Since 2008, the increasingly close ties between Greece and China have caught the attention of the world media and there has been plenty of speculation about where this ‘romance’ is heading. At the same time, there has been no comprehensive study of the way Greeks themselves perceive China and this evolving relationship. Last October, the Athens-based Institute of International Economic Relations (IIER) released a detailed report aiming to provide insight into China’s image in Greece and the role of the Greek media.

The report, titled ‘China’s image in Greece 2008-2018’, is structured on three distinct levels of analysis: What do Greeks think of China? What do they learn about China from the media? and, The true story behind China’s image in Greece. The research required the review of 43 surveys carried out by both foreign and Greek polling agencies, as well as of 1,386 articles published on the web by ten Greek newspapers and news portals. 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.

Overall, the Greeks have a positive view of China and view it as a global superpower although do not think highly of China’s political system. The general public assesses the relations between the two countries in a very positive light, qualifying them as ‘friendly’ and ‘relatively friendly’. Greeks have high expectations of Sino-Greek relations and view the Asian giant as an important economic and political partner, and believe that Chinese enterprises in Greece could create new jobs.

A very interesting – and less visible – facet of Sino-Greek relations is a sense of cultural rapport: Greeks have a fuzzy image of the Chisese civilization being glorious as the Greek one and presumably a cultural ‘relative’, even if the average Greek knows virtually nothing about Chinese history. There is a risk that pompous and persistently optimistic statements may have in the future an unintended negative effect, thus leading to a ‘China fatigue’ in Greece, if they are not followed by meaningful and visible investment in the Greek economy and, above all, large-scale job creation. Thus, the report concludes, tt is incumbent upon Greek and Chinese authorities to feel the pulse of Greek society, if Sino-Greek relations are to take root and stand the test of time.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras with Chinese Premier of the State Council Li Keqiang in Beijing (2016)

What do Greeks think of China

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 favorable than perceptions of China in other European and western countries. In July 2016, 71% of  Greek citizens, polled by Greek agency Public Issue, expressed a positive attitude towards the Chinese people. This is roughly confirmed by another Greek pollster, Kapa Research, which finds that between 2005 and 2016 China’s popularity peaked at 60.0% in 2013. Compared to other EU member states and the US, Greece steadily demonstrates a positive, albeit fluctuating, attitude towards China.

Greek citizens are well aware of China’s growing weight on the international scene and view it as a global superpower. There is a general impression that, while the US remains the most influential power on a global scale, China is as an heir-in-waiting in the mid-to long run.Thus, 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. Unlike most westerners, Greeks lean positively in their understanding of China’s influence, though they do consider it to be a threat to Europe.

At the same time, Greeks do not think highly of China’s political system, which does not qualify as a democracy in their eyes. In  2014, as many  as  69%  of  Greek respondents  stated  they  did  not  believe  that  Chinese  authorities  respected the personal freedoms of their citizens. In early 2017, to  the  question posed  by  GPO whether Greeks  found China  a  democratic  country, 60.7% replied ‘no’ and ‘not really’, while 62.4% expressed the view that human rights were not respected in China. Nor do they envy life and work in China, and find Chinese commodities of inferior quality to that of western goods.

The general public assesses the relations between the two countries in a very positive light: in December 2016, a vast majority of the respondents (81.9%) qualified them as ‘friendly’ and ‘relatively friendly’. In addition, Greek citizens  appear  to  support  closer relations  with  China,  though  to  varying  degrees with  a  view  to cooperation in  three  major areas , e.g. economy, politics and culture. Many Greeks  consider  China  to  be  a  factor  that  could  help  Greece  get  through  the ongoing crisis. In  July  2014,  49%  of  Greek  respondents  viewed  China  positively  and  52%  believed that China’s growing economy was good for their country. A  few  months  later,  64.1% of  Greeks stated that  the  presence  of  Chinese  enterprises  could  prove  beneficial  to  the  Greek economy, and nearly four out of five (77.9%) were of the view that Chinese enterprises could create new jobs. In the  same  survey,64.1% expressed  a  positive view of China,  by replying ‘yes’ (17.7%) or ‘probably yes’(46.4%) to the question ‘Would you say that China is an ally of Greece on the international scene?’

