- The onset of coordination between Athens and Beijing, immediately following the lockdown of the Chinese city of Wuhan in January 2020, along with the Greek government’s swift and decisive implementation of preventative measures put off the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Greece for approximately one month.
- Meanwhile, China played an essential role in supporting Greece during this critical juncture through the donation and expedited delivery of medical supplies, at a time when an export ban had been implemented on these goods by Greece’s neighbouring countries.
- Greece’s Port of Piraeus – which was privatised in 2016 and awarded to Chinese shipping giant COSCO – has climbed the ranks to become the leading port in terms of container traffic in the Mediterranean and 4th in Europe, while in 2019 bilateral trade between Greece and China increased 19.6% on a year-on-year basis, amounting to €8.47 billion.
- While this reflects the heightened economic and diplomatic cooperation between both countries, there is still plenty of space to expand this further, leveraging Greece’s location at the centre of China’s Belt and Road Project on the one hand, and Greece’s pro-investment policies on the other.
- There is significant Chinese investor interest in Greece, with companies currently considering opportunities in sectors ranging from renewable energy and waste management across to pharmaceuticals and agricultural processing.
GIG: You have been the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the Hellenic Republic since August 2018 – coincidentally the same time Greece’s exited its final bailout programme. What is your perception of the changes that have taken place in Greece during this time?
Zhang: Greece exited the memorandum just a few days after I arrived in the country, and while economic recovery takes some time the 20th of August was rather a landmark moment. Over the last two years I have really seen big changes and transformations take place, thanks to the very hard work undertaken by the government, the business community, and people from all walks of life. Things have really begun changing and changing for the better. I have also seen a change in the mentality of the people, and in the overall mood of Greek society. There is a very strong urge for development and economic recovery, and the commitment to achieve this by all stakeholders is apparent.
The economic picture has improved significantly during this time. The reality is that the fundamentals are all doing well. Before the pandemic, we saw that the country’s GDP was maintaining an upward momentum, along with lower unemployment, and all the predictions were very positive. The global market also has a very positive assessment of Greece, with yields on Greek government bonds remaining very low. And there is also a very strong commitment on behalf of the Greek government to change the country for the better and drive economic growth.
GIG: The overall landscape, however, has changed dramatically due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. But every dark cloud has a silver lining, and the Greek government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has received international praise. What do you believe this response says about Greece today?
Zhang: Well, I believe there are several factors that have contributed to Greece’s successes in the control and prevention of the pandemic, especially in the first stage, which I believe is the most important.
Firstly, the government displayed a very strong sense of responsibility and great compassion for the people – for their health and safety – and there’s also the fact that they have shown a great commitment to science and professionalism.
The third factor has been the unity of the Greek society. The Greek people followed the instructions and protocols that were announced by the government. Bearing in mind that Greek society suffered the debt crisis for such a long time, I think the people knew that overcoming such an unprecedented health crisis would require for them to come together through unity and solidarity.
The government also undertook a very clear assessment of the capacity of the country’s hospitals and medical facilities and was able to assess exactly what they needed to respond in an adequate manner. And thanks to this, during the first wave there was a very low fatality rate, including senior citizens. This reflects the government’s professionalism and their reliance on the underlying science.
The cabinet has been very cool headed in their adoption of measures and has done so according to the advice of scientists and the medical community. And they also studied the situation that was unfolding in other parts of the world, including China. In fact, we were in close contact with Greece from the very start of this pandemic. When the city of Wuhan was placed under lockdown on January 23rd, I asked for an appointment with Health Minister Kikilias on the 24th, and we met on Monday, the 27th. Since then, we began sharing what was going on in China, our perception of the situation, the measures we were taking, the reason behind such drastic and comprehensive measures – and why we believed that the most effective approach was social distancing and implementing a local lockdown for a period of time.
From that moment onwards we created a team to work together and share information, which is actually quite rare. And I know that the minister immediately reported this matter to the prime minister, there were meetings, and they took the issue very seriously. They set up teams of top scientists and they had a transparent system with press conferences.
