GIG: Bank of China (BOC) officially entered the Hellenic market in 2019 with the establishment of a branch. Can you tell us a little bit about BOC and, particularly, about its presence in Greece?
Li: BOC is the most globalised and integrated bank with the longest continuous operation among Chinese banks. It has a well-established global service network with institutions set up across mainland China as well as in 61 countries and regions.
BOC’s Athens Branch is an affiliate of Bank of China (Luxembourg) S.A., which has more than 40 years of experience in European markets, and stands today as the group’s European regional hub.
Our Athens branch was established in November 2019 and initiated its operations in March 2020, as the first Chinese financial institution operating in Greece. There are currently nine people employed at the branch, with a scope for our workforce to further increase throughout 2021.
Through our presence in Greece, BOC is focused on the corporate banking segment, taking advantage of our comprehensive global network to fully support Greek companies to develop in the Chinese market and Chinese companies to invest in Greece. By engaging with large corporate clients and establishing synergies with the leading banks of Greece, we aim to build a bridge and facilitate mutually beneficial cross-border business and investments between Greece and China.
GIG: Taking into consideration Greece’s role within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the 16 agreements between Athens and Beijing that were signed during President Xi Jinping’s official visit to Greece in 2019, what does BOC’s establishment in Greece represent from a strategic perspective?
Li: As the first Chinese Bank with a branch licence registered in Greece, the establishment of the Athens branch was an action taken by the Bank of China Group to support the BRI, as well as a materialisation of one of the 16 agreements.
China has become an important trade partner for Greece, and the bilateral economic and trade relations are facing unprecedented opportunities. Through our Athens branch, and under the umbrella of the BRI and the 17+1 framework, we aim to provide professional and efficient financial services while financially supporting the deepening of trade, investment, and cooperation at a bilateral level.
GIG: How has the pandemic impacted your plans in Greece?
Li: The COVID-19 pandemic has posed significant challenges and seriously affected economic activities worldwide. And yet, despite this, our Athens office has carried out in-depth market research, setting out to expand the business of our target customers, accumulate client resources, and lay a solid foundation for project reserves.
We are committed to offering financial products that will facilitate companies’ business needs, while jointly working with Greek banks to support financing transactions in the local market. In fact, we are currently working on a number of new transactions focused on energy and infrastructure that we’re very excited about.
GIG: Assisting Chinese enterprises seeking to enter the international market is an essential part of BOC’s remit within the scope of its Cross-border Matchmaking service. Can you tell us about this initiative? What kind of interest (and in which sectors) have Chinese companies expressed within the Hellenic market?
Li: BOC has created Cross-border Matchmaking service of its own brand, specifically targeting the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector across the globe. SMEs are an important support and source of vitality for the economies of both China and Greece, with broad development prospects and huge potential for cooperation.
BOC will give full play to its advantages in globalisation and integration, hold more online and offline matchmaking events, and continue to provide new impetus to the win-win cooperation between SMEs of both countries.
In spite of our short presence in Greece, we have actively encouraged Greek companies to join the supply-demand matchmaking conference.
It is worth mentioning that as the only strategic partner of the China International Import Expo (CIIE), BOC has successfully held the Trade and Investment Matchmaking Conference since the first Expo. The Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, attended the second Expo, and a delegation of Greek companies participated in the BOC matchmaking conference. And even during the pandemic, in collaboration with Enterprise Greece, BOC coordinated the attendance of Greek companies to the third CIIE and online matchmaking conference in November 2020.
Additionally, BOC holds the “17+1” China-CEEC SMEs Cross-Border Matchmaking Event, and other initiatives, through local branches in many Chinese provinces, providing cross-border matching opportunities. Greece has a wide variety of high-quality agricultural, consumer, and industrial products, in addition toconstruction materials, which we are glad to bring to the Chinese market.
GIG: In terms of lending, which areas / types of projects is BOC most interested in getting involved in?
Li: BOC focuses on supporting Chinese companies seeking investment opportunities overseas as well as local companies with interesting business plans that will promote domestic economic activities.
On the domestic side, Greece has achieved significant economic progress since the financial turmoil in 2008. A series of important reforms in key economic sectors and the gradual improvement of the business environment have allowed Greece to tap capital markets with quite favourable terms, while at the same time, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s efforts have been recognised by the global investment community.
Bank of China believes in the strong prospects of the Greek economy and that economic relations between China and Greece will further strengthen in the post-pandemic era. The country is expected to boost the growth of its economy and this will support investment plans going forward, especially in the fields of energy, infrastructure, health care, manufacturing, shipping, agriculture, and digital technologies, among others.
On the other hand, the Greek government is taking steps to improve the investment landscape and to attract potential investors from all over the world to capitalise on these opportunities. There are also a number of Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects on the horizon with great potential.
GIG: There is an increasing international focus on socially responsible investments and corporate social responsibility (CSR). What does this mean to BOC, particularly within the scope of its presence in Greece? What metrics are you using to scrutinise potential loan applications?
Li: Socially responsible investments and corporate social responsibility are key principles for a sustainable economic environment worldwide. Our CSR programmes are guided by BOC’s commitment to be a responsible corporate citizen, and to serve our communities, customers, shareholders, employees, and the environment in an effort to create more economic value and improve people’s lives.
BOC Group actively serves the real economy to support high-quality development, integrating environmental, social and governance concepts into all aspects of its business operation and management, while continuing to improve the management structure of social responsibility.
Our Athens Branch is in line with the green financing strategy of the Group, especially by supporting qualified green projects, including its involvement in the sector of renewable energy. We also stand ready to further contribute to address global efforts for climate change and ESG issues. To this end, weencourage the adoption of ESG-linked clauses that will promote sustainability in the near future and result in prosperity.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, BOC paid close attention to the dynamics of the pandemic at home and abroad. Our head office coordinated with our overseas branches to assess local needs and the demand of medical supplies. In Greece, supported by our head office and the Chinese Embassy, our Athens Branch took the initiative to assume social responsibility by donating ventilators, protection suits, and masks to the Ministry of Health, supporting the Greek people’s fight against the pandemic.