarantis Michalopoulos of EurActiv.gr.
Chinese media quoted the managing director of Piraeus Container Terminal SA, Fu Chengqiu, saying that COSCO is now in the middle of an in-depth feasibility study of becoming involved in various privatisations planned by the Greek government in coming months. Are these plans true?
I haven’t seen those reports in the Chinese media. I know very well Mr Fu, the head of COSCO, and he did not give me the impression that he is working on some specific future plans.
He’s been working very hard to run and to manage COSCO Piraeus. They have been quite successful. When they took over officially the operations of COSCO Piraeus, the number of containers handled in 2010 was 680,000, after the first year they managed to have 1.8 million units handled. And for the first 6 months of this year, they managed to get more than 1 million.
So the target for this year, for COSCO Piraeus only, is 2 million containers. And they are quite confident that they will meet this target. That figure shows a growth/gross rate of close to 100%. If they manage to get 2 million then we will be talking about another year of 70-80% of growth in the performance of COSCO. At the same time they are working hard constructing Terminal 3.
The impression I have is that they are working hard and I am not informed about specific plans to expand the operations to other projects in the immediate future.
Do you see Greece as an attractive place for Chinese investments in the near future? Do you have already some discussions with the newly elected government and what is your first impression of it?
Let me answer the last question first. The new government has been in office just for a couple of days, and I have started working with the new government, starting with the appointment with the minister of tourism, Olga Kefalogianni, today [7 July], and I have meetings arranged with the minister of foreign affairs Mr Avramopoulos and the minister of Shipping next week.
We have also appointments with the minister of development and I am looking forward to working directly and together with the top leadership of the new government.
We have quite important economic and trade relations. While investment is one of the areas in the trade cooperation, we know that there is a strong interest from the part of the Greek government for Chinese investors to come and work on long-term cooperation projects.
And in the past, Chinese businesses have also shown interest to talk about future possibilities of future cooperation.
But for the moment, not much has really happened. Nevertheless, we feel, we share the Greek government’s view that we should work together, trying to bring Chinese businesses here in order to invest on projects, where there are mutual interests and mutual benefits for both sides. But this is something mostly for the future.
What are the main barriers to Chinese investments in Greece - bureaucracy, the lack of interest from one side or the other?
To be fair and objective, in order for investments projects to take place, to develop smoothly and to start operating, time is needed.
The two sides have to get to know each other, come to a stage where they will feel able to make the investments decisions.
To be honest, there must be also an overall favourable environment for investors. We do feel that all these conditions will be created in the future [laughs].
Would you favour a concrete plan that would support Greek exporters in order to reach the Chinese markets? Do you also see possibilities of common large scale projects involving Greek and Chinese investors?
The Chinese Embassy in Athens is working really hard to increase Greek exports to China. And we are helping quite successfully. Our emphasis has been to focus on increasing exports’ volume of Greek “unique products”, such as wine, olive oil and marble. There has been a remarkable growth of these Greek products in the Chinese market.
Last year, the amount of Greek wine exported to China went up by 200% over the previous year, in overall we imported 600,000 litres of Greek wine while imports of Greek olive oil has also increased.
This momentum has been maintained for the first 4 months of this year, exports of Greek wine and olive oil keep on growing, reaching 100% over the previous year.
The first 4 months of this year, the volume of Greek exports to China went up 260%, this is a remarkable achievement.
We know this is tangible help to the efforts the Greek government, industry, people and farmers are making so as to overcome the difficulties. We are happy that we are able to do this, and we are even happier that we have managed to open up the Chinese market for those Greek products.
We started late to import Greek wine. On the contrary, Italians, French and Spanish have started much earlier.
Chinese consumers in the past were not familiar with Greek wine, they didn’t know that you have very good quality, but now this is something that is recognised and people have come to know that the Greek olive oil is the best olive oil in the world.
The Chinese market is very big and very fast growing, 1.3 billion consumers. And it is now open; the images of the Greek products have been established in the Chinese market.
We are also importing marble. It is interesting because it is a private business operated by a Chinese businessman who is located in Omonia, in Athens. He signed an agreement to import marble worth $500 million for the next couple of years.
The trade is also expanding to other areas. One month ago the leaders of the top leather making firms met in Kastoria, they agreed on a strategic cooperation with four top leather making firms/producers in Kastoria.
This is a breakthrough, and it has future.
Are there plans to increase the number of Chinese tourists visiting Greece this summer?