For our part, we continue to share our experience and what we have learnt with the Greek side. On almost a weekly basis, we pass on information that our scientists have produced including diagnosis and treatment protocols, for example. In fact, our scientists update a very specific handbook on how to treat patients every month, and there are seven editions to this date. We have many groups of scientists and researchers who are working on this in an effort to share this information with the whole world, which is something we have done from the very start.
Several video conferences were also held between our top doctors and Greece’s top doctors, in which the medical teams were able to interact, ask, and answer questions. In times of crisis, it’s very important that we act and work together in a professional and scientific manner.
Last but not least, there has been a significant amount of solidarity. Apart from the government’s efforts and the international cooperation that has materialised during this pandemic, there has been a very generous contribution from the business community, highlighting the unity of the Greek society in times of crisis. While we were working on mobilising the Chinese assistance of medical supplies to Greece, and organising the Greek government’s purchase of medical supplies – along with their transportation from China to Greece – we were in close contact with a lot of the Greek private sector. They assisted the Greek government with the transportation and purchase of medical supplies, as well as in making the contacts. So, we also tried to help them as well.
Greek society has responded very differently to other countries where we have seen panicking, discrimination, violent attacks, among other problems. The Greek people have been very calm, which has definitely also contributed to the country’s successful story.
GIG: You’ve talked about how you supported the Greek government when it came to the transfer of know-how regarding the coronavirus, but what I’d like to understand further is how China supported Greece when it came to medical equipment and supplies. And most importantly, what drove this response from China?
Zhang: China’s support to Greece during this critical time is a vivid reflection of the strong relationship that binds our countries.
While we have always had a very friendly sentiment towards each other, in recent years, particularly following the privatisation of the Port of Piraeus along with a number of other projects, we have become partners, on top of being friends.
This has created the foundations of an excellent relationship. But there are three points I’d like to focus on:
First of all, we believe in friendship. This friendship is very important to us and it transpires into everything. And true friendship is demonstrated during times of crisis. In China we say that if you’re truly someone’s friend, you will share weal and woe. Of course, you share their happiness too, but you also feel the pain and the agony of your friend.
And during this challenging time, someone shared a quote with me by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle that goes back two thousand years about the meaning of friendship. He said “A friend means a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” So in a way, it’s a similar expression to what the Chinese say when we refer to feeling the pain of others.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in China was an unprecedented crisis that took us by storm. It was a very difficult period. Our medical institutions were not prepared for the outbreak, and the international political environment was not very favourable either. People were blaming China for starting the virus. But during the first critical period, even though the virus had not reached Greece, the Greek government – as a friend of the Chinese government – stood very strongly by China by saying ‘’We are friends of China and we support China’s efforts at combating this virus. We think that the virus is our enemy.” Some of the business leaders and associations supported us with masks.
Our exchange of views and information on this matter with the Greek government at the end of January, and the early and forceful measures taken by the Greek government successfully put off the outbreak in Greece for a month. Precious time was gained.
The Greek Ministry of Health and the Foreign Affairs Ministry had taken steps to prepare themselves, having ordered masks and other medical supplies. However, when the virus landed on European shores, it was impossible to get these supplies because there was a ban on their export from Greece’s neighbouring countries. And this was the most critical time: the first 10 to 15 days.
So the Greek government came to us and sought our assistance. As we knew how critical these supplies were, and we produce them in China, we committed to do our very best. But it was easier said than done due to the trying time that China is still undergoing, along with the very high demand for these medical supplies and equipment both in China and internationally.
Then there was the number of cases.
The confirmed number of COVID-19 cases in Greece was – and is – very small compared with other countries like Italy, Russia, and France, for example. So, while it was a critical situation from within, it wasn’t actually such a critical situation if you assessed the situation from afar.
