This report is a part of #CCPinCEE, a series of reports published by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) analyzing Chinese influence efforts and operations across the nations of Central and Eastern Europe.
Goals and objectives of CCP influence campaign
China’s influence in Greece has weakened visibly over the past two or three years. On the one hand, closer political and military ties with Western partners, such as the US and France, have left limited space for China’s political clout in the country. On the other hand, China is no longer seen as the sole source of investment capital in the form of much-needed FDI. Rather, China is one of the many potential sources Greece is now targeting and this has further weakened Beijing’s hand.
Given these developments, Beijing is readjusting its strategy based on the following premises: 1. another investment in Greek infrastructure on the scale of Athens’ Port of Piraeus is unlikely to come along in the foreseeable future; 2. Chinese investment in “softer” forms of cooperation, such as culture and education, twinning links at the local level, cultivating ties with select Greek media, etc. would be less controversial; 3. it would be expedient for Beijing to continue to court Greece as a friend and partner, and an EU country that is likely to blunt anti-China voices in Europe.
China’s strategic objectives in Greece are to 1. make the most of the country’s position in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative; 2. win over Greek political, business, and academic leaders and ensure Athens’s backing of China; 3. exert influence over the EU through “friendly” member states, one of which is perceived to be Greece.
Chinese activities in Greece do not seem disruptive. Unlike Beijing’s confrontational stance toward other European countries (as through its “wolf warrior diplomacy”), China has opted for a charm offensive. At the same time, Chinese state-owned companies are clearly trying to expand their footprint in Greece, notably targeting strategically important industries. Similarly, China would like to influence Greece’s foreign policy. Chinese media try to steer Greek public discourse in a direction that suits Beijing’s narratives, and there is a flurry of China-driven activities in the areas of culture and education, heralded as a reunion of two glorious ancient civilizations.
CCP’s methods, tools, and tactics for advancing its influence
While the phrase “malign influence” may not fully apply to China’s approach in Greece, Beijing’s toolkit includes economic statecraft, political pressure, cultural diplomacy, cooperation at the local level, and agreements with news agencies and media outlets.
One of China’s objectives is to expand its economic presence in Greece through investments in specific industries, such as transportation, energy, and telecoms. In 2008, China’s COSCO Shipping 1 signed a deal with the Greek government to run a major part of the Piraeus Sea port. In 2016, the Greek government held a public tender for a 51% stake in the Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) and the same Chinese company undertook the overall management of the facility. In October 2021, COSCO increased its stake in PPA to 67%. 2 The second major Chinese investment took place in 2016, when China’s State Grid, the biggest electricity grid operator in the world, purchased 24% of its Greek counterpart, IPTO/ADMIE. 3 Notably, both investments took place while Greece was under intense pressure from international creditors, amid the severe public debt crunch and in return for substantial financial assistance provided to the country.
Over the last decade or so, Greek governments have paid a lot of attention to China’s growing political weight in the international arena. Greece’s standoff with Turkey has forced Athens to seek powerful political allies, and Greek decision-makers value China’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In this respect, the frequent high-profile visits between the two countries deserve attention.
Cultural diplomacy has been a steady feature of Beijing’s policies in Athens. China has continuously pointed to a special sense of cultural rapport or even kinship between the two countries — in fact, Beijing has been promoting the notion of Sino-Greek cultural fraternity. Chinese media frequently extol the contribution of Sino-Greek relations “to the wisdom of ancient Eastern and Western civilizations [in] building a community with a shared future for mankind.” 4 Given that Greek citizens understandably take pride in the rich history and culture of their nation, related initiatives easily make headlines and are well received. 5 Chinese officials present the “spiritual kinship” between the two countries as a self-evident incentive for close Sino-Greek economic or political ties in modern times.
Greece has three Confucius Institutes, the newest of which opened in November 2021. 6 In 2019, Greece’s Laskaridis Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences set up a Centre for Chinese Studies. 7 Meanwhile, a growing number of Greek and Chinese universities are offering Chinese-language courses.
Diplomacy at the local level, which lacks appropriate monitoring and transparency, is an increasingly significant move in China’s playbook. As of April 2021, there were some 20 twinning and cooperation agreements between Greece and China at the level of districts, cities, prefectures, provinces, and regions, though there are many questions over the validity and precise nature of these arrangements. The Greek government, particularly the Interior Ministry, 8 does not have up-to-date information about twinning arrangements (see the annex for more information).
