CHINA’S IMAGE IN GREECE 2008-2018 – Plamen Tonchev (ed.)

Beijing authorities themselves are eager to receive feedback on the way China is viewed by European societies and the China-CEE Institute has recently commissioned several studies on perceptions of the China-led 16+1 platform in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). In this sense, the report produced by the Institute of International Economic Relations (IIER) aims to provide much-needed insight into the underlying reasons behind China’s image in Greece.”

The period of time covered by the report spans from 2008 to 2018, the rationale behind this being that China’s presence in Greece became very visible with the concession agreement for the port of Piraeus signed by the Greek government and the Chinese shipping giant COSCO in 2008.”

A consistent pattern recorded by most of the surveys reviewed is that, in general, Greeks have a positive view of China, and it is more favourable than perceptions of China in other European and western countries. (…) At the same time, Greeks do not think highly of China’s political system, which does not qualify as a democracy in their eyes. Nor do they envy life and work in China, and find Chinese commodities of inferior quality to that of western goods.”

While China’s growing prowess is seen by Greeks as bad news for Europe, it is perceived as good news for Greece, as if Greece were not in Europe;

While the vast majority of Greeks are adamantly opposed to globalisation, many Greeks expect China, the par excellence beneficiary of globalisation, to help the Greek economy stand on its feet again.”

1. Perceptions of China in Greece

in 2013 more than half the Greeks polled (57%) believed that China was bound to replace or had already replaced the US as the leading world power. A BBC survey released in July 2017 showed that perceptions of China’s influence were predominantly negative within the EU. Greece was the only European country in that specific sample leaning positively in its views of China’s influence, with a plurality of 37% offering a positive opinion (versus 25% who had a negative attitude). Aptly put, China’s power is admired by many, but is also feared. This does not seem to apply to Greece.”

In April 2017, the Greek research agency DiaNEOsis asked Greeks about their preferred political system and only 2.4% of respondents approved of China’s form of government, the most popular model being Sweden, at 57.8%.” “Notably, more than 20% of those interviewed gave an inaccurate answer [será?] to the question about China’s political system, by replying it was a ‘parliamentary democracy’ or a ‘federal republic’.”

2. China’s image in selected Greek media

In line with international coverage, Greek media duly reported the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The Greek public is informed about serious issues with capital punishment in China [but not in US!], the demographic and economic side effects of China’s former one-child policy, grave environmental challenges in the country, opacity and corruption, work safety, etc.”

E O SALÁRIO, Ó… “Tellingly, the phrase ‘Chinese salaries’ is short-hand for low-living standards and is commonly used as a simile referring to shrinking income in Greece. Thus, a 2011 article reviewed by the IIER team is titled ‘Greece following China’s labour standards’, but in fact the text itself only refers to China once. Rather, the article is a lament about the high unemployment rate in Greece and the shrinking salaries of those lucky enough to have a job.”

AH, A MANIA DOS CAPESIANOS INTERNACIONALISTAS (MoUmania)! “A large number of related news items report meetings, and are accompanied by numerous photos of Greek and Chinese officials smiling and shaking hands. Many articles are merely lists of intergovernmental agreements and memoranda of understanding (MoUs) notably, 19 agreements and MoUs were signed by Greek and Chinese partners during prime-minister Li Keqiang’s visit to Athens in June 2014 alone.”

It is important to keep in mind that since 2008 Greece has had 5 general elections, four different governments and two caretaker prime-ministers. Media coverage of China has obviously been influenced by the fickle political setting. The media tend to change their attitude towards China, depending on political affiliation or which side of the aisle they are closer to.”

Similarly, while a large majority of Greek citizens do not think highly of China’s democracy and respect for human rights, the Greek government blocked the 2017 statement of the EU on the state of human rights in China.¹ In June 2018, the Greek PM Alexis Tsipras stated that Greece was willing to join the 16+1 platform as a full member a week later at the Sofia summit of the club, despite the irritation that this causes in EU institutions and some EU member states.² This stance of Athens is qualified by some western onlookers as a ‘Trojan horse’ behaviour, dictated by China in return for investment in the cash-strapped Greek economy. This only comes to confirm the image of a strategic ally of Greece that China projects on numerous occasions, including at the highest possible level.

¹ The EU was due to make its statement at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. A spokesman for the Greek Foreign Ministry in Athens reportedly called such a statement ‘unproductive criticism’.

² In the end, Greece retained its observer status, together with Austria, Switzerland and Belarus.”

There are no indications that Beijing pursues to wield influence by directly controlling Greek media, unlike what is often discussed in other parts of the world (e.g. Australia or Europe). At present, there are no Chinese-controlled media outlets to orchestrate a pro-Beijing public diplomacy campaign in Greece and there are no regular China-sponsored supplements in Greek newspapers. By contrast, China Watch, the European version of China Daily, is regularly supplemented in Le Soir and De Standaard (Belgium), Le Figaro (France), Handelsblatt (Germany), El País (Spain) and The Daily Telegraph (United Kingdom).”

3. Beneath the surface

MODERNITY IN A NUTSHELL (FROM THE CRADLE OF OUR OWN CIVILIZATION): “Indeed, what has been happening in the Greek psyche since 2010 is nothing short of a collective trauma: a chorus of anxiety, humiliation and frustration, coupled with a profound sense of insecurity in a rapidly changing world.”