But at the same time, as a friend of China’s, we felt the need to help. And secondly, we believe in assisting countries in preventing crises rather than only managing crises that are difficult to control. So we conveyed the urgent message to Beijing, spoke with our ministries and our business community, and the response was very positive. There was a desire to help a friend in need.
During the first week, my staff and I worked around the clock. Medical supplies were very limited, cases were building up, and at the time there was only one flight coming into Athens from Beijing every two weeks. If we didn’t manage to catch that flight, it would have been a great set back. So we set out to bring in the Chinese government’s assistance and other donations within eight days.
While it was very challenging, I was moved by the commitment of the people and organisations that helped us make this a reality. The people that work at the state-owned company that was handling the organisation of the medical equipment worked every day until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning in an effort to reach the deadline. To make sure that the supplies were of the highest possible quality, someone actually drove five hundred kilometres to the factory to verify that the material that was being used for the production of the face masks was optimum quality, in accordance with what had actually been ordered.
And in order to transport such a large volume of medical supplies to Athens we had to ask Air China to transform a part of the passenger section of the airplane into a cargo area, which entailed the involvement of the Aviation Administration. And all of this was done in just eight days. It was really a miracle. But everyone knew it was a critical moment and had to be done to save lives.
Apart from the government assistance, Chinese companies in Greece, including COSCO, State Grid, Bank of China, ICBC, Huawei and ZTE have donated over one million masks, in addition to a large volume of PPE equipment and ventilators, among many other things.
But this all happened at the same time that China’s factories were running 24 hours a day because they couldn’t produce enough. There were a number of big orders from other countries. So I think this is one point about friendship. When the Greek Health Minister thanked me I told him it wasn’t necessary. This is how we understand friendship, and how we treat our friends. We took this issue as our own, and we did our best.
While it is one thing to provide assistance, it is another to render the most needed help at the most critical moment. We worked tirelessly to make this happen as quickly as possible because we understood how serious this crisis was, and Greece was in dire need of medical equipment.
The second point I’d like to highlight is that we truly believe in sharing. Bearing in mind China was the first country to experience the massive outbreak of COVID-19, by the time the virus reached Greece we had some experience on the matter. We were eager to share our knowledge in the hope of better prevention and treatment.
And the third thing that we truly believe in is solidarity. Given our past experience with SARS, Ebola, and other viruses and disease, we know that this is an international matter and a common enemy that one cannot see. My president has put forward the idea of building a joint community by all countries for a shared future for mankind. This is why today we truly hope that everyone can see matters in the same light. Bearing in mind the effects of the virus, and the associated economic difficulties, we need to consolidate our solidarity and act together.
Just to cite an example, during President Xi’s visit to Athens last year, Bank of China and ICBC both decided to come to set up an office in Greece. They were supposed to have inaugurated their opening this year, but due to the pandemic this was delayed. While they have offices, they haven’t really started their operations.
But when the pandemic broke out in Greece, there was a discussion among the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, on what to contribute and how to make this happen. Both Bank of China and ICBC said they would like to contribute. They have altogether donated two hundred thousand masks and two thousand PPE. To put things into perspective, two thousand PPE is about 80 containers worth of cargo coming in through the port.
As a final point, since 2006 China-Greece relations have been described as a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Strategic refers to the long term, while comprehensive highlights the fact that our relationship is not only economically or business based; it entails a much wider scope.
There has always been a natural affinity and respect towards each other, and there’s a very strong sense of understanding between both sides. And this explains why when we are faced with this kind of crisis, it is only natural that we help each other.
GIG: I think it’s fair to say that Greece-China ties have reached their modern day apex, especially following Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ visit to Shanghai late last year and then Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Athens. What are the key factors behind this?
Zhang: I believe it is true that last year was a climax for our relationship and many people have said that we achieved the work of three years in one. We had the exchange of important visits in November 2019 between Prime Minister Mitsotakis and President Xi. In May, Greece’s former president Pavlopoulos also paid a state visit to China, during which he attended the First Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations. Prime Minister Mitsotakis had a very fruitful meeting with President Xi in Shanghai. There were also many cabinet visits and exchanges that made 2019 the culmination of our relationship, along with business contacts, the cultural and social exchanges, and people-to-people visits.
