In the sixth century CE, two Nestorian monks from the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire entered China and smuggled fragile silkworm eggs back to Constantinople. This technology transfer endowed the Eastern Roman Empire with a six-century-long monopoly on European silk and significantly supported its economic vibrancy and political supremacy in Western affairs well into the twelfth century CE. Similarly, more than two thousand years ago, Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty copied the horsemanship techniques of the Ionian Greeks and used his superior cavalry to defeat barbarians threatening the unity of China.

To be sure, early interactions between China and Greece were not limited to intellectual property rights involving silkworms and horses. On the Silk Road from the ancient Chinese capital Xian to distant cities such as Constantinople and Damascus, culture and commerce eventually became the pillars connecting the Eurasian landmass, thus creating a vast nonhegemonic space for economic and cultural exchange. In this environment, Chinese, Greeks, Indians, Persians, Egyptians, Arabs, and others all flourished in a positive-sum game. 

Zhang Lihua
Zhang Lihua is a resident scholar at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. She is also a professor at the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University.
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In the fall of 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a government-sponsored plan to fund overseas infrastructure projects as a way to enhance connectivity between China, Central and Southeast Asia, and Europe. Reminiscent of its namesake, this New Silk Road initiative is intended to encourage trade through investment in infrastructure and maximize commercial activity across the Eurasian continent. 

China’s desire to expand trade networks between Europe and Asia offers potential economic benefits to countries along the New Silk Road that need investment assistance and an economic stimulus. This initiative offers Greece, in particular, an opportunity to recover the lost economic space of the past twenty years and become a technologically advanced and service-oriented economy. This strategic deus ex machina has become even more pivotal now that Greece is experiencing a prolonged depression with an unemployment rate of 27 percent as of December 2014, and extremist movements are polarizing the country’s political landscape.

Along the New Silk Road, like the ancient trade route, Greece and China have an opportunity to deepen cooperation culturally as well as commercially and materially.

The Cultural Pillar  

Last year, the Hellenic Foundation of Culture organized a symposium in Athens about the New Silk Road. The foundation’s president argued that the interactions between China and Greece are not merely material but also have deep philosophical and cultural roots. Both Greece and China are ancient civilizations with millennia-long histories and very diverse traditions. Both were conquered by outsiders who subsequently adopted many of their cultural traditions, which demonstrates the appeal of these beliefs and practices.

Chinese and Greek scholars have made substantial contributions to the fields of philosophy, political theory, history, science, and art. Indeed, the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once declared that Western philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Similarly, it could be argued that Eastern philosophy is a series of footnotes to Lao Tzu and Confucius. Cultural values are integral to a society’s conception of itself and they are passed down to future generations to preserve sociocultural continuity.

However, in modern times, China and Greece have not done much to enhance their cultural cooperation or even to promote their distinctive cultural continuity. In an attempt to augment limited existing cooperation, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Athens in June 2014 and signed a bilateral agreement to open a Hellenic cultural center in Beijing and a Chinese cultural center in Athens. If accelerated and managed strategically, this initiative could promote more comprehensive cultural interactions between China and Greece. These efforts can attract investment and also inspire creative solutions to global problems. Close interactions between Chinese and Greek scholars potentially could produce inspiring texts that offer a moral awakening and humanistic guidance to mitigate the excesses of materialism and mechanized routines that exist in today’s industrialized world.

Because Greece is the source of much of classical Western thought, Beijing’s approach to cultural cooperation with Athens also has a practical dimension, as it can bridge differences in value systems between East and West. It entails trying to ensure that relations between Eastern and Western societies are grounded in a clear and shared understanding of the cultural practices and philosophical assumptions that each side holds dear. Such cross-cultural knowledge could help to resolve ideological misperceptions that otherwise might threaten world peace. 

During a September 2014 event commemorating the birth of Confucius, Xi Jinping stated that Chinese culture historically has advocated harmony between China and other societies and promoted respect for the diverse traditions of people around the world. Similar ideals are evident in Greek pre-Socratic and classical traditions, and this further attests to the inspirational force of Greek and Chinese cultural dialogue as a tool to address misperceptions between East and West. 