We have been working very hard to increase the number of Chinese tourists in Greece. Last year we had 60% increase on the number of arrivals. We are working on a boosting this number further.
We feel that tourism is a field that offers great potential for future cooperation because Greece as a destination is unique, you are unbeatable in many areas. Also the Greek people, their hospitality, their friendship and the way you have kept your cultural traditions alive, the Greek cuisine, the Greek music, the Greek wine and olive oil.
We have many cultural similarities.
Nikos Kazatzakis used to say that “if you scratch a Chinese you will find a Greek underneath and if you scratch a Greek you will find a Chinese”.
According to features, Confucius Institutes are increasing in Europe comparing to the US. Are you intending to enhance your “cultural presence” in Greece?
The US is a superpower, but still it is one country. In the European Union you have 27 countries, and we have good relations with all of them in the field of culture.
I will not be surprised if the EU countries expand their cultural exchanges with China or create Confucius Institutes.
Chinese diplomats are happy to see any progress made on the EU integration process, which is still ongoing, but at the same time we treat all the specific countries in Europe on equal footing with the US.
We do not differentiate countries according to their sizes, we treat them equally.
The cultural cooperation between China and Greece in terms of philosophy has been always important.
We have the Confucius Institute that was established two-and-a-half years ago in the Economic University of Athens (ASSOE), they have been working very hard, they are becoming more and more popular and traditionally, cultural exchanges have always been strong between China and Greece.
I think it is fair to say that culturally, Greece is a big country, it is a big power, you were always big in historical sense, in a cultural sense… you are one of the origins of the human civilization!
There is huge wish from both sides to enhance this cooperation, to extend it, we can both benefit from this kind of cooperation.
We have been quite effective promoting Greek culture in China. In April 2008, we had the Year of Greek Culture in China, we organised a huge number of events and activities (exhibitions, concerts, national orchestra of Mikis Theodorakis) with great success.
In three of our universities there are departments of Greek language studies. We have students who work on the Greek language. In the University of Beijing, we have a Greek studies centre, which has been operating for the last decade.
In the field of philosophy we feel there is much space for our philosophers to cooperate, to find ways for the two ancient philosophies to contribute to the global community in its efforts to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Next year it’s going to be a very important year for the philosophers here in Greece, as you will host the world philosophy conference.
As part of the preparatory work, the Greek philosophic circles have been working very closely with the Chinese, there are two conferences arranged for this year. The Chinese philosophers will come to Greece in autumn for the conference with Greek philosophers. The second conference will take place in China.
How would you evaluate the EU stance toward Greece regarding the debt crisis? Do you think the current bailout programme can work out?
I don’t think it is appropriate for a foreign ambassador, but I will tell you my impressions.
I am impressed with the way the eurozone leaders reaffirmed their intention for the bailout package to work in Greece, to help Greece get over this quite difficult period and remain in the eurozone.
Everybody is aware of the importance of Greece staying in the eurozone and people are aware of the risk for Greek exit.
The impression that we have is that your European partners have been again and again reaffirming their intention and willingness for Greece to stay in eurozone, to emerge intact by the euro crisis. We wish you success!
How is China perceiving its role in the world as a rising super power?
We are developing quite successfully, but we are not a superpower, we are not even a rising superpower, we are still a developing country, a country that needs to continue to work very hard, to get industrialised and modernised.
The target that we have set for ourselves, some 30 years ago, is to achieve the level of an average developed economy.
If in the next 40 years, in 2050, we manage to reach the level of the standard of living in Greece, we will be very happy. This is the target.
If you check China’s GDP pro-capita basis, it is not that strong. We are the second biggest economy, but on the pro-capita basis we are very small, 95th on a global level.
Last year, the pro-capita GDP was $5,582, much below the world’s average which is $10,000.
This figure comes almost 20% of what you have here in Greece. We have to be sober-minded, despite the progress we have made, we are still a developing country, we still have a long way to go. I am not trying to be a modest, but realistic.
On the other hand, our economy is Number 2 in the global economy. We are a very important trading country, we have a very good cooperation with all the countries in the world, nevertheless we understand that we also have a responsibility, thus to play a positive role, especially in today’s situation where most traditional economic powers are in difficulties.
Difficulties in the US and EU’s economy, Japan is not developing in a robust way, so we need momentum to keep the global economy growing.
In this way, we feel we don’t just play a role for China’s well-being, but also contributing to world’s growth.
China has contributed at least one-third of the world growth and trade, I hope we will continue in this way, but we have difficulties as well, due to the global recession.