For decades, whenever stevedore Giorgos Nouchoutidis arrived for work at the port of Piraeus, he would breathe in the fresh, briny sea breeze and feel a surge of pride.
This port has long been a metaphor for Greece. It’s where ancient warriors in triremes set off for battle and where refugees in fishing boats arrived in the early 20th century, fleeing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It’s also where Hollywood docked to film the 1960 movie Never on Sunday. The film’s Oscar-winning theme song is a love anthem to the port.
“It’s a blessed location,” says Nouchoutidis, 67, reminiscing in his living room, under a watercolor painting of a ship. “It’s across from the Suez Canal. It’s deep enough for big ships. And it’s my home. My father worked here,” he says. “We didn’t have machines back then. We used to load everything onto the boats with our own hands — bags of clothes, leather goods and knitwear made in Greece, all bound for North America and Australia.”
But by the time Nouchoutidis retired, in 2010, the port was about to take on a new identity: China’s main gateway to Europe. That’s the year the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Co., known as COSCO, started buying stakes in the port of Piraeus. Six years later, the company controlled the port.
“We handed over control of our most important port to a company that’s not even in the European Union,” Nouchoutidis says. “The EU pushed us to do it. … They will see the damage to our interests in a few years.”
In the past decade, Chinese companies have acquired stakes in 13 ports in Europe, including in Greece, Spain and, most recently, Belgium, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Those ports handle about 10 percent of Europe’s shipping container capacity.
It is part of China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which aims to better connect the country to commercial hubs in Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania. China is the European Union’s biggest source of imports and its second-largest export market, adding up to more than $1 billion in trade per day. And sea shipping outweighs rail or air freight.
But this is about more than just moving cargo, analysts say. President Xi Jinping’s new silk road, named after the ancient trade route, has sped up China’s advance toward becoming a superpower of the seas, spreading not just commercial ships but naval power and influence to more and more areas of the world.
For instance, Chinese investments in the ports of Djibouti, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have been followed by Chinese naval deployments. While there are no public plans to turn European ports into Beijing’s military bases, Chinese warships have already paid a friendly visit to Greece’s Piraeus port.
This all raises a slew of questions about issues ranging from military defense to labor conditions.
“The main issue is for Europe to decide how it wants to deal with China’s influence,” says Frans-Paul van der Putten, a China expert at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “What degree of China’s influence is unavoidable and acceptable especially in sectors such as ports?”
“Surround it and squeeze it”
The port investment spree has already unsettled EU leadership.
In September 2017, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed new investment screening measures for foreign state-owned companies that want “to purchase a European harbor, part of our energy infrastructure or a defense technology firm.”
“It is a political responsibility to know what is going on in our own backyard so we can protect our collective security,” Juncker said.
Europe often sends Beijing mixed messages by welcoming trade deals while criticizing China’s human rights record.
But last year, the EU failed to unite around a statement condemning China’s crackdown on activists and dissidents. That’s because Greece blocked the resolution, calling the criticism of China “unconstructive.”
Some analysts suggest that was a sign that China has gained political sway with its Greek port purchase.
“There’s a phrase, ‘pre-emptive obedience,’ that’s often used to discuss relations with the Chinese,” says Theresa Fallon, a China analyst in Brussels. “It means making decisions with the idea of not upsetting China. That’s already happening, and it’s worrying if you consider the stakes. If you think of China’s growth strategy [in maritime ports], they’ve invested all along the peripheries of Europe. So it’s like an anaconda strategy: Surround it and squeeze it.”
Others are less alarmed but note China’s power.
“I think we should be aware of the fact that the Chinese are using the moment and the ability that Europe is giving China,” says Arthur van Dijk, president of the Dutch Association for Transport and Logistics. “For us, it’s also a wake-up call. We have to be quicker, smarter, better.”
Labor concerns at the fastest-growing port
COSCO, with the world’s fourth-largest container shipping fleet, is leading the charge in Europe, beginning with Piraeus.
In 2016, after years of investment, the company bought a majority stake in the Piraeus Port Authority in a concession agreement that runs until at least 2052. It is now in charge of container terminals, cruise ship piers and ferry quays.
“A few years ago, when COSCO first became involved in Greece, the European view was it was good because Greece was in a lot of financial difficulties and at least someone wanted to invest there,” van der Putten says. “Piraeus was not a top-ranking port. People in Brussels thought it wouldn’t have a lot of significance.”
Today, about 20 million passengers go through Piraeus each year. Since COSCO’s takeover, it has become the fastest-growing port in the world, according to the industry news outlet Seatrade Maritime. COSCO’S chief executive in Piraeus, Capt. Fu Cheng Qui, says he wants to make it the largest in the Mediterranean.
