On the surface, Sino-Greek economic relations, largely centered around shipping, are seen as a ‘win-win’ for both countries. In Greece, this narrative holds particular sway with governments from across the political spectrum. The narrative, however, becomes more complex if one looks more closely at Greek media and political actors.
Chinese businesses in the Greek media
Chinese exports to Greece have risen sharply over the past two decades, from 693.8 million USD annually during 2001, to 7.04 billion USD during 2020. The export of Greek goods to China has also been rising steadily, from 58.5 million USD in 2001 to 773.1 million USD in 2020. Fifteen years since the start of the Integrated Strategic Partnership agreement between Greece and China in 2006, both sides want to maintain their cooperation. In 2019, during a visit to China, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, from the governing conservative party New Democracy, said of the economic collaboration between the two countries:
Θα είναι win-win λύση για Έλληνες παραγωγούς, για τα κινέζικα ναυπηγεία και για τους Έλληνες πλοιοκτήτες φυσικά, οι οποίοι θα εξακολουθούν να ναυπηγούν τα πλοία τους στην Κίνα.
It will be a win-win solution for Greek producers, for Chinese shipyards and of course for the Greek shipowners who will continue to build their ships in China.
Mitsotakis made this statement after visiting COSCO's headquarters in China. COSCO owns 51 percent of Piraeus Port Authority (or PPA), the company managing the port of Piraeus, for a period of 35 years starting in 2016. The scale of the port and the volume of goods shipped through it annually, make it the pinnacle of the relationship between the two countries.
This is largely reflected in coverage by the Greek media: According to an analysis by the Institute of International Economic Relations (IIER) focusing on Greek and Chinese print and TV media coverage over the 2020-2021 period, 90 percent of stories in Greece on Sino-Greek relations were about Piraeus. However, recent mentions in both the media and the Greek parliament go beyond the usual ‘win-win’ narrative.
For the first time since taking over the port, COSCO is facing sustained criticism. As the IIER report argues, critical views in Greek media peaked in late 2020:
These disputes feed into a growing debate in Greece on whether or not the indisputable strategic importance of the Piraeus port translates into proportionate benefits drawn by local stakeholders and the Greek economy at large.
Is COSCO going too far?
COSCO is also facing growing and more vocal opposition in parliament. The company is currently behind schedule on some of its investment commitments in Piraeus, which would normally hinder it from acquiring an agreed-upon additional 16 percent of PPA. But, in July 2021, Greece's privatization fund approved revisions to the concession agreement with COSCO, which would allow the company to increase its stake and earn a few more years to complete pending works, while providing some form of guarantee. A group of parliamentarians from the main left-wing opposition party SYRIZA immediately reacted, arguing that the agreement overlooks COSCO's contractual obligations, at the expense of the public interest. It is worth noting at this point that, when in government, it was SYRIZA that presided over the final parliamentary procedure transferring the port to COSCO in 2016.
Dockworkers in Piraeus also have their misgivings. In an interview from 2017, Giorgos Gogos, general secretary of the Piraeus dockworkers’ union argued that COSCO's payment of 280 million euros (or 312.51 million USD) for the controlling stake of PPA was too little: it was making profit, and had invested about 500 million (or approximately 618 million USD) over a span of 20 years. In an interview to GV, Gogos reflected on the the term ‘win-win':
Είναι ο Πειραιάς το μεγαλύτερο λιμάνι εμπορευματοκιβωτίων στην Μεσόγειο; Είναι για την COSCO, αλλά όχι για την τοπική κοινωνία του Πειραιά ή την Ελλάδα. Έχουν γίνει επενδύσεις, οπότε υπάρχει μία ανάπτυξη των παραγωγικών υποδομών του λιμανιού, ωστόσο δεν το βλέπουμε σαν καλή συμφωνία: Ο ΟΛΠ ήταν ήδη κερδοφόρος πριν την ιδιωτικοποίηση, και συνέχισε να είναι κερδοφόρος αφότου ιδιωτικοποιήθηκε, για να δημιουργήσει, ας πούμε, χίλιες κακοπληρωμένες και επισφαλείς θέσεις εργασίας, εκ των οποίων πολλές είναι μερικής απασχόλησης. Και δεν θα έπρεπε να λαμβάνουμε υπόψη μόνο τις αμοιβές των εργαζομένων, αλλά και το τί θα λάβουν πιο αργά στη ζωή τους: Χαμηλότερες απολαβές, σημαίνει λιγότερη κοινωνική ασφάλιση, το οποίο σημαίνει χαμηλότερες συντάξεις.