To understand how this happened and what it really means, it’s important to understand that a closer and stronger relationship between the two countries is what both sides needed, wanted, and desired.
Bearing in mind that we come from an Asian tradition, there is a very strong commonality in the values that we share, from the broad issues like civilisation dialogue and partnership building across to global issues like multilateralism and globalisation.
There is a strong ground on which this relationship has been built upon as well as a desire for comprehensive cooperation in areas ranging from finance and education across to aviation, among many others. During President Xi’s visit to Athens, 16 bilateral agreements were signed between the two sides, but more could have been signed. There was so much enthusiasm on behalf of the business community to sign agreements, but due to time constraints, I had to cut the list short.
And if anything, this reflects the high point that our economic cooperation had reached.
If we look back at 2019, the volume of bilateral trade between China and Greece grew by 19.6%, compared to 2018. In 2019, this amounted to €8.47 billion, highlighting the great momentum that existed before the pandemic.
And while this has slowed down for now, looking ahead, I see even greater potential. There is just so much that we can do together.
GIG: I’d like to move on to discuss COSCO’s participation in the Port of Piraeus. The port has been climbing the ranks in terms of container traffic having been recently ranked the number one port in the Mediterranean. What have been the keys to achieving this?
Zhang: We know that by the end of 2019 the Piraeus Port was the leading port in the Mediterranean in terms of container traffic. But based on the most recent figures released in March, it is also 4th in Europe, and 25th worldwide.
Now, if you’re talking about the comprehensive capability of the port, the Piraeus Port has been ranked among the top 10 in the world. When COSCO first came in, Piraeus’ international ranking was 93. And then when I arrived two years ago, it had already climbed to 36.
After having been in Greece for half a year or so, I said to the business community that I saw the potential for the port to be ranked within the world’s top 30. A lot of the shipping businesses were a bit stunned and said it was a very ambitious goal. Now the port is already 25th. And even despite the challenges of the pandemic, the port is doing well and is expecting positive growth this year.
I believe the Piraeus Port has been instrumental in contributing to Greece’s economic recovery from the debt crisis, and it needs to be seen from that light. It has played a stabilising role. The Chinese investment and the Chinese management of the port have been essential, having directly created more than 3,000 direct jobs, while indirectly the number is about 10,000. And with the port’s expansion even more jobs will be created, which is in addition to the social responsibility programmes that are carried out by the companies – the Piraeus Port Authority and Piraeus Containers Terminal – to contribute to the local community.
In terms of the factors that have contributed to this success, it’s really a result of converging interests and the creation of a win-win situation. In China, we’re a very philosophical society, and whenever we analyse these situations, we refer to there being a harmony between the heaven, the earth, and the people. Or to put it more simply, being at the right place, at the right time, and with the right people.
In terms of timing, the Chinese investment came in with COSCO at a time when Greece needed new paths of economic development, like privatisations, to really commit to an economic recovery. At the same time, China has a very strong shipping industry, a robust technological and managerial capability in this regard, along with the capacity to finance this type of project. So things really come together.
It needs to be taken into account that the Piraeus Port was built approximately two thousand years ago, and developing the port was a dream of the Greek people. Seeing as the government had the inner motivation to make this development possible, it really was a matter of it being at the right time with the right people.
Now, in terms of it being at the right place, geographically speaking, the Piraeus Port is at the centre between Asia and Europe, and at the crossroads between three continents. At this stage of globalisation, things are moving extremely quickly and all countries want to see faster development, which is why President Xi put forward the idea of revitalising the ancient Silk Road through the Belt and Road Project.
