George Papandreou: We Need Cooperation in a Globalized World

With globalization, we have the butterfly effect. Even small events in one part of the world, can affect the world in another corner.

Editor’s Note: George Papandreou served as Prime Minister of Greece from 2009 to 2011. He currently represents the region of Achaea as a Movement of Change MP. In this exclusive interview with China Focus, George Papandreou shares with us his thoughts on the importance of economic cooperation and cultural exchange for the development of international relations. He also talks about the Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s concept of “building the community with a shared future for mankind” and the challenges and opportunities we collectively face in an increasingly globalized world.

China Focus: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. In your opinion, what has been the biggest change in China over the past 70 years? And, how has the world benefited from the development of China?

George Papandreou: One of the major changes is the change to China’s economy. Through the introduction of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics – and opening-up to the global economy – China has greatly benefited. First of all, in reducing poverty – which although remains an issue – China has achieved the biggest reduction in poverty ever seen in world history. Second, in becoming one of the leading economic nations, China’s development has benefited the world because it has assisted the growth of many other countries.

China Focus: What do you think about Xi Jinping’s proposal of building a shared future for mankind?

George Papandreou: It is a very important concept. The fact is, we are sharing this planet. With globalization, we have the butterfly effect. Even small events in one part of the world, can affect the world in another corner.

I remember when I was Prime Minister of Greece and the Greek economy was going through problems. Although Greece is a very small economy in terms of GDP, everybody was worried [because] if Greece were to collapse, it would have an effect on the global markets. So, we are sharing our common destiny already. What we need to do is work together so we can control our common destiny together.

When we talk about issues like the climate crisis. The only way we can deal with such issues is working together. Whether it is pollution in our air and water, or plastic in our oceans; whether it is the biodiversity we are losing or the global heating which is causing storms and fires much more frequently, or the melting of the glacial ice, it is affecting us all. We are aware of this. Such is the need for cooperation and working together. That is why the idea of a common destiny and a shared future is of great importance.

China Focus: What are the opportunities and challenges that China and Greece face – or more broadly, China and Europe – in building a sound relationship?

George Papandreou: I believe the bilateral relations between Europe and China are going to develop further. Europe is very much in favor of multilateralism – of an open society, an open economy and sustainable development. These ideas are also very important for China. Therefore, I think Europe and China can develop a very strong partnership.

There are also some differences, such as WTO issues and state-owned enterprises, but I think we can work together [to overcome such issues]. I believe that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could act as the catalyst for a new relationship between Europe and China in the twenty-first century. From the BRI – which Greece is a strong part of – we can develop bilateral relations not only between Greece and China but also between Europe and China for a shared prosperity and shared future.

China Focus: President Xi Jinping put forward the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. What do you think of BRI’s role in promoting the common development of the world?

George Papandreou: The Belt and Road initiative is a grand project. It is also a peaceful project. I know there are some that are worried and have criticism towards it, but I would suggest that we work together on this project – in order to make it a win-win situation. I think this is possible, but it is important to respect each other’s culture and differences. The BRI is not just infrastructure for today, its infrastructure for tomorrow – for the younger and future generations.

In building the environment for future generations, we need to build sustainable societies. The Sustainable Development Goals are making sure we create cleaner and greener energy and that we have alternative forms of renewable energy.

The BRI can play an important role between Europe and China, but also between, Europe, China and Africa too. Africa – as the fastest growing continent – will be a very important partner in the BRI. It has great resources but requires sustainable investment, the creation of good governance so that investment can enable public benefit.  I believe if we work together – all three sides – we can achieve our collective aims.

China Focus: Chinese companies have invested in the port of Piraeus – what changes has been made to the local people by the investment?

George Papandreou: When I was prime minister and Greece was suffering from the financial crisis, the then prime minister of China, Wen Jiabao, chose to invest in Greece. This vote of confidence from China – which the people of Greece are very thankful for – enabled the development of the historical port of Piraeus. As such Piraeus is now becoming the number one port in the entire Mediterranean – a gateway for trade between China and Europe.

At the local level, this has meant that there is much development and much investment. Piraeus is now becoming a more popular place to live as there is growth, and many Chinese are now buying houses in Piraeus or nearby Athens. This is facilitating a growth in Chinese culture, products and cuisine.  Also, there are more Chinese people learning about Greece too. That is a very positive aspect.

The investment in the port of Piraeus has been very important for bilateral relations between Greece and China because it has enabled close political cooperation in many areas. For example, in 2011, when there was the war in Libya –20,000 Chinese workers were trapped in the country.  Prime minister Wen Jiabao asked me for help to get the Chinese people out. We took the initiative to speak to both sides, and get the free passage of the Chinese people which we then returned safely to Beijing. This is just one example which shows how cooperation – even at the bilateral level – can be of great importance in this globalizing world.

China Focus: Greece has a very rich tourism industry, and many Chinese people are interested to visit. Do you think this will become easier in the future?

George Papandreou: I would of course support the tourism of Chinese people to Greece, because I think [Greece] is a beautiful country as many Chinese do also. We have 300 islands inhabited by people with local cultures, foods, and good local wines. We also have a lot of mythology and a unique culture.

The visa problem is of course one that we face – Greece is part of the EU and as such we have to follow the rules set out in the Schengen agreement. But the benefit is that if you get a visa for Greece, you also get a visa for free travel in all of Europe too. Similarly, if you get a visa from another European country, you can travel freely to Greece.

Greece is also witnessing the growth of a growing Chinese community as many Chinese are now buying property. If you invest $250,000 in Greece, you can get a visa for many years, for your family also. And this means the ability to travel freely throughout Europe. I think the next move – and I hope to be able to help with this – is to build schools which will teach Greek but also Chinese and English in order to enable Chinese students who are preparing to study at a European university.


Editor: Jamie Leigh Wright