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Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is on a visit through Europe this week to talk economics. Greece is especially interested in what he has to say. The country is $400 billion in debt and is desperate for Chinese business.
Many Greeks are welcoming the Chinese, but others are worried, as Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.
JOANNA KAKISSIS: Workers on a small fishing boat are removing the day's sardine catch from a bright yellow fishing net. They're docked off Kokkinos Pirgos, a sleepy village on the southern coast of Crete. The area around here is known for its tomatoes, its sea turtles and its low-key tourism.
But the Greek government has been in talks for years with Chinese shipping giant Cosco to build and run a giant container port here. The plan has divided the community. Some welcome China and say the port would revive an economically dying area, but others say it will end a way of life.
Fisherman Demosthenis Petinarakis is 62 years old and grew up here.
Mr. DEMOSTHENIS PETINARAKIS: We will not be able to fish in our sea, you know, in this gulf. So we think that there is not much that we are going to get compared to what we are going to lose.
KAKISSIS: In June, Cosco assumed full control of the major container port in Piraeus, southwest of the Greek capital.
Greek ship owner Nicos Vernicos works with Cosco and is a big fan of the Chinese. His 15 tugboats have been subcontracted by Cosco in Piraeus. He says Cosco is modernizing a port that hasn't worked well for years.
Mr. NICOS VERNICOS: Before Cosco came, the operation of the Piraeus port was done by a government-controlled company, and the mentality of all those working in this company was of public servants. They didn't have any business mind, and there was not competition.
KAKISSIS: And Greece desperately needs to become more competitive. The World Economic Forum ranks it in the bottom half of its competitiveness index. Greece's red tape and corruption have scared away investors for decades, but not the Chinese.
Cosco is working with Greece's state ports to run a major distribution hub west of Athens. There are also deals in the works for shipbuilding, rail projects and even luxury hotels.
Labor unions have accused the current Socialist government of selling out a weakened Greece to the Chinese. But Haris Pamboukis, Greece's minister of investments, says that's nonsense.
Mr. HARIS PAMBOUKIS (Minister of Investments, Greece): We are not selling the country. We are empowering the country because we are speaking here about investments who are productive and will be in Greece.
KAKISSIS: Economists say Chinese investment will mean jobs, which Greece badly needs right now. The proposed Chinese container port in Crete, for instance, could create at least 800 jobs. But those who live in the area say the port would also kill a few thousand jobs in tourism.
The port would also destroy a part of Crete that has retained its traditional way of life, says Priscilla Petinarakis. She's the American wife of fisherman Demosthenis Petinarakis and has lived here for three decades.
Ms. PRISCILLA PETINARAKIS: Well, it's just a beautiful stroll along there. It's just full there in the summertime. There's beach parties, there's, you know, all these things that help people be together. If you have a cesspool there of a, you know, harbor, you know, I can't really see that that's going to happen anymore.
KAKISSIS: Her husband and others have formed a citizens' group against the port, but not everyone here supports them.
At a cafeteria near the beach, a group of men say they want the Chinese here. One is retired sailor Yiannis Christakis.
Mr. YIANNIS CHRISTAKIS: We need harbor here, give us more life.
KAKISSIS: At a table nearby, Demosthenis Petinarakis listens and frowns.
Mr. PETINARAKIS: I have nothing with Chinese people, I think they are very nice and all that. But we better take it easy and see what is good for us.
KAKISSIS: Because if the Chinese build the port, Petinarakis knows there's no going back. And as Greece changes after this economic crisis, he hopes the sacrifices will be worth the rewards.
For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.
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