If we look at the Belt and Road Project, the Piraeus Port is right at the centre. If the port is well managed and organised, it could be at the centre of this relationship between Europe and Asia. So that’s why there is enough cargo; there is a willingness to work together.
The Greek government has always wanted the country to become a logistics hub, and I think the privatisation of the port has made this a real possibility; there is great potential. And I hope that beyond China and Greece working together, we will be able to work with all of Europe to make the Piraeus Port even more relevant.
During Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ visit to Shanghai he talked about the Piraeus Port. At that time, it was already becoming Europe’s 5th leading port. And he posed the question: why couldn’t the Piraeus Port become the first port in Europe? And I said, why not? But achieving this will require a great deal of work.
The third contributing factor is the people. I really must compliment the Greek people for producing such an achievement. When COSCO came in to manage the port, they brought in the technology, the cargo, and the investment. But all the work has been done by the Greek people. The success of the Piraeus Port in not a Chinese success, it’s a success of Greece and the Greek people.
To the surprise of many, less than 20 Chinese people work at the Port of Piraeus, and they are centred in the top management of the port. The rest of the estimated 3,000 workers are Greek, and they are the people who have and are contributing to this. They are working very hard, on shifts, in undertaking the port’s transformation. The people have put their hearts into their work and they’re satisfied with the working environment; they see the win-win, which is very important.
GIG: You’ve mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and how the Piraeus Port fits within this, but I’d like to take a step back to understand the importance of Greece within China’s wider BRI strategy, beyond just the port.
Zhang: Bearing in mind the main idea behind the Belt and Road Project is to revitalise the ancient Silk Road, the main players in this respect are Asia and Europe.
The Belt and Road Project in itself is a big platform for Europe and China in terms of cooperation and development. And if we look at the two big continents, Greece is right in the middle, making it very well positioned and a natural partner.
When Greece exited the memorandum, the Greek government decided to officially join by signing the document for the Belt and Road Project. Actually, Greece was the first country among the EU’s developed countries to sign up, so Greece has fully committed itself to the project. And this is why last year, in April, Greece also became a full member of the China-CEEC 17+1 arrangement. While this is a different platform, these initiatives are all basically working in the same direction, and Greece is very important within this framework.
It’s also important to note that the Belt and Road Project is not only about infrastructure or business. It actually has five aspects. The first is infrastructure. The second is trade, and we see the increased trade volumes between countries. The third is actually financing, and there couldn’t be a better platform when it comes to financing availability. The fourth aspect is policy coordination. Bearing in mind that all countries are in need of development and restructuring, and want to enter into new development models, we believe in sharing experiences to understand each other’s policy objectives and, thereby, achieve coordinated policies. The fifth aspect is based on people-to-people relationships, and this is an area where Greece can also play an instrumental role, especially given the fact that we see Greece as a country coming from an old civilisation, with a great deal of culture and history on its back. I think it has an important role in talking about and advocating for a civilisation dialogue. We want more dialogue, more relationships, and more cooperation, instead of moving in the opposite direction. And we see Greece as an important country in achieving this.
GIG: You’ve mentioned that one of the objectives of the BRI is policy coordination, and the possible conclusion of the China-EU bilateral Investment Treaty would create a significant policy shift. What are your main concerns and your hopes in this respect?
Zhang: Well, this is actually under intensive discussion between the EU and China. My government attaches great importance to the signing of this agreement because the bilateral relationship between the EU and China is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world today. Together, we could play a major role in maintaining world peace, and in promoting development and multilateralism.
Bearing in mind the extensive cooperation and interaction between the two sides, I think now is the time for us to sign this agreement. There is a strong commitment on both sides, and we have said that we are going to try our best to have this signed by the end of this year. Not even the pandemic managed to slow down our discussions and negotiations; both sides are in contact on a daily basis. While I don’t have all the specifics about this due to the ongoing discussions, our basic idea is that this treaty is important at this stage because it will contribute to promote an economic recovery and unlock potential cooperation for both sides. The signing of this agreement will also give a strong signal to the world that both sides stand up for multilateralism, free trade, cooperation, which in today’s world, is essential.
