The New Silk Road: Cultural & Economic Diplomacy China-Greece-Europe

Author: Vasilis Trigkas (齐思源)

Tsinghua University Alumni & Non-Resident Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS

On September 26th 2014, Professor Dr. Zhang Lihua and Professor Dr. Christodoulos Yiallourides were the distinguished speakers in a roundtable discussion at the Kostis Palamas Building of the University of Athens. Zhang Lihua is the director of the research Center for China-EU relations at Tsinghua University and resident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center; Christodoulos Yialouridis is the President of the Hellenic Foundation for Culture. The event was organized by AHEPA HJ1 & Daughters of Penelope Amaryllis and was held under the aegis of the University of Athens, the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, the Institute for Modern International Relations of Tsinghua University and the Tsinghua Student Association of Classics. The Ekaterini Laskaridis Foundation, the Nomikou Family and the Department of Economics of University of Athens provided generous support. Opening speeches were made by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr Kyriakos Gerontopoulos, the dean of the Athens University of Economics & Business Professor Dr Gatsios, the deputy dean of the University of Athens Professor Dr. Constantine Bourazelis, the president of the department of International Studies of Pantion University Professor Dr. Hellen Cheila and the President of the Sino-Hellenic Association Mr Costas Masmanides. Professor Dr. Ioanna Pepelasi from the Athens University of Economics & Business moderated the discussion.

The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr Gerontopoulos mentioned that China has been a great friend for Greece and has shown her trust into the Greek Economy. Professor Zhang Lihua supported that Greek and Chinese Values transcend the millennia and have shaped Western and Eastern tradition.       

While this was Zhang’s first visit in Greece she supported that Greek civilization is the source of western civilization,Greek history and mythology are taught globally and still capture the imagination of children and adults from the United States to Europe to Australia to Asia and China. The philosophers of Greece, she continued, like the philosophers of China shaped the ideational cultures of two of  the world’s greatest empires located opposite of the Eurasian landmass: The Greco-Roman Culture and the Han-Tang culture. Both the Greco Roman World and the Han-Tang Chinese World ended in comparable ways: “the first half, the political core—was first weakened by ideological conflicts and then succumbed to “the invasions”, whereas the other half was preserved by a traditionalist regime. “It was only from the late 6th century C.E. onward that the two trajectories of state formation began to diverge, slowly at first but more dramatically over time, between the cyclical restoration of a China-wide empire in the East and the decline of empire and central government in the West, followed by the slow creation of a polycentric state system that proved resistant to any attempts to impose hegemony, let alone unification, and ultimately evolved into the now-familiar cluster of modern nation states”.

Zhang insisted that the modern European states were the outcome of Renaissance; that is, a movement that recovered the lost Greek values that religious indoctrination had covered with a veil of ignorance. Greek culture with Byron, Shelley, Goethe and many more became the core of European tradition. However European hegemonic struggle shattered European states and eventually Europe became a dependent state to her young brother, the United States. At the end of WWII the Europeans made a choice to abandon hegemonic unification and pursue a sui generis project: European Integration. Since then China has engaged with Europe in many fields, from culture to education, to tourism and most importantly investments and trade. However European countries have in many cases attempted to coerce China to change her values and adapt to European political and ideational norms. Zhang mentioned that some EU member states and the United States proposed to condemn China’s human rights issue at the Human Rights Commission of UN from 1993 to 1997 while the European Parliament approved 13 resolutions on denouncing China’s human rights issues between 1999 and 2010. In addition, the European Parliament approved 14 Taiwan-related resolutions from 1996 to 2005, most of which were against China’s Policies toward Taiwan, showing sympathy and support for the Taiwan authorities. Last but not least, European Parliament has approved 33 resolutions on Tibet Issues from 1987 to 2009. On September 23, 2007 and December 7, 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had met Dalai Lama. Sarkozy met Dalai Lama while he was holding the Presidency of the EU Council.

Zhang supported that Cultural values are deeply engrained within the psyche of a people in a state and carried down with continuity through generations. In Greece one can still find “Homeric Values”; in China one can still find Confucian values shaping the behavior of people. Those values shape the very polity of a state and set the moral code of conduct for citizens and the political life. While in the West the creeks are more important than the river, for China it is the other way around, the river is more important than the creeks and thus collective liberty is more important than individual liberty. The size of China makes the need for a central powerful state a necessary condition for the unity of people and their economic development. In that sense while the EU promotes Multi-party parliamentary democracy, China adheres to a System of People’s Congress and a multi-party cooperation mechanism under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.

Citing a speech of President Xi Jinping, who mentioned that “Chinese culture advocates Harmony between nature and man, harmony between different nations, harmony in diversity and kind of morality”, Zhang supported that Chinese people do not accept the logic “The strong bully the weak”. “Chinese people are willing to get along with people all over the world, to pursue harmonious and peaceful development, to protect the peace, to share the peace. Sovereignty and national autonomy cannot be subordinated to individual human rights according to the Chinese view”.