China targets Greek media as both allies and amplifiers. Using third-party outlets to mask Chinese content has become such a common tactic that Chinese Communist Party officials have reportedly given it a name — “borrowing boats to go to sea (jie chuan chu hai),” referring to the use of other actors’ resources to fulfill one’s goals. 9
Greece’s official Athens Macedonian News Agency (AMNA) signed a cooperation agreement with China’s state news agency, Xinhua, in May 2016. A year and a half later, AMNA agreed to establish a Belt and Road economic- and financial-information partnership with the China Economic Information Service, an affiliate of Xinhua. In November 2019, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Greece, China’s National Radio and Television Administration and Greek state television station ERT signed yet another agreement. In addition, a leading Greek daily newspaper, Kathimerini, signed a cooperation agreement with Xinhua in April 2017. In 2020 alone, the English edition of Kathimerini republished 66 Xinhua reports, 10 ranging from a rebuttal of claims that China was responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak to pieces praising the BRI, backing Beijing’s position on various international issues, and painting a rosy picture of Sino-Greek relations. 11
Reach of influence measures
Until recently, the prospect of FDI from China was Beijing’s most powerful tool. But while COSCO’s presence in Piraeus is highly visible and well known on a global scale, the volume of Chinese investment has by no means met the initial expectations in Greece. In addition, COSCO’s investment in Piraeus has been marred by controversies and considerable resistance. Tension culminated in a wave of strikes in late 2021 after a fatal accident in the container terminal. 12 Furthermore, several prospective Chinese investment projects have failed in the country or have been turned down by Greek authorities. Between 2011 and 2021, Chinese companies were involved in at least nine unsuccessful investment projects or lost out in public tenders. “Greece is not particularly dependent on Chinese investment [and] I do not expect much dependence on China in terms of infrastructure investments in Greece,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in 2021. 13 On the highly political issue of 5G, Huawei has been eased out of networks that are being constructed in Greece. Once again, Mitsotakis has said the core of the country’s 5G network will be “Huawei-free,” 14 and Greece has joined the US-led Clean Network. 15
Given the difficulties Chinese companies are increasingly encountering in Greece, Beijing is likely to prioritize the other tools discussed here. While China has lost some of its economic allure to Greek decision-makers, Beijing’s political and diplomatic clout is taken seriously by Greek governments. The main attraction is China’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which Athens hopes could aid Greece in a standoff with Turkey. As a result, Athens shies away from statements on human rights in China or other sensitive political issues. At the same time, the current Greek government has made fewer high-profile goodwill gestures to Beijing than the previous one did between 2016 and 2019. 16 Athens has refused — even if politely — to host the 2022 summit of the 16/17+1 format. 17 There is a discernible shift in the stance of the current Greek government toward China.
Targeted audiences and populations
China clearly targets the political, business, and academic elite in Greece. This is obvious in high-level political exchanges and Beijing’s strategy of courting influential Greek media outlets. A somewhat “soft” target group are Greek universities, which are eager to cooperate with their Chinese counterparts. Students attending Chinese-language classes also belong to this constituency, as they may not be prepared to look out for signs of Chinese propaganda.
Shipping is an important area of Sino-Greek cooperation. Many Greek shipping companies view China as their biggest customer. Notably, it was shipping interests that pushed COSCO’s investment in the port of Piraeus, 18 and both the Kathimerini daily and the Laskaridis Foundation belong to prominent Greek shipowners.
Beijing’s influence campaign has been changing over the past few years. Aware of its weakening economic and political clout in Greece, it has focused on “softer” forms of cooperation, such as culture and education, twinning links at the local level, and cultivating ties with select Greek media, but it will spare no efforts in courting Greece as a “friendly” state in its efforts to blunt anti-China voices in Europe. extended its presence in Slovenia over the last few years. However, while Beijing’s increased economic weight has brought more opportunities to exert political clout, its influence has been relatively modest. With a relatively small media and social media presence, Chinese actors have steered away from overtly aggressive diplomacy and have treaded softly. Chinese pressure usually becomes obvious only when Beijing pushes back on specific issues it sees as harmful to China’s national image and interests. The Chinese acquisition of Gorenje is increasingly seen as a success story, and Huawei has managed to capture the Slovenian market and to win the trust of key decision-makers. At the same time, fear of China’s economic retaliation has discouraged a more united political front in support of Taiwan. Yet, to the surprise of many, Chinese ambitions to invest in Slovenia’s strategic infrastructure have been watered down. Evidently, the Slovenian government has in general put political considerations over China’s economic appeal, which will in any event continue to serve as the main axis in Slovenia’s overall China policy orientation.