We just hope that this will be a high level, high quality document that will be just and mutually beneficial for both sides.
GIG: And as Greece looks towards its economic recovery following this pandemic, what are the key sectors in Greece that China and Chinese investors are most interested in?
Zhang: I’d first like to make a general remark about China’s intent or interest in the area of investment. Our general idea when working with other countries is different from certain expectations in the sense that we don’t have a preconceived idea about what we want to do or which areas we’re interested in investing in.
Our vision, and this is also an essential principle of the Belt and Road Initiative, is that whatever project or cooperation we carry out has to be done on a mutually agreed basis and in joint collaboration. Likewise, we also try to align our efforts with the priorities of the target country. And this is why it’s important for the Chinese business sector to understand what each government’s priorities are, which is where the role of my embassy falls in: to convey the right message in a clear manner.
When I worked with the previous Tsipras government, they published a development strategy for Greece in September 2018, immediately following the country’s exit from the memorandum. I believe I’m probably one of the very few ambassadors who really studied the strategy from cover to cover to understand what Greece’s priorities were, and report this back to Beijing, as well as to the business people and potential investors that come to see me.
And the same applies to this government. Since Prime Minister Mitsotakis came into office, his government has issued many new policies, all of which are attractive to potential investors, and reforms that target the restructuring of the economy. We follow these developments closely and communicate them to the Chinese business community.
GIG: What do you say to Chinese business people that are considering investing in Greece?
Zhang: Greece is a place where we highly recommend investing. This is a country that came out of the debt crisis and is now a normal country. And while the crisis lasted 10 years – which is a long time – we, the Chinese, always try to look at situations from an optimistic point of view. When you’ve been in a crisis for such a long time you’ve been at a very low point meaning there is a stronger commitment to change, to develop, to restructure, and to absorb and welcome international investment and cooperation – which is good. And this is something that the business people should grasp to look at Greece with fresh eyes.
On the other hand, so far, the new administration – because of the leadership of Prime Minister Mitsotakis – has adopted a great deal of pro-investment and pro-development policies, which is very promising because it means the country is ready.
The government is more efficient and is very determined.
We need to work to change the old perceptions of Greece, because for 10 years there was very little interest in investing in the country. Due to the debt crisis, many people had the idea left in their mind that Greece was a failure, along with many misconceptions about the country. That has to change, and we have to tell them Greece is now very different. Greece has a very good reputation as it is on the right path for recovery and development.
Last but not least, politically there’s a very good environment because both governments are committed to building this relationship. We are encouraging more business and investment opportunities and, specifically over the past few years, we have laid the groundwork for better cooperation through the Belt and Road Project and the China-CEEC 17+1, for example, which provide many platforms that can support this kind of cooperation.
With all of this said, there is very strong interest from the Chinese business side to come to Greece. The only problem is that they do not know enough about the country, especially what’s going on currently, which is why the Greece Investor Guide is very timely. I think everybody would want to have a copy or read it online, and it would be even better if there was a Chinese edition.
In fact, even during this pandemic, despite how difficult it is to arrange physical visits, there’s still been a very strong interest shown by the Chinese investment and business community. Over the past two or three months, we’ve organised – together with some business groups – several video conferences. And for each conference there have been up to 500 participants from the Chinese business community, and a very keen interest in learning more about Greece.
GIG: Are there any key Chinese investments in Greece that you would like to highlight that are currently underway?
Zhang: Besides the investments in the Piraeus Port and IPTO, we have dozens of companies that are already here. But as the Ambassador, I think this is really far from enough. While the small number is due to the 10 years of crisis, there is a now a very strong interest and companies want to come to Greece.