Fu, who is 68 and a former Red Guard member in China’s Cultural Revolution, declined NPR’s interview requests. The port’s managing director also declined. (A COSCO Piraeus spokesman responded to NPR’s questions in writing.)
In a 2015 interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, Fu attributed the company’s success to hard work and said he found labor unions “superfluous” because they “promise their members more money for less work.”
“If you want a higher salary, you first need to work hard,” he told the magazine. “Not lie on the beach and drink beer.”
His attitude has turned off port workers like Giorgos, who has worked at the port for more than 40 years. A wiry man with a booming voice, he declined to give his last name out of fear of reprisal from COSCO.
“If a European company had taken over this port, we’d be properly compensated and work under humane conditions,” he says.
About 1,700 people are employed at the Piraeus container terminals, many working for 16 days a month, without benefits or job security, says Giorgos Gogos, general secretary of the port workers’ union. They’re hired by subcontractors to COSCO like Diakinisis Logistics Services, which, he says, gets a cut of money that should go to worker salaries.
“This is exploitation,” Gogos says. “We assume that COSCO wants to make very fast profits. So they will try to squeeze their expenses, and the incomes of workers are considered expenses. For us, these ‘expenses’ are our income to support our families.”
Another dockworker, Markos Bekris, says the situation was much worse in 2012, when he started working at the port. COSCO had taken over two container terminals and hired its own workforce. “Whenever the workers talked about unionizing, it was a red flag for COSCO,” says Bekris, 30, who works at those terminals. “Those who tried to organize were fired. The workers were too scared to speak up. They kept their heads down, waiting by the phone for a last-minute call to work, sometimes working straight shifts without breaks.”
“My co-workers had to urinate in plastic bottles,” he says.
Bekris managed to organize the temporary workers into an informal union and to secure a short break (20 minutes) and safety measures. But, he says, the subcontractor Diakinisis has started its own union and is trying to lure workers away from the official union.
In a written statement responding to NPR’s questions, a COSCO spokesman said that after a series of “long but productive negotiations” last year, a two-year labor agreement was signed “creating a peaceful environment of labor that benefits both sides.”
Anastasia Frantzeskaki, head of the white-collar union at the port’s cruise terminal, says she and her colleagues learned one important lesson in labor negotiations with COSCO: “When the Chinese say win-win, they mean they win twice.”
Gogos says he’s also worried that the Chinese company’s tough stance toward workers could influence other employers in the area. “COSCO is now the biggest employer in Piraeus,” he says.
“No one’s colony”
The Greek government is trying to help workers while maintaining a good relationship with the Chinese.
“This is a hugely strategic port that lacked investment until COSCO came along,” says Christos Lampridis, general secretary of ports, port policy and maritime investments at the maritime affairs ministry. “There’s new equipment, new piers, a railroad connection.”
COSCO has already spent nearly $700 million at Piraeus, the company said in a statement to NPR. The Chinese and the Greek state have also developed a master plan for the area, and COSCO has committed to invest an additional $350 million in the next five years. Immediate plans include upsizing the passenger and car terminals and constructing a new oil pier. Future projects include building hotels and a cruise ship terminal and developing a logistics center.
“All these investments will create jobs,” Lampridis says. “It’s just a pity that the Greek state didn’t draft a master plan itself far earlier.”
Piraeus is the only port in Europe where a Chinese shipping company runs the port authority. But Greek officials have tried to retain some oversight. The company has clashed with the Greek state-run Public Authority of Piraeus Port, accusing it of disputing the privatization of the port and interfering in COSCO affairs.
“A privatized port is a new situation for everybody,” says Demosthenis Bakopoulos, the head of the state regulator. It’s a change “for the port that was under public control, for the workers, because they were public servants and are not anymore, for the state. There are always misunderstandings, problems that demand new solutions.”
The EU has pointed out that one of those problems is smuggling. Earlier this year, EU authorities suspected Chinese gangs of trafficking goods through Piraeus to avoid value-added tax.
Bakopoulos says such activities likely predate COSCO. “We also had smuggling before the privatization, and of course, we will have it after the privatization, because smuggling occurs in ports,” he says.
The Greeks are sensitive to criticism that the Piraeus investments have left them beholden to the Chinese.
Panagiotis Kouroumblis, who was serving as Greece’s shipping minister when he spoke to NPR last month, declared that “Greece is a sovereign country, part of the European Union, and is no one’s colony.” (Kouroumblis was replaced in a Cabinet reshuffle on Aug. 28.)
He downplayed concerns about Greece blocking EU criticism of China.
“There are many reasons why a country is careful about condemning another country,” Kouroumblis says. “I mean, does the U.S. vote against its interests at the U.N.? So Greece also has the right to make a decision based on its own interests.”