Zhang mentioned that as the EU–China relationship becomes more political, Greece has an important role to play in bridging the ideational misperception between Brussels and Beijing. Greece, Zhang iterated became the “chrysalis” through which Europe was reborn: “After all the term Europe is inspired by Greek mythology by Zeus”. Greece thus is not purely European… Even Goethe the Great European-German philosopher shows in his works that Classism, that is, the Greek tradition cannot mix well with Romanticism - the European tradition. Euphorion the son of Faust (symbolizing Romanticism) and Helen (symbolizing Classicism) although bright enjoyed only a short life Zhang stated. So Greece is also Mediterranean; it is also Asiatic as much of her philosophy was a creative mix of ideas inspired in Mesopotamia and beyond. Greece funded Athenian Democracy but had also Spartan oligarchy and Macedonian Autocracy. Greece like China are civilizations pretending to be nation states with millennia old histories and very diverse traditions; they were conquered but then re-conquered their conquerors by the shine of their cultures. At the Western End of the new Silk Road Greece has the values and strategic importance to play a intermediary role between China and Europe. Zhang also expressed her confidence that Greeks will learn more about China and that Chinese will learn more about Greece with the two cultural centers that will open in Beijing and Athens in 2015. Together she insisted, “We will also promote a peaceful and diverse world”. Zhang mentioned that this will not be an easy endeavor but she highlighted her hope in one of her favorite Greek tragic poets Sophocles who wrote that one word frees us from all the weight and pain in life: Love. Both Greece and China Zhang iterated have apotheosized LOVE!

Professor Yiallourides, started his speech by highlighting the significance of a civilizational dialogue between China and Greece and supported that the relationship between Greeks and Chinese is not merely political and economic but also metaphysical and deeply cultural. He urged China to seek political reform drawing from her own impressive tradition and thus not repeat a “perestroika” that can be disastrous for the stability of the country. A stable China is significant for a multipolar world where states will not be coerced by a superpower that defies their sovereignty. Yiallourides supported that China has the cultural values and a rich tradition to draw many policy advices and thus resolve contemporary ordeals. Yiallourides defined cultural diplomacy as a marriage between civilization and foreign policy. A major example of successful cultural diplomacy was the entry of Greece into the EU under the leadership of Constantine Karamanlis. “As the center of gravity is moving from West to East” Greece enjoys a beneficial position to become a gate of Chinese investments but also of Chinese art and culture into Europe. The Greek tradition is open to cosmopolitanism and awards merit and this is very similar to Chinese core values. As China is becoming more global, more and more Greeks look to Beijing for studies, business and tourism he insisted. Yiallourides expressed his worries on the current situation in the Middle East and on the need to reform the liberal world order, which was created by the winners of WWII. Democracy has been misinterpreted and used to promote the interests of a superpower he mentioned. Real democracy is political and demands mass participation. He expressed his confidence that China’s role in that immense global transformation has been positive and that a stable and strong China will benefit world harmony, peace and global problems. Yiallourides concluded that the current mismanagement of the Middle East and the failed democratization has created an explosive mix of terrorism and religious extremism that could well expand into Europe and beyond. It will take a coordinated strategy between China and Europe to neutralize this global threat.


The roundtable discussion continued with the below commentators:


Mr. Constantine Staikos, a renowned architect and book historian, described China and Greece through the parallel trajectories of two libraries: the Library of the Ptolemies and the Imperial Library of China (bifu). The library of the Ptolemies was the “child” of Plato’s Academy that was the first University in the History of the Western world. Alexander the Great, a student of Aristotle (who was himself a student of Plato) unified the Mediterranean world and used the model of the Platonic academy to educate the citizens of his empire, eventually the Ptolemies (successors of Alexander) funded the library in Alexandria, Egypt, collected and translated into Greek all knowledge from the West and East. Staikos supported that both Chinese and Greek traditions apotheosized knowledge and looked to preserve the intellectual accomplishments of humanity in well-organized and structured libraries. Such unique endeavors have since shaped the very world we live in. Staikos insisted that it is crucial for both China and Europe to look to their literary and library tradition and engage in joint projects that promote “cultural internationalism” to gap the misperceptions between West and East.


Alexandra Vouvousiras, a distinguished archaeologist, historian, paleographer & archivist, presented a comprehensive plan of cultural cooperation between Greece and China in support of Zhang’s vision. Vouvousiras highlighted the role of monument preservation and the potential for joint research projects between China and Greece. Vouvousira supported that monuments and relics reflect the ideas of our past and thus greatly shape our moral conduct and modern values. Cooperative projects on preservation include big clusters of not only archaeologists & art historians but also natural scientists like chemists, engineers, software analysts and physicists. Such scientific collaborations contribute not only to the preservation of the monuments but also to technological progress and innovation. A Sino-Hellenic-European partnership on that area will thus create positive externalities and multiplier effects on innovation, science & technology.