Source: Pew Research Center

There are three distinct contradictions transpiring through opinion polls on China in Greece:

(i) While China’s image in Greece is not exactly flattering with regard to living standards, social cohesion, form of government, human rights, work safety, environmental challenges, etc., Greeks have high expectations and view the Asian giant as an important economic and political partner.

(ii) 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;

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

The contradictions identified so far demonstrate that there is more than meets the eye. There may be various possible explanations, which are not mutually exclusive, but a common theme running through all of them appears to be a mix of two significant factors: (i) the severe socio-economic and political crisis that Greece has been going through, and (ii) the way Greeks view themselves in the 21st century. Attitudes in Greek society have been heavily affected by the fiscal and economic crunch and the ensuing social and political turmoil in the country. The period between 2008 and 2018, which is examined here, largely coincides with the near decade of abrupt economic contraction in the wake of the 2009 debt crisis. What has been happening in the Greek psyche since 2010 is nothing short of a collective trauma: a chorus of anxiety and frustration, coupled with a profound sense of insecurity in a rapidly changing world. Perceptions of Greece’s friends and foes have changed dramatically over the last years.

What do Greeks learn about China from the media?

China is not in the spotlight of the public discourse in Greece, yet, it does have its fair share of media coverage. If interested, Greek readers are given the chance to learn a lot about the emerging superpower. Sino-Greek economic relations account for a large share of China-related media coverage. Relevant news items focus primarily on Chinese investment in Greece, and the ambitious Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is repeatedly referred to. Greece is often presented as a gateway to the EU and a launch pad for a major transport corridor from the Mediterranean to Central Europe. Cultural cooperation between the two countries is not covered to the same extent, but it is marked by very positive connotations.

Breakdown of Key Topical Clusters in China’s Media Coverage in Greece / Source: Institute of International Economic Relations

Both the content and tone of coverage of China-related news are slightly more negative than positive, but by and large objective and balanced. As a rule, the media tend to modify their stance, depending on which side of the aisle they are closer to. When the political parties that they support are in power, the media tend to become more China-friendly (at a rate between 16% and 20%) and to prioritize Sino-Greek relations (at a rate close to 70%), but this does not alter the broader picture. With regard to the impact of the media on China’s image in Greece, two IIER findings clearly stand out:

(i) the Greek media definitely help the general public improve its knowledge of life in China, though solid understanding of the ‘Chinese mystery’ requires a considerably bigger volume of information and a wider range of sources;

(ii) media coverage of China does seem to have some impact at the societal level, but certainly not in terms of decision-making and foreign policy choices. For instance, while a large majority of Greek citizens have a negative view on the protection of human rights in China, the Greek government blocked the relevant statement of the EU in 2017. At the same time, there are no indications that Beijing is trying to wield influence by controlling Greek media, unlike what is often discussed in other parts of the world, including Europe.

The story behind China’s image in Greece: A ‘fuzzy’ sense of cultural kinship

The factors shaping China’s image in Greece are not as straightforward as they may seem. The purely economic, and even geopolitical aspects of the Sino-Greek ‘romance’ have been discussed at length and a number of rational arguments have been put forward. Yet, a very interesting – and less visible – facet of Sino-Greek relations is a sense of cultural rapport which has played a part in the rapprochement between the two countries. Given that both nations rightfully take pride in their rich history and culture, related initiatives easily make headlines and go down well with the general public in Greece as well as in China. A big part of the official Sino-Greek relations is the cultural diplomacy campaign launched mostly by the Chinese side.

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’. Greece-China 2017 was the Year of Cultural Exchanges and Cooperation in Creative Industries. In April 2017, Athens hosted the first ‘Ancient Civilizations Forum.’