Is Piraeus the largest container port in the Mediterranean? It is for COSCO, but not for the local community of Piraeus or for Greece. There have been investments, so there is an increase in productive infrastructure, but we do not see it as a good deal: PPA was already profitable before privatization and continued to make profit after that, only to create, say, one thousand very precarious and poorly paid positions, a great many of which are part-time. And we shouldn’t only consider workers’ salaries, but also what they will receive later in life: Lower payments means fewer social security contributions, which means lower pensions.
Gogos goes on to compare Piraeus's experience with COSCO with that of Valencia, Spain:
Στην Βαλένθια, όπου η COSCO διαχειρίζεται το λιμάνι, οι συνθήκες είναι πολύ καλύτερες. Αντίθετα με αυτό που συμβαίνει στην Ελλάδα, εκεί όλοι οι εργαζόμενοι έχουν πρόσβαση σε συλλογικές συμβάσεις εργασίας. Οπότε δεν πιστεύουμε ότι η επένδυση της COSCO στην Ελλάδα είναι win-win.
In Valencia, where COSCO is operating the port, conditions are much better. Unlike in Greece, all workers there have access to collective bargaining agreements. So we do not think COSCO’s investment in Greece is a ‘win-win’.
Meanwhile, the Greek shipping sector, a powerful group that likely catalyzed the deal over the past two decades, are also not of one voice on the subject. Business interests in the area's ship repair zone, who have made their voices heard through both the media and the parliament, claim that COSCO would threaten their industrial activity if it went on to build a shipyard in the area and perpetuate monopoly-style practices.
On the environmental front, COSCO is facing a prolonged standoff with activists, which has culminated in a Supreme Administrative Court case over expansion works that the company's opponents say will cause great damage to the port city and the maritime ecosystem. This legal battle has also partly stalled the port's expansion, contributing to the delays at the root of the settlement between the privatization fund and COSCO.
The expansion in question concerns the creation of a new cruise shipping port, which is not only environmentally contentious but, according to some, presents serious issues in terms of financing and the local economy.
A 2020 report released by the Urban Environment Lab of the National Technical University of Athens argues that COSCO made a series of errors: it overestimated the commercial viability of a new cruise terminal, it committed to financing only a fraction of it (the lion's share of the funding comes from the European Union), it did not deliberate with the local community, and it followed poor licensing practices. All of the above, the authors argue, will negatively affect the natural and urban environment of the area, as well as the local economy. But the report does offer COSCO a recommendation:
Είναι ο περιορισμός των μεγεθών, ο απόλυτος περιβαλλοντικός έλεγχος και μία νέα περιβαλλοντική στρατηγική για τη λιμενική λειτουργία, το άνοιγμα του λιμανιού στην πόλη και οι συνέργειες με την τοπική οικονομία, καθώς και η αναβάθμιση στην κατεύθυνση της ανάδειξης ενός ελκυστικού φυσικού, αστικού και αρχαιολογικού περιβάλλοντος.
Limiting the scale [of the project], conducting a comprehensive environmental assessment and having a new environmental strategy for the port’s operation, opening up of the port to the city and promoting synergies with the local economy, and upgrading towards an attractive natural, urban, and archaeological environment. (GV's translation)
Greek products in China and anti-Huawei pressure from the US
Relations between the two countries go beyond Piraeus and Greek ships in Chinese shipyards. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has made significant inroads in Greece. Today, economic ties extend to banking, a very large investment by China's state-owned power corporation in the Greek power grid operator, and the collaboration of the Greek telecommunications operator with Huawei.
On that last point, we may expect a lot more media coverage in the coming years. Throughout the pandemic, Greece and its telecommunication operators have found themselves in a balancing act between maintaining Huawei's Greece-based activities and responding to US demands for a “Clean Network,” which would suggest limiting Huawei partnerships in Greece.
Other aspects of Sino-Greek relations, such as the trade in goods, have received little media coverage in Greece. Greek businesses in China—exporters or otherwise—have little visibility in the Greek media, and this makes it difficult to assess how their progress is seen. The little coverage there is on this subject shows that some Greek products are now protected in China (an outcome of a 2019 agreement between China and the EU), but also includes occasional complaints from specific actors, such as olive oil exporters who argued back in 2017 that exports were too low.
It is likely that relations between China and Greece will continue to flourish as long as they focus on shipping either in China or in Greece. Greek officials and politicians are likely to keep using “COSCO,” “Piraeus,” and “shipyards” as buzzwords to frame this relationship. Even so, if COSCO continues to clash with local interests, it won’t be long before new narratives emerge, despite the Greek government’s support.
This story is part of a Civic Media Observatory investigation into competing narratives about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and explores how societies and communities hold differing perceptions of potential benefits and harms of Chinese-led development. To learn more about this project and its methods, click here.