However, it’s very hard to pinpoint just a few companies because the interest is very wide and comprehensive. Many companies are looking for opportunities. For example, there are already several companies that are interested in renewable energy, in waste management, and in the pharmaceutical sector – especially after the pandemic. The pharmaceutical sector is an area the Greek government is interested in pushing forward and we are working towards this now. Other companies are interested in electrical vehicles, which is a new field. I would also have to add food and agricultural processing. So, as you can see, the possibilities are huge. Anything and everything is possible.
But potential investors need the right policies and incentives to be in place. While many people think that because we have a strong government everything is government guided, the reality is that our economy is very much market driven and Chinese companies are highly market oriented. Attracting Chinese investments is not just a matter between Greece and China, It’s also a competition between Greece and its neighbouring countries.
But the reality is that everyone who comes to Greece loves the country, the people, the atmosphere, the culture and the history. So the general environment is quite good.
GIG: I’d like to move on to my final question, which focuses on cultural diplomacy. Can you tell us about the cultural tourist year between Greece and China, and how initiatives like this can contribute to deepen bilateral ties with both countries?
Zhang: This initiative is really essential, which is why it was announced during President Xi’s official visit to Athens.
Companies and academic organisations can independently contact each other at a bilateral level, but we need to establish the basic foundations for these relationships to flourish by building a better understanding between both sides. And I believe the best way to achieve this is by way of cultural, educational, and touristic activities. With this in mind, both countries immediately agreed that we should declare next year as the year of culture and tourism. The reality is that there were a lot of plans, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is likely that this will have to be watered down a little.
As the Ambassador, I attach great importance to this kind of activity and to the development of people-to-people relationships. This goes well beyond the tourism activity in itself. The more people understand a country, the more things can move forward as they will have a different perception of the country. And visiting Greece or China enables the development of personal contacts and even the creation of business, research, or cultural opportunities. Many things can come out of the cultural tourist year.
In terms of plans, there are many things in the pipeline such as cultural exhibitions, art and music festivals, and seminars on culture and civilisation, including comparisons and research. And we’re hoping that once the pandemic comes to an end, there will be a lot more people-to-people visits.
For example, we had planned to open another direct flight from Shanghai to Athens this summer. Previous to the pandemic, there were already three regular weekly flights, which have been reduced to two for the time being. What matters though is that these flights are full and, hopefully, next year we’ll be able to add the additional flight because everything had already been decided.
On the other hand, the steps and policy changes the Greek government is making to open up its educational sector are attracting more Chinese students. There’s a very strong interest. Previous to the pandemic, we were expecting a significant number of student arrivals by September. Now we’ll have to see how the situation evolves with respect to the virus but I’m confident there will be a lot more in 2021. Exchanges between our youth are of great importance because they represent our future.
And yet, besides encouraging the Chinese to visit Greece, it’s also important for the Greeks to learn more about China. China is changing at a very fast pace and it’s essential to get to know the country to catch the train of opportunity. While we’ve been hit the hardest by this pandemic, from a more positive perspective, there is a great deal of change coming out of this crisis.
From e-commerce and digitisation across to mobile technology, everything is moving very quickly, and I do believe this is going to change the face of China. My government has taken a number of proactive policies to boost the recovery of the economy after the pandemic, and we are now prioritising the development of new infrastructure. China has already developed a great deal of the road, rail, and connectivity infrastructure. We are now prioritising the development of five sectors including big data, A.I., the Internet of Things, 5G and the high-speed train.
I believe this will also create a large and potential area for cooperation between our two countries, taking into consideration China’s experience, on the one hand, and the fact that the Greek society is also stressing the development of technology and digitisation, on the other. Boosting this sector can really help a country catch up.
Today, everything in China is done on the Internet and by using your phone. People don’t even carry wallets around anymore; they just carry their mobile phones. From airport check-ins and taxi bookings to paying at restaurants, bars, or even going to the hospital – everything is contactless. And now because of the pandemic, this trend is only increasing. People no longer go to the banks or the post office. Even cars are now becoming automated. So visiting Beijing will be like travelling to the future basically, it’s a very exciting time.