The “Chinese-ification” of Greece

I lived in Athens during the summers of 2003 and 2004, at the height of Greece’s Olympic-fueled renaissance. At the time, the economy was expanding and the adjustment to the Euro had been hailed as a success. Ambitious infrastructure, development, and urban beautification projects all contributed to a collective sense of vitality and renewal: “marginal” no more, Athens had come of age as a modern, global city. An explicitly jingoistic expression of the moment’s exuberance broke out in the summer of 2004, when a boisterous crowd of fans gathered in Athens’ Omonia Square to celebrate Greece’s defeat of Portugal to win the European Football Championship. Den tha gineis Ellinas pote, Alvane, Alvane!“Albanian, you will never become Greek!,” the crowd notoriously chanted in front of TV cameras and uncomfortable news commentators. Fast forward six years later to national press headlines of 2010 when migrants are used to measure a very different developmental status: The Albanians are going home!; “In Albania, we live better than we do here [in Greece].

These two media events effectively punctuate the abrupt rise and fall of a nation that won big and then lost big in the European Union’s currency experiment. Yet what often gets elided in media analyses is that the “crisis” did not hit Athens like a lightning bolt (as it did in the stock markets); rather, “crisis” had been gradually percolating for several years. By the time I moved to Athens for my fieldwork in the summer of 2007, Athens was changed. Athens’ first homeless communities began gathering in the central squares; “free trade” zones began cropping up within the historical center where black market, illegal prostitution and drug activities would be nonchalantly conducted in broad daylight directly under the nose of disinterested police units. Small shop owners struggling to survive were having serious problems selling their stock. To be sure, the debt crisis continues to escalate the conditions —sometimes to Dickensian proportions: e.g., the smashed glass of robbed food display cases, well-dressed ladies in the posh neighborhood of Kolonaki foraging produce in supermarket trash bins, street fights waged over scrap wiring and metal. On my street, in the heart of the vanishing metallurgy district, the remaining goldsmiths who managed to stay afloat throughout the last fifteen years of deindustrialization find themselves idle without customers. My downstairs neighbor who has worked as a goldsmith for fifty years has increasingly turned his professional services to an older family trade, palm-reading.

“I know how to save Greece”, one of my informants enthusiastically told me during my fieldwork among Greek and Chinese shop owners. Markos owns one of the only non-Chinese wholesale clothing and shoe shops in the textile center of Thessaloniki, which has become dominated by Chinese shoe and clothing merchants in the past ten years. He draws a map of Greece and then draws a line to sever the Peloponnese from the mainland. Circling the western Peloponnese, he explains, “This here will be a giant shoe production zone. We can bring in farmers from Pakistan to work for five months and then leave.” Markos’ plan involves setting up tax free zone that he says will supply Europe with one billion shoes and Greece with one trillion euros. Yet without knowing it, or at least articulating it, Markos has just described the Southeastern Chinese special economic zone of Wenzhou — the Chinese capital of shoe production and the so-called “birthplace” of modern, Chinese capitalism. And it’s not by mere chance that Wenzhou also happens to be the city that a good percentage of his Chinese neighbors and competitors call home.

While many residents of Greece may not share Markos’ enthusiasm, many share his projection of Greece’s future economic model. In the past six months, the newly minted termkinezopoiisi or Chinese-ification has been making the rounds in media and popular discourse. It’s been mobilized by the whole of the political spectrum to describe the looming degradation of Greek wages, labor conditions and workers rights. In contrast to Markos’ vision, however, both the supporters and detractors of Greece’s “Chinese-ification” recognize that it is not the Peloponnese and South Asian laborers that will be sacrificed for Greece. Rather, by supplying a reserve of cheap labor for European manufacturers looking to compete with China, the idea is that Greece and its workers will be sacrificed for the EU.

If it may be provisionally said that the discourse of “Chinese-ification” toys with the fantasy of return to a production-based economy (which was never as robust in Greece as in other parts of Europe), it is clear that it also stirs up a powerful historical memory of Greece’s exploitation by the geopolitical machinations of the Great European powers. However, the preoccupation with China and “Chinese-ification” may present a new and important dimension to this older discourse. The first time I encountered the concept of “Chinese-ification” was during the 2009 Piraeus dockworkers’ strike when union members protested the privatization and thirty-year lease of the port to the Chinese shipping company COSCO. “We don’t want Greece to become a Chinatown,” one union member explained to me: “We aren’t afraid that they are going to bring Chinese workers here, but that they are going to create similar conditions where workers have no security and operate like day laborers.” The anxiety of “Greece for sale” is one that accompanies most privatization measures, but the distinguishing feature of the COSCO deal was the widespread understanding that the acquiring company was a state-owned enterprise. And both the miserable labor conditions and the motor of China’s economic development are understood to emanate from this seamless alliance of economics and politics.

The ambivalent mix of anxiety and (less frequently) hope accompanying “Chinese-ification” can be better understood when contextualized by the prevalent rumor among Greek small shop-owners that the Chinese merchants have been paid by the Chinese state to set up shop in Greece. One thing this rumor expresses is a latent criticism of the neglectful patrimony of the Greek state, which has failed to adequately protect its small businesses. As one of my Chinese informants in Greece diagnoses the current economic situation, “In Greece, there is too much democracy.” Another one of my Greek informants wholeheartedly agrees. Without a hint of jest or irony, he soberly explains: “What this country needs is a dictator, but a harsh dictatorship where they shoot people. What people don't know is that Greece at its glory was never democratic. Who won the Peloponnesian war, democratic Athens or totalitarian Sparta? Think of Alexander the Great, he ruled over a dictatorship.” China has come to symbolize the strong state that stands in opposition to the failed Greek one, carrying both the promise of order and efficiency and the threat of a future dystopia.

I will end with the observation that in Greece there appears to be an inverse relationship between the breakdown of the state and the rise of conspiracy theories fantasizing a strong state. In the anarchist neighborhood of Exarhia, some comrades exhort themselves not to throw cigarettes on the ground because state agents are tracking the DNA on the butts. One informant told me about an invisible spy plane flying over her suburban home to conduct surveillance, while many supporters of various other left-wing factions blame state provocateurs for posing as anarchists and instigating riots during the protests. While these theories echo the repressive measures in place in the post-war period and the military junta, they also demonstrate a very critical attachment to the idea that the state cannot be impotent.     

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Tracy Rosen, "Dockworkers strike at the port of Piraeus." October, 31 2011.

Tracey A. Rosen is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology and Lecturer in the College at the University of Chicago. She is currently working on her dissertation on Chinese and Greek clothing shops in Greece.