Greece China 2017 FEB18 1140X530 inner
 2017 Year of Greece & China: The object of February / Benaki Museum

No matter how solid this historical and cultural kinship between Greece and China may be, it can actually serve to help explain the third contradiction identified by the IIER team in the attitude of Greeks towards China: because of this perceived kinship, Greeks may subconsciously view China as a more acceptable expression of much-feared globalization. At the same time, it is difficult to assess to what extent the effect of high-profile initiatives and public diplomacy at the government level trickles down to the general Greek public. Tellingly, in September 2018 there was only one Confucius Institute in Greece, at the Athens University of Economics and Business. Therefore, this sense of kinship between Greece and China may well be fictitious, after all.

According to a survey released by the University of Piraeus in January 201476, 60.9% of Greeks polled stated that the Greek and Chinese cultures had things in common, and out of them 38.2% were convinced the two cultures had ‘a lot in common’. However, the same survey then reveals that China is considered to be a remote and culturally different nation, without any particular bond to Greece. It has been pointed out that, while Greeks state their respect for China, in reality they also tend to keep a respectful distance from it.

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. Ultimately, views of China in Greece are conditioned by a cocktail of four different, and to a certain extent conflicting, narratives:

(i) the conviction that China is very much a developing country that still faces considerable socio-economic challenges, despite its spectacular achievements over the last decades;

(ii) the perception of an authoritarian regime, which does not fully respect the rights of its citizens;

(iii) a somewhat ‘transactional’ attitude in the hope that China can be a financial backer and a potential ally against the western/European creditors in the midst of the protracted crisis in Greece;

(iv) the fuzzy image of a civilization as glorious as the Greek one and presumably a cultural ‘relative’, even if the average Greek knows virtually nothing about Chinese history.

The first two narratives feed negative perceptions of China, the third and fourth bolster its positive image. The key reason behind a favorable view of China relates to the fall-out between Greece and the EU; as aforementioned, Greeks’ perceptions of friends and foes have changed dramatically over the last decade or so and the country has instinctively been looking for alternative allies. It is this void that China has stepped into, stating repeatedly its commitment to Greece as a ‘strategic partner’.

China’s image in Greece could best be understood if gauged in juxtaposition to the perceptions of other big powers, such as the EU, Germany, the US, Russia, etc. 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. The November 2016 survey by Kapa Research shows that, compared to China (39.5%), Russia scored higher (47.5%) on Greeks’ preferences as to which countries Greece should develop closer relations with – the US came third (36.5%) and Germany was a distant fourth (20%). It should be taken into account that Russia is closely linked to the emergence of the modern Greek state in the early 19th century and has been part of Greece’s history since, which by no means applies to China.

The need for tangible gains from Sino-Greek cooperation

Given that the generally friendly views of China in Greece are not predicated on genuine historical ties and this attitude is largely based on the fiction of a ‘cultural kinship’, it can prove shallow and could, in theory at least, easily fizzle out. For instance, the mixed feelings transpiring through a number of media reports can be attributed to the fact that talk of Chinese investment in Greece has been disproportionately more intensive than investment projects themselves. In other words, expectations may be on the verge of exceeding real developments.The slump in EU popularity in the country since 2010 suggests that this could happen to any other partner of Greece, including China. However, there is a risk that high-sounding and over-optimistic statements may have unintended negative effects, thus leading to a ‘China fatigue’ in Greece.

Meaningful and visible investment in the Greek economy and, above all, large-scale job creation will contribute to China’s image infinitely more than investing too much in the ‘cultural kinship’ between thetwo nations. Leaders on both sides may have to be a bit more cautious: unless Sino-Greek cooperation delivers comprehensible gains soon, generic pronouncements about the ‘strategic partnership’ between the two countries may ring hollow to Greek society and backfire in the future. It is incumbent upon Greek and Chinese authorities to feel the pulse of Greek society, if Sino-Greek relations are to take root and stand the test of time.

Read the report here: China’s image in Greece 2008-2018