Walking the Long Walls

by Terence MacNamee

Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras has been in China since last weekend, the major item on his agenda being to sign away the Piraeus to Chinese buyers. He was photographed walking on the Great Wall of China, looking very pleased with himself. The Chinese are taking a majority share in the port of Athens, and they are later to acquire more. They will continue to invest in infrastructure in Greece.

In the West, the Piraeus is a name to conjure with. It was always the port of Athens, a city originally built on a couple of steep rocky hills (note that the name of the city is plural!) which are well away from the sea. In Antiquity, the Athenians invested time, money and effort in building the Long Walls, a system of fortification linking the city to its port. This move was in the context of Athens taking on the role of a leader of an empire, a confederacy of Greek city-states. Its rivals, notably Sparta, were alarmed by this, and called upon the Athenians to desist. The Athenians did not, and eventually hostilities erupted in the Peloponnesian War.

Through Antiquity, the Piraeus was the main port of Greece. Eclipsed during the period of Turkish rule, it regained its importance in an independent Greece, and the shipbuilders and shipping magnates of the Piraeus became the best-known Greeks to the outside world. The Piraeus also became a rundown suburb of Athens; at one time it was a famous ghetto for the refugees from Asia Minor who had been expelled by the Turks in the terrible war of 1922.

The Piraeus was a port of the Eastern Mediterranean, and as such it had links to the Middle East. Because of its history, Greece has never ceased to be such a link. It has a unique peripheral position. It is at the Eastern edge of Europe, on the edge of Asia, and its tradition is to form a meeting point for the two. It is open to Europe, and it is open to Asia. As such it is a natural back door into Europe from Asia.

Tsipras was told by the country’s creditors to sell off the state-owned resources, and he is doing it. That he is selling them to China may not be too pleasing to many. But no-one cannot resist the expansion of China, with its need for a “silk road” to keep it supplied with all it needs. And, of course, the Chinese know all about Long Walls.

Greece has joined a number of peripheral nations offering a back door or an entrepôt port to China. Ireland, on the other periphery of Europe, has courted Chinese money. So has Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. These are all so many footholds and back doors into places that China wants. China knows all the back doors. And China’s deep pockets ensure that those doors now open to its knock.