China pushes northwest
The Chinese want to build on the success of Piraeus, says Olaf Merk, a shipping expert who led the OECD review of Chinese investments in ports. “The Chinese know what they want so it’s all happening very fast,” he says.
COSCO’s most recent port investment in Europe is in the North Sea harbor town of Zeebrugge in Belgium. In January, the company signed a concession agreement for the container terminal in Zeebrugge, Belgium’s second-largest port.
Unlike Piraeus, Zeebrugge’s port authority remains — by law — under Belgian control.
“They are not buying the port; they are not buying shares of the port authority,” says Joachim Coens, the CEO of Zeebrugge port. “They are just renting the infrastructure to do business for a certain period.”
David Liu, the COSCO chief executive of Zeebrugge’s container terminal, says the company’s Europe strategy is part of its “global ambitions.”
“We have big plans for Zeebrugge,” says Liu, 55, a cheerful man in a navy-blue double-breasted jacket and All Star sneakers. “With this and other ports like Piraeus, we want to build a bridge to Europe.”
The unostentatious port city, a short drive from the canals and cobbled streets of Bruges, is busy with ferries, fish trawlers and automobile deliveries. But its container terminal has always been outshone by the nearby ports of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Antwerp in Belgium, Europe’s two biggest ports.
For shipping companies, “it’s a choice,” says Carla Debart, 49, the Zeebrugge terminal’s managing director. “You have to make sure that you are chosen.”
Last year, APM Terminals, owned by the Danish shipping giant Maersk, pulled out of the container terminal. Debart thought it would close. And then COSCO stepped in.
“There were mixed feelings with COSCO,” says Debart, as she makes Chinese black mountain tea — a gift from the Chinese official leading the terminal’s board of directors — in her office, which overlooks the container pier. “People could see a future again. At the same time, there was a concern with what’s going to happen. Are we going to have a Chinese terminal? Is everything going to be run as a Chinese terminal?”
The local union told Debart that COSCO cracked down on port workers in Piraeus and that it replaced local managers with Chinese ones. Debart heard she would likely be replaced.
“My biggest concern was the people,” she says, referring to the 200 workers here. “So if the terminal could be a success without me, that would still be great news for the people.”
But to her surprise, COSCO kept her on. CEO Liu made her his deputy. “They really give us a very sophisticated and good professional team already,” Liu says, beaming at Debart. “We don’t want to dismantle this team. So we don’t need to send all the Chinese guys from all over the world into here.”
Debart and other managers have taken communication classes to improve business meetings with the Chinese. Debart has also traveled to Shanghai and met the top brass. “They are proud to have Zeebrugge in their portfolio,” she says. “We are just a small country, a small port, and yet they say they can learn from us. They appreciate us.”
Liu calls Debart “a great partner.” “This is the new, open COSCO,” he says. “We invest in those we work with.”
He notes that drawing container ship traffic to Zeebrugge is a challenge. “It’s a complicated job because, around us, we have bigger and stronger terminals,” he says. “We need to do much, much more.”
COSCO holds a minority stake in an important container terminal in Rotterdam, which is about 115 miles northeast by road from Zeebrugge.
“What COSCO and what Chinese companies seem to be doing at the moment is to focus money on not the largest European seaports but smaller ones and develop them to become bigger,” says van der Putten, the China analyst in the Netherlands.
Zeebrugge has always wanted to be bigger. “This is the best opportunity for us,” says Matthias Simoens, a 31-year-old port worker who coordinates the stevedores on shift duty.
Simoens drives around the site, passing enormous cargo-lifting machines called straddle carriers — which the crew call “elephants.” Workers operate these “elephants” to move metal containers marked with “COSCO” and “CHINA SHIPPING” onto ships.
He says COSCO has infused the port with energy and purpose. He shrugs off China’s politics.
“The most important thing to me is that I have a job,” he says firmly.
It’s unclear how widespread this feeling is.
Zeebrugge union representatives declined to speak to NPR. Dockworkers on their lunch break in the canteen were friendly but refused to comment.
Simoens tries to explain their reticence. “They have heard bad rumors about COSCO,” he says, that the Chinese would break the unions and the laborers would end up working in developing world conditions. “I say we give COSCO a chance.”
Simoens stands on the edge of the terminal, looking at the blue-gray sea shaded by storm clouds. He breathes in the fresh, briny sea breeze.
“It’s always been ups and downs here,” he says. “Always good plans, but it never really took off. But I think now we’re really taking off.”
Reporters Rosanne Kropman and Maria Sidiropoulou contributed reporting in Zeebrugge, Belgium, and Piraeus, Greece.