E PENSAR QUE UM BRASILEIRO MINIMAMENTE ATENTO TEM PROFUNDA INVEJA DO CENÁRIO GREGO: “Despondent about the economy, largely pessimistic about the country’s prospects and worried about their children’s future, Greeks tend to see very few friends, if any. The majority of Greek people find, rightly or wrongly, that the country is heading in the wrong direction. It is only recently that the economic mood has brightened a little bit, though optimism about the trajectory of the economy has yet to return and, in general, Greeks remain downbeat about the prospects of the country.

In the spring of 2014, Greece was the least satisfied nation, at a striking 5%, among the 10 advanced economies covered by the Pew Research Center, but also among all the 43 countries included in the sample on a global scale.”

At about the same time, almost every Greek (98%) referred to joblessness as the single biggest issue in the country this is only to be expected, given that the official unemployment rate in the country peaked at 27.6% in May 2013.” A Grécia de ontem é o Brasil de amanhõje.

The average disposable income in Greece has shrunk by an estimated 25% to 30% since 2010 and prices matter a lot. Thus, cheap Chinese commodities are popular in Greece only because in the midst of the ongoing economic crisis many households do not have the wherewhithal to make ends meet.”

Losing more than a quarter of its national wealth and living standards, branded the ‘black sheep’ of the Eurozone for about a decade, facing the spectre of Grexit for several years, being next to an increasingly unpredictable and belligerent Turkey, and overrun by migrant flows since 2015, Greece is feeling lonely and abandoned by its European partners.”

Another Pew Research Center survey in June 2017 established that 36% of Greeks wanted to leave the EU and 58% were in favour of a national referendum on EU membership. According to a July 2017 BBC World Service survey, while views of the EU’s influence were mainly positive in all the European countries polled as well as in Canada, the US and Australia, Greek respondents indicated a 35% positive and 36% negative attitude. Notably, Greeks are particularly bitter in their attitude towards Germany, the biggest EU member state and economy. All the above countries demonstrated favourable views of Germany’s influence, however very negative results were recorded in Greece: 29% positive vs 50% negative.”

In fact, Greece’s case seems to confirm a broader trend: It has been pointed out that, as China perceived the EU to be failing at appropriately addressing the crisis, it realised that it could play a more central role in global governance68 and, in particular, in Europe itself. Greece being the ‘weak link’ of the Eurozone and, at the same time, at the crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa, Beijing strategists quite understandably chose the country as an entry point in in the region.”

Thus, the Olympic Games in 2004 and 2008 were held in Athens and Beijing, respectively, which provided many opportunities for the exchange of visits and related expertise. The period from September 2007 to September 2008 was declared the ‘Cultural Year of Greece in China’.”

It should be noted that, in Greece, BRI is more often referred to as the ‘New Silk Road’. It may be that the official name, ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, does not translate into Greek nicely. More importantly, it may also be that the notion of the ‘Silk Road’ is associated with Alexander the Great’s expedition into Central and South Asia in the 4th century BC, as well as with the Byzantine empire in the Middle Ages. To a certain degree, this also contributes to the imagery of Sino-Greek cooperation on the basis of what is misconstrued as long-standing historical and cultural ties.”

An expression often used with reference to the ever-closer Sino-Greek relations is one attributed to the famous writer Nikos Kazantzakis, known worldwide for his novel Zorba the Greek. Being an admirer of eastern civilisations, including China’s, Kazantzakis once wrote ‘If you scratch a Chinese, you’ll find a Greek underneath and if you scratch a Greek, you’ll find a Chinese underneath’.73 This catchphrase is rapidly becoming a Leitmotif or a hackneyed figure of speech at official events dedicated to relations between the two countries. The previous ambassador of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to Greece is on record using this expression at least twice: on 20 August 2015, at an event on the Belt and Road Initiative and, once again, in his speech during the official signing ceremony of the 2nd deal between the Greek government and COSCO on 9 April 2016. As of July 2018, a quick Google search for this quote would yield more than 20 web entries in Greek (interestingly, not in English or any other languages) and their number is likely to increase over time.”

Therefore, this sense of kinship between Greece and China may well be fictitious, after all. The facile assumption that the two countries are “relatives’ appears to reflect a self-aggrandising attitude on the part of Greeks rather than an informed view and awareness of the ancient Chinese civilisation. The perception of China as a long-lost first cousin is redolent of a fuzzy collective fiction, but then fiction is not expected to be accurate in the first place.”

With regard to the US, Greeks have traditionally been among the least sympathetic Europeans and there is a time-honoured practice of anti-American rallies in the country. In that sense, China clearly has an advantage over western powers.”

What certainly is a very interesting case in such a comparative approach is Greece’s psychological bond to Russia, which is much more deep-rooted and lasting than the ‘cultural kinship’ with China. The historical depth of Greece’s traditionally strong ties to Russia does not compare to that of the recent Sino-Greek romance.”

In June 2017, Greeks clearly preferred Russian president Vladimir Putin (50%) over western leaders Donald Trump (19%) and Angela Merkel (16%) as well as over Chinese president Xi Jinping (17%). When asked to compare the US, Russia and China, Greeks favoured Russia (64%) over China (50%) and the US (43%).”

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