Another example of cultural engagement is the powerful and practical Greek ideal of Olympicism, which China has unambiguously endorsed. In 2008, Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics four years after Athens did so. This event signified China’s return to the global stage. In 2020, Tokyo will be home to the Summer Olympics, and Beijing is a finalist to host the Winter Games two years later. Given the tensions between China and Japan, Greece has an opportunity, with the support of the International Olympic Committee, to highlight the significance of the Olympic truce and to engage in a worldwide campaign to educate people about the Olympic ideal and in particular to bring Chinese and Japanese people closer together. Such a project has the potential to upgrade Greece’s international image. 

Cultural cooperation, however, should not be limited to diplomacy and normative ideals. Alexandra Vouvousiras, a Greek historian and archaeologist, has suggested another possible avenue for cultural collaboration between Greece and China: joint research projects for the purpose of preserving historical monuments in both countries and setting up a Chinese archeological institute in Greece and a Greek archaeological institute in China. Monuments and relics use aesthetics to convey the ideas and glory of the societies that created them. Such joint initiatives usually involve large numbers of archaeologists as well as many natural scientists like chemists, engineers, and software analysts. 

A partnership on monument preservation could lead to efforts that help foster innovation and comprehensive research and development. Such Sino-Greek undertakings would leverage the complementary relationship between culture and economics and could bring concrete material gains. 

The Economic Pillar

The second pillar of the New Silk Road is primarily economic. In the late 2000s, a Chinese state-owned firm called the China Ocean Shipping (Group) Co.—also known as Cosco—began to operate Piers 2 and 3 of the Piraeus port outside Athens under a thirty-five-year agreement. Western media, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, have admitted that Cosco’s investment in Piraeus has been one of China’s most successful overseas commercial ventures, not only due to its high economic returns, but also because of its strategic economic significance.

In less than six years, Piraeus has grown from a peripheral European harbor into one of the region’s fastest growing commercial ports. Chinese officials expressed interest in further upgrading the port’s technological infrastructure, and Cosco has done so. The shipping firm also has brokered agreements with leading Chinese and global multinational companies to use Piraeus as a logistical entry point for transporting Chinese-manufactured goods to European markets. 

At an economic summit in Belgrade held in December 2014, Li Keqiang stated that Greece is a strategic partner and that China plans to fund a high-speed rail line to connect Piraeus to Central Europe as a way to transport Chinese-manufactured goods into the region. These sorts of large-scale infrastructure projects could potentially be financed through European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposed fund for EU investment and China’s recently announced Silk Road Fund. Such resources not only could provide Greece with a necessary boost to GDP growth but also could be a strategic boon for the country. 

After all, for several years Greek leaders such as former prime minister George Papandreou have supported the goal of enhancing cooperation and harmony in the Balkans—Europe’s powder keg. With Greece located at the economic and geopolitical crossroads connecting Europe with Asia and Africa, the proposed high-speed railway in Central Europe and the consequent economic stimulus would unleash opportunities for the Balkans. 

Greece would not be the first country to invest strategically in logistical services and high-tech industries in pursuit of prosperity. Singapore, for instance, managed to evolve from being one of the world’s poorest countries in the 1950s to become a global economic center by following this model. 

But Greece has a long way to go. One major challenge is that the country mainly exports agricultural goods, instead of high-value technological ones. Greece needs to invest more in the technologies that are needed to produce sophisticated, capital-intensive exports.

Such poor export performance is not indicative of the current level of Greek GDP per capita. Greece’s economic struggles instead highlight the government’s inability to unleash the untapped potential and entrepreneurial ability of Greek young people and to cultivate an outward-looking economic vision.

Peter Economides, a brand strategy executive, has suggested a project that would seek to turn Athens’s old international airport into a hub for innovative entrepreneurship. This proposal would involve inviting leading designers and businesspeople from all over the world to produce inventive ideas in a pleasant Mediterranean environment. Such projects could attract the research and development departments of leading multinational companies. To foster innovative new business ideas and practices in Greece, the government and entrepreneurs should aggressively pursue these opportunities by reaching out to Chinese firms’ research and development departments in particular to attract them to Athens, as the Swiss have done in the Alps. 

