Chinese Firms Now Hold Stakes In Over A Dozen European Ports China's expansion into European ports is part of its new Maritime Silk Road, which aims to better connect the country to global commercial hubs. But this is about more than just moving cargo.

Chinese Firms Now Hold Stakes In Over A Dozen European Ports

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China has poured billions into making basically a Silk Road of the sea, running dozens of ports and container terminals around the world. It's a way to move Chinese exports to important markets, including the European Union. And in Europe, it all began in the Greek port of Piraeus. The Chinese shipping giant COSCO has spent millions transforming it into the fastest growing port in the world. But as Joanna Kakissis reports from Piraeus, this has come at a price.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The port of Piraeus is as iconic to Greeks as the Acropolis. It's where warriors set out for ancient sea battles and where Hollywood docked for the 1960 film "Never On Sunday."


MELINA MERCOURI: (Singing in Greek).

KAKISSIS: Actress Melina Mercouri, saying that there's no port she loved as much as Piraeus.


KAKISSIS: Retired stevedore Giorgos Nouchoutidis and his wife Maria know the song by heart. He worked at the port of Piraeus for 35 years.

GIORGOS NOUCHOUTIDIS: (Through interpreter) This is my city. This is my father's city. When I started at the port, we didn't have many machines to load cargo onto the ships. We just did it with our own hands. We loaded bags of clothes, leather goods, knitwear, all made in Greece, all bound for North America and Australia.

KAKISSIS: He says Piraeus took care of its dock workers. He made good money and now has a good pension. He flips a string of worry beads as he reminisces in his living room under a watercolor painting of a ship.

G. NOUCHOUTIDIS: (Through interpreter) Piraeus is in a blessed location. It's across from the Suez Canal. It's deep enough for big ships. It's got everything to be successful.

KAKISSIS: But for years, when the Greek state owned the port, bureaucratic red tape made it hard to attract investment. Then came the debt crisis, which began in 2010 and ravaged the Greek economy. The EU pushed Greece to privatize the port of Piraeus. Only the Chinese showed serious interest.

The Chinese shipping giant COSCO took over the port in 2016. It now owns a majority stake in the Port Authority. COSCO runs cargo terminals, cruise ship piers and the largest passenger ferry wharf in Europe. And the Chinese are not stopping there.

KRITON VALLERAS: They want to expand the car terminal. They want to expand. They want to create a logistics center. They want to build a new cruise terminal.

KAKISSIS: Kriton Valleras advises the Greek shipping ministry. He's aware the Chinese lease on the port will run out in about 35 years.

VALLERAS: If at some point in the future they want to abandon Piraeus, we will have all these investments. They will not take them with with them, OK? They will leave them here.

KAKISSIS: So you see it as entirely a win-win.


KAKISSIS: Win-win, those are the words of Captain Fu Cheng Qiu, COSCO's CEO in Piraeus, heard here in 2015.


FU CHENG QIU: It's a win-win to Greece and to COSCO.

KAKISSIS: One of the port union leaders, Anastasia Frantzeskaki, has another interpretation.

ANASTASIA FRANTZESKAKI: When the Chinese say win-win, they mean they win twice.

KAKISSIS: She says the benefits mainly go to China.

FRANTZESKAKI: They expand their influence. They expand their technology. They expand their know-how, their way to organize and doing business. They expand all these things in Europe.

KAKISSIS: You can actually hear the Chinese expansion at the cargo terminals, which are busy 24 hours a day. Straddle carriers lift giant metal containers of goods onto ships. Workers in bright yellow safety vests are everywhere. These are coveted jobs in a country where the unemployment rate is 20 percent. But most of the 1,700 workers at the port are temps without labor rights.



KAKISSIS: Two years ago, hundreds protested and battled police over COSCO's takeover and their working conditions. Thirty-year-old stevedore Markos Bekris recalled how he and his colleagues worked long hours in unsafe conditions for less pay.

MARKOS BEKRIS: (Through interpreter) Workers were too scared to speak up. They kept their heads down, working straight shifts without breaks, even to go to the bathroom. Some of my co-workers had to relieve themselves in plastic bottles.

KAKISSIS: Now, he says, at least they can take 20-minute breaks during shifts. Only about 250 workers are in the Greek dockworkers union run by Giorgos Gogos. He cannot stomach the new reality for most workers at the port and blames COSCO.

GIORGOS GOGOS: They want silent, obedient, cheap workers with no unions. And this means no rights. What's the future? We don't this future. We have taken from our fathers a past with certain rights, certain conditions, and want to pass it to our children, to our future dockworkers.

KAKISSIS: COSCO's Piraeus CEO, Fu Cheng Qiu, and his deputy declined NPR's interview requests. A COSCO spokesman said in an email that after, quote, "long and productive negotiations," a labor agreement was signed that benefits both sides. The European Union's been largely silent on the labor concerns. But Christos Lambridis, Greece's secretary of ports, says he has heard from EU officials who are suddenly worried that China's running a European port.

CHRISTOS LAMBRIDIS: (Through interpreter) We're all aware that the Chinese state is behind a company like COSCO. But it was the EU that pushed us to sell our port to COSCO in the first place. We were in debt. We had little bargaining power.

KAKISSIS: He says the EU underestimated China.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Chinese).

KAKISSIS: And now that the Chinese flag is raised in Piraeus, it's too late for regrets. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Piraeus, Greece.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Chinese).

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