Daisy Papas, an NYU Economist with past working experience in the FED, supported that East and West are thought to be divided along the philosophical lines of Aristotle and Confucius. The static way of thinking of the Westerners is countered by the economic “business cycles” whereby periods of economic growth alternate with recessions. The dynamic way of thinking of the Chinese is countered by an economy that experiences just minor fluctuations and follows an upward sloping line. For the last 35 years China has experienced a steady growth without undergoing one single recession, in contrast to the US which experienced 4 or 5 recessions during the first 35 years (1870-1905) of its economic expansion. Observing this prism of thought, it is easier to understand the commonality which stems from another Greek philosopher, Heraclitus who had declared that “everything flows and nothing abides”.

Meletis Meletopoulos, a prolific Greek author and sociologist, supported that China’s rise has shaken the post WWII global system. For the first time the United States are facing a peer competitor who enjoys a lot more national comprehensive power than the Soviet Union during its zenith. To that challenge, the US and the West has attempted to contain China militarily but also to engage with China economically. This strategic neologism of “congagement” looks to liberalize the political system of China and promote democratization. Being part of the West, Greece has a significant role to play Meletopoulos supported. As a millennia old and diverse civilization, Greece can “interpret” “congagement” to the East making it more attractive to China while at the same time engage with the West and tame the rising misperception about an ancient empire like China. Such a contribution from Greece would be of enormous value for peace and stability and also help the country to become a sincere trustpolitik builder worldwide.

Harris Papasotiriou , the author of “China from the Heavenly Kingdom to the Rising Empire of the 21st Century”, expressed his enthusiasm with the Chinese culture and history as he frequently travels to various Chinese cities and universities for lectures and tours. “The two Civilizations, Greek and Chinese are the pillars of the world and they have walked parallel lines” he insisted. Unification and division; conquest and expansion are the norms of Sino-Hellenic history. In modern time the 70’s were crucial for the identity of the two countries. Greece moved from dictatorship to democracy and the EU, China opened up to the world and became an engine of growth for the world economy. As China is engaging with Europe, Greece’s geostrategic position between Asia and Europe, Africa and the Middle East is a natural gateway for Chinese investments and trade. Papasotiriou offered his best wishes for Zhang’s first visit to Greece and hoped to see the two countries building an even closer relationship.

Alexandros Mallias, a former Greek Ambassador to the United States and recipient of the Martin Luther King Award, supported that the post-WWII system is in serious need for reform. The permanent five UN Security council members whose sole mission is collective security need to engage in an immediate process of harmonious reform of the system he iterated. Mallias mentioned that in the South China Sea and Straits of Malacca the density of naval warships is unprecedented in history and that this can lead to accidents and unexpected escalation. Two superpowers China and the United States that believe in open lanes as the supreme principle of their own national securities are present in the area. However, Mallias mentioned, between the fleets of the superpowers there is the Greek merchant fleets that transfer 50% of Chinese exports to the world and import resources to China and the US. Thus Greece has deep interests in a peaceful and harmonious world as shipping is one of the Pillars of the Greek Economy. Mallias closed his commentary citing Nikos Kazantzakis, a renowned Greek author who had visited Zhou Enlai back in the 50s and 60s. “Everyday a man must say that I must do something to change the world, if I fail then I bare the sole responsibility”.

Zhnag Lihua with Constantine Staikos and Alexandra Vouvousiras at the Library of the Onassis Foundation. At the backround the Piano of Maria Kalas (瑪麗亞•卡拉絲) Zhang Lihua with the Honarary Vice President of the Onassis Foundation Mr Paul J. Ioannidis                        

After the event, Zhang Ligua was invited by Mr Constantine Staikos and Alexandra Vouvousiras for a private tour at the Onassis Foundation Library. The Library which includes Staikos collection of rare Greek manuscripts from 12th century C.E. and one of Maria Callas private Pianos, is a marvel of classical design. Zhang was particularly enthusiastic on a 19th century Greek book that provided a comprehensive analysis of the Qing Empire covering China’s geography, political system, ideology and modernization. Staikos also introduced Zhang to his magnum opus work of the history of libraries in the Western world. The honorary vice president of the foundation Mr Paul Ioannidis also welcomed Zhang to the foundation and expressed his most sincere hope that two of the most important civilization in global history will engage in an ever more strategic and comprehensive partnership. He presented Zhang with his personal biography “Destiny Prevails”.

Zhang also visited the University of Athens where she met with the Deputy Dean Mr Constantinos Mpourazelis, the President of the Department of Economics Mr Nikos Iriotis and Professor Constantine Kozyrakis. The two sides discussed issues of bilateral cooperation between Tsinghua and EKPA. Zhang also visited the Athens University of Business and Economics, the leading business school in Greece, where she met Professor Ioanna Pepelasis who took her on a tour of AUEB Campus. AUEB is the only university with a Confucius institute in Greece and is much interested in academic and research exchanges with Tsinghua.

Zhang’s visit to Greece has been perhaps the most comprehensive visit of a distinguished Chinese scholar in recent years. From all of Zhang’s discussion it is important to highlight her belief that while Chinese investments has been important for supporting Greece & Europe during this difficult period, it is the values of Hellenism and the principles of the Greek classics that can substantially assist the Greeks to break away from the economic crisis and also bring China & Europe into an even closer partnership.