China Forges Stronger Economic Ties With Greece

China is one of the largest investors in Greece, and has poured money into the country at a time when other investors balked. Beijing wants Greece to be its gateway to Europe's marketplaces.

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China's premier begins a visit to Greece today. Over the last five years, China has been pouring money into the Eurozone's most troubled economy at a time when most other investors have stayed away. As Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens, the Chinese hope to turn Greece into a European gateway for its products.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: When Lan Xiao Cheng moved to Athens 24 years ago he was just another young man fascinated with Socrates in the Greek islands. He worked odd jobs until he saved enough money to open a small travel agency 15 years ago. Now Athens Silk Road International Travel has two offices and 10 employees from Greece and China. It hosted at least 4,000 of the 30,000 Chinese tourists who visited Greece last year, Lan says.

Did you see many Chinese come even though there was a crisis here?

LAN XIAO CHENG: Yes, because it's Europe not China.

KAKISSIS: It's not just the Chinese tourists are helping Greece, says Konstantinos Yannidis, President of the Hellenic Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

KONSTANTINOS YANNIDIS: (Through translator) Back in 2012 everyone was busy speculating whether Greece would leave the Euro. But the Chinese prime minister then went out of his way to declare that his country had purchased Greek bonds to support the Greek economy.

KAKISSIS: China and Greece started to build economic ties after Greek ship owners began using Chinese shipyards to build their tankers in the 1970's. That connection brought Chinese shipping giant Cosco to the port of Piraeus in 2009 - when the company signed a long-term lease to use two piers in the port as a container shipping hub. That operation has grown by 50 percent each year, Yannidis says.

YANNIDIS: (Through translator) Step-by-step it's moved forward to become a major operation. And I believe, as does Cosco, that it could become the largest port for container ships in the Mediterranean.

KAKISSIS: The Chinese now want to lease a third peer in Piraeus from the Greek state. They are already testing the loss-making Greek railway to see if they can transport directly into Central Europe. Cosco wants to invest in the railway infrastructure to make it more efficient, says Ilias Bellos a journalist who has chronicled the rise of the Chinese in Greece.

ILIAS BELLOS: And now after a new railroad connection to the port they are trying to re-channel imports to Asia through the train towards central Europe. That saves about six days' time and the corresponding costs. So there has been a great competition between Northern Europe's ports and Piraeus, in particular.

KAKISSIS: Bellos calls it the New Silk Road. And despite complaints over treatment of workers at Cosco, a recent poll showed that more than 80 percent of Greeks believe China can financially support their country. Rich Chinese are also moving to Greece thanks to a 2013 law that gives Greek visas to foreigners who buy real estate worth at least €250,000 - that's about $340,000. Back at his travel agency, Lan Xiao Cheng says he's meeting many Chinese newcomers in Greek language classes.

CHENG: (Greek spoken).

KAKISSIS: I'm finally studying Greek too, he says. Like many Chinese, Lan says he's ready to call Greece his home. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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