More specifically, as Chinese enterprises look to go global, Greeks should engage directly with Chinese companies and explore the potential for Sino-Hellenic partnerships in innovation. Many analysts and economists around the world agree that Greece should invest and innovate its way out of the crisis.

The Greek government should pursue an innovation- and industry-friendly policy of promoting enterprises’ production efficiency and seeking funding, including Chinese investments and European Investment Bank loans. The Greek government should undertake a series of outward-looking economic reforms for this purpose and seek ways to benefit from increasing Sino-EU investment cooperation, particularly now that the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has attracted European support

For Greece, the economic dimension of the New Silk Road is certainly not limited to potential technological upgrades. It also involves two traditional Greek powerhouses: shipping and tourism. 

In the Strait of Malacca, U.S. naval vessels stand as guardians of the open seas, and Chinese naval ships are also sent to the region from time to time. Between them, the world’s largest merchant fleet—that of Greece—transports 60 percent of Chinese exports worldwide. Greek politicians such as Theodoros Dritsas assert that shipping magnates have a responsibility to support their country’s economy. China has already provided substantial loans to Greek ship owners, who have agreed to have their new ships built in China. Further collaboration of this kind could raise joint research and development to an even higher level and encourage common educational programs in shipping between Greek and Chinese universities. 

Data from the Bank of Greece demonstrates that the country had an overall current account surplus of over 1.2 billion euros (approximately $1.5 billion) in 2013, due to record-breaking capital inflows in the tourism sector. However, Chinese travelers’ contributions remain limited. Although Chinese tourists are already aware of the beauty of places like Santorini (a movie made the island a favorable destination for Chinese honeymooners) and the historical importance of places like Athens, Greece would do well to invest in ways to bolster its brand in China. The Greek National Tourist Organization, however, still lacks the funds and manpower that it would need to execute a marketing campaign across China and attract more inbound tourists. At the same time, the scarcity of direct flights between Athens and major Chinese cities is also hindering the further development of tourist exchanges—an issue that should be addressed promptly. 

Political Entrepreneurship

Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher from Ephesus, boldly declared that change is the only constant. Nowhere is this statement more justified than in economic affairs, where a relentless need for creative thinking helps determine the competitiveness of an economy and the prosperity of a state. Due to globalization, trade across the Pacific Ocean is increasing. Greece, for the past thirty years, has failed to adapt adequately to these disruptive economic forces.

This economic failure primarily has been a political failure, because Greek elites have become too entrenched along ideological fault lines and have not become more politically inventive or entrepreneurial, as China has been doing for the past thirty years. 

In Greece, democratic immaturity certainly has played a major role, as the country recovered from a period of civil war in the 1940s and a military dictatorship in the 1970s. Political favoritism, ideological polarization between the Left and the Right, the rent-seeking behavior of political elites, and a decrease in the competitiveness of Greek exports all contributed to this modern Greek tragedy. The government has been weak in implementing reform, because the Greek people have been more focused on extreme individualism than on the collective progress of their country. 

The New Silk Road offers a deus ex machina for Greece to launch itself onto a new developmental path and further solidify its significant position at the heart of European civilization and its comprehensive strategic partnership with China. It is up to Greeks to reclaim their standing and become more entrepreneurial—not only economically but also culturally and politically—and to overcome the country’s current predicament. 

China, meanwhile, has long declared its commitment to supporting Greece and its strong belief in the resilience of the Greek people. During his visit to Europe in December 2014, Li Keqiang expressed confidence that Chinese investment through the New Silk Road in projects similar to the Piraeus port will pay off for both China and Europe. He stated that there is “great potential for cooperation in infrastructure” between the two sides. As Li Bai, one of China’s most important poets, put it, “A great enterprise must find the right moment; I hoist my sail into the clouds and cross the mighty ocean.” Greece should use the opportunity of the New Silk Road to enlist Chinese support in upgrading its economy for the twenty-first century and investing its way out of this modern tragedy. 

Vasilis Trigkas is a research fellow at the Center for China-EU Relations at Tsinghua University and a nonresident Handa fellow for the Pacific Forum CSIS. 

This article was published as part of the Window into China series.