Waiting for the great leap forward

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

To paraphrase the Chinese proverb, if you wait on the banks of the river long enough, your enemy’s corpse will eventually float by. This essentially reflects Greece’s longstanding philosophy on attracting foreign investment: If we sit back and do nothing, then someone, somewhere, will sooner or later want to give us some money.

At this most crucial of times, it’s the Chinese and their capital that are floating into view but Greece is still having difficulty shaking off its passiveness. It’s perplexing that just a few days before the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits Athens accompanied by Captain Wei Jiafu, president and chief executive officer of the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), the government is allowing creases to form in the fabric of this new relationship rather than ironing out any problems.

COSCO, the world’s second-largest shipping company, is about to complete the first 12 months of its 35-year, 3.5-billion-euro concession deal for one of the container terminals at Piraeus. Secured under the previous conservative government, the momentous deal has been threatened by this administration’s intractability and incompetence.

State-owned COSCO was due to take over control of Piraeus’s Pier 2 on October 1 last year but this was delayed for a month because of a strike by port workers who’d been told by PASOK that the contract with the Chinese would be renegotiated if the Socialists came to power after the September elections. This, of course, never happened as PASOK realized it risked entering a legal minefield and blowing Greece’s reputation to smithereens.

Having shown patience with the strike, COSCO, which has hired 300 Greek workers of its own this year, is now in dispute with the government over its failure to give back to the company some 20 million euros in value-added tax (VAT) payments. The delay is due to the Finance Ministry holding back a series of VAT returns for fear of creating a gaping hole in public finances. Although 20 million euros might seem a drop in the ocean for a huge company like COSCO, it’s the difference between the firm showing a profit or a 10.6-million-euro loss on its investment in Greece for the first six months of this year.

Also, according to reports, the Chinese side has expressed concern that the Piraeus Port Authority (OLP), which operates the other container terminal, is not competing on an equal footing with COSCO and is benefiting from the privileges it’s afforded as a state-owned company. The Chinese were also reportedly surprised by the Thessaloniki Port Authority’s (OLTH) announcement this month that it would hold a tender in October for the 220-million-euro contract to expand one of its quays. Possible Chinese investment in Thessaloniki port was expected to be one of the items to be discussed by Wen and Prime Minister George Papandreou on October 2.

Wen’s trip follows a May visit to Greece by Captain Wei, when the government beseeched him to invest in anything that moved, including the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) – although given the slowness of its trains, it’s debatable whether they do actually move. Wei politely pointed out that COSCO was a shipping company, not a railway, electricity or any other kind of firm but promised to convey to the Chinese government Greece’s supposed willingness to do business. This precipitated China’s Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang’s visit the following month, when he signed 14 investment deals.

So, having cultivated this budding relationship with China, Greece would be expected to prove there is fertile ground for further cooperation. The situation doesn’t require anyone to bend backward but simply to project forward and envision the benefits to be gained from enticing further Chinese investment. COSCO is set to spend a further 500 million euros on improving Pier 2 and building Pier 3 at Piraeus and is interested in investing more than 150 million euros in constructing a logistics terminal in the Thriaseio Plain, west of Athens, to transport goods to the rest of Europe. So, by the time the Chinese premier visits next week, Papandreou and his team have to be clear in their minds about what they want to gain from this relationship and how they can gain it. The visitors from China will have little appetite for any more of the shilly-shallying of the past few months.

Some might argue that if the Chinese were to withdraw their interest, then someone else would step in to fill the void — but Greece has a miserable record of attracting foreign direct investment and the current economic conditions have left few major players in the game. Papandreou spoke this week to wealthy Greek-Americans in New York but they cannot match the financial muscle of the Chinese. Greek-Americans have repeatedly shunned invitations to plough their money back into Greece, which suggests they know their homeland and its traps too well and are reluctant to get involved in political games that only outsiders like the Chinese – who did a deal with the New Democracy government but executed it under the PASOK administration – can avoid getting tangled up in.

Others might express concern about the apparent disparity in the way that China and Greece, as a European Union member, view work-related issues like safety and laborers’ rights. After visiting the Piraeus port earlier this month, the International Dockworkers Council (IDC) described the employment conditions at Pier 2 as “substandard.” IDC complained that COSCO is employing “union-busting” tactics and endangering workers’ safety. Presumably, the Chinese company would respond by saying that it successfully manages ports in other EU countries such as Naples in Italy, Antwerp in Belgium and Rotterdam in the Netherlands without any labor problems. Also, although worker safety is often compromised in the rapidly developing Chinese economy, the Communist Party has shown a growing willingness to address the problem. Deaths in Chinese mines were down from almost 7,000 in 2002 to about 2,600 last year, according to The Guardian newspaper, and Wen recently ordered pit bosses to go down into the shafts with miners in a bid to encourage safer conditions.

Skeptics will also emphasise that the line between a sell-off and a sell-out is extremely thin. COSCO, for instance, has been linked with a 500-million-euro investment in Crete, where it has plans to build a container terminal at Tymbaki, on the island’s southern coast. Locals, who have protected the area from excessive tourist development, oppose the scheme as they fear it will damage the local environment, including endangered sea turtles’ nests. It’s a conundrum for the government: Greece cannot afford to shun foreign investment but is it willing to pay the price of investment at all costs?

These are all questions Papandreou and his ministers will have to be in a position to answer in their talks with Chinese officials next week. Other countries came to terms with these dilemmas many years ago but, as with so many things, Greece is only now facing up to the rigors of reality and time is not on its side. The late Chinese leader Mao Zedong wrote in one of his poems: “Time passes. Ten thousand years are too long. Seize the day, seize the hour.” If Greece doesn’t do so now, it’s possible the only thing floating by will be another wasted opportunity.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on September 24, 2010.

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