Tracking Chinese Online Influence in Central and Eastern Europe
For over a decade, China has been working to build influence beyond its own borders, in particular using online information operations.
- COSCO Pacific Ltd. at the time. China COSCO Shipping was formally established in February 2016 through the merger of China Ocean Shipping (Group) and China Shipping (Group).
- “Greece completes transfer of 16% stake in Piraeus port to COSCO,”Ekathemerini, October 7, 2021, https://www.ekathimerini.com/economy/1169346/greece-completes-transfer-of-16-stake-in-piraeus-port-to-cosco/.
- “Sale of 24% stake in Greece’s power grid operator to Chinese company approved by shareholders,” Naftemporiki, November 24, 2016, https://www.naftemporiki.gr/story/1175365/sale-of-24-stake-in-greeces-power-grid-operator-to-chinese-company-approved-by-shareholders
- ‘China, Greece to pool wisdom for community with shared future for mankind’, Xinhua, November 11, 2019, http://big5.xinhuanet.com/gate/big5/www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-11/12/c_138547762.htm
- Plamen Tonchev, ed. “China’s Image in Greece 2008-2018,” October 2018, https://idos.gr/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/China-Image-in-Greece_9-10-2018.pdf
- Chinese Embassy in Greece. Twitter Post. November 10, 2021, 8:15 a.m., https://twitter.com/Chinaemb_Hellas/status/1458422988072706053/photo/1
- “The CASS-ALF Centre for China Studies (CACCS),” Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, November 11, 2019, http://www.laskaridisfoundation.org/en/the-cass-alf-centre-for-china-studies-caccs/
- “Town-Twinnings,” Ministry of the Interior of the Hellenic Republic, 2016, https://www.ypes.gr/UserFiles/f0ff9297-f516-40ff-a70e-eca84e2ec9b9/Town-Twinnings.pdf
- Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “Between the lines on Chinese strategy: Borrowing a boat to go out on the ocean”, Axios, February 26, 2020, https://www.axios.com/2020/02/26/china-foreign-media-borrowing-boat-ocean
- Plamen Tonchev, “Sino-Greek Relations in Greek and Chinese Media, 2020,” Institute of International Economic Relations, March 2021, p. 25, https://idos.gr/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Sino-Greek-Relations_in_Media_18-3-2021.pdf
- Tonchev, “Sino-Greek Relations,” p. 25.
- Dimitris Kostakos, ”Ministry of Labor: Autopsy on the circumstances of the fatal accident at the PCT,” Athina, October 26, 2021, https://www.athina984.gr/en/2021/10/26/ypoyrgeio-ergasias-aytopsia-gia-tis-synthikes-toy-thanatiforoy-ergatikoy-atychimatos-ston-sep
- Ben Hall, ”Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ interview to Ben Hall at the Global Boardroom digital conference,” Prime Minister of the Greek Republic, May 5, 2021, https://primeminister.gr/en/2021/05/05/26464
- The Aspen Institute, ”The View from Athens: A Conversation with Prime Minister Mitsotakis,” Youtube video, 42:56-42:58, August 6, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4Jp-7WdyfE&t=53s
- Geoffrey Pyatt, “An investment in Greece’s high-tech future”, Ekathimerini, September 29, 2021, https://www.ekathimerini.com/opinion/257122/an-investment-in-greece-s-high-tech-future
- In 2016, Athens supported Beijing after the ruling of the International Arbitration Court on the dispute on the South China Sea. In 2017, Greece blocked an EU statement on human rights in China. In 2018, Greece signed an MoU on cooperation with China under the BRI. In 2019, Greece joined the 16/17+1 format.
- Tarkas Alexandros, “Athens is distancing itself from China, Won’t Host 17+1 Summit’ (in Greek), slpress.gr, 12 March 2021, https://slpress.gr/ethnika/apostaseis-pairnei-i-athina-apo-tin-kina-den-tha-filoxenisei-ti-synodo-koryfis-ton-quot-17-1-quot/
- Asteris Huliaras & Sotiris Petropoulos, “Shipowners, ports and diplomats: the political economy of Greece’s relations with China”, Asia Europe Journal, November 6, 2013: 215-230. https://www.readcube.com/articles/10.1007%2Fs10308-013-0367-1