ATHENS - Having two of the world’s most ancient and revered cultures, China and Greece have been getting closer in modern times through trade, business, and politics and now have joined forces in trying to get the British Museum to return the stolen Parthenon Marbles.
That came during a recent visit to Athens of China’s President Xi Jinping who jumped at the chance to align his country with Greece in its long, failed bid to convince the British officials to return the marbles taken off the Parthenon almost 200 years ago by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin, who said he had permission from the occupying Ottoman Empire that ruled Greece.
President Xi signed 16 agreements with Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis – who had earlier gone to an international expo in Shanghai in search of more Chinese investments to go along with the Chinese shipping company COSCO operating the port of Piraeus.
It was all the more emotional cause of the Parthenon Marbles that broke through the usual diplomatic sessions in which both sides try to say nothing damaging and praise each other and during a tour of the Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009 and was designed to have its top glass-wall floor house the Marbles with a view of the Parthenon, Xi became a believer.
He was given a tour by Greece’s symbolic President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, who asked for the Chinese leader’s “support in this struggle for the Parthenon sculptures to return here where they belong.”
“I not only agree with you,’’ Mr. Xi replied in comments broadcast on Greek national television. “Not only will you have our support, but we thank you because we, too, have a lot of our sculptures abroad and we try as much we can, as soon as we can for these things to return to their homeland.”
Mitsotakis could use the help. Earlier he said he would ask the British Museum to loan the Parthenon Marbles to Greece – which doesn’t own them – setting off an outcry he was ceding them and leading Culture Minister Lina Mendoni to say that doesn’t mean there will be any letup in demands for their outright return.
“At an international level, all the parties involved in the issue of the Parthenon Marbles’ return believe that it needs to have a constant presence in the news so as to put pressure on the British Museum. I agree on that point,” she told Kathimerini then. “They also say that we need to make it a moral issue,” she also added.
Mitsotakis had told The Observer that Greece would be willing to lend ancient artifacts that have never been shown in the United Kingdom before in exchange for the Marbles’ temporary return for the 2011 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence from Turkey.
China knows the sting of having its treasures plundered by Colonial powers and occupiers and Xi is one of the most stalwart champions of his country’s heritage and culture which, like Greece, goes back 5,000 years and has produced many of the world’s wonders.
In a feature, the New York Times noted that with nationalism on the rise at home, China has stepped up calls in recent years to repatriate its ancient artifacts, even sending teams of researchers to overseas museums to catalog the more than one million Chinese antiquities it estimates are on display abroad.
In welcoming Mitsotakis said that the Greek and Chinese people are “carriers of great ancient civilizations that sealed the course of humanity,” and that both have had some of their greatest works plundered.
Xi, in an article in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini preceding his visit, wrote: “Confucius and Socrates are two masks that cover the same face: the brightest face of human logic,” borrowing a line from the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek.
There’s another logic to praising each other’s cultures and supporting the return of stolen antiquities: doing business, and Greece and China have gotten so close – China wants to use Piraeus as the doorway to the European Union for its New Silk Road scheme – that critics worry Beijing will get too big a foothold in Europel, through Greece.
Greece’s center-right government under Mitsotakis welcomed the Chinese investment as well as China’s huge export market for its agricultural goods, according to experts, the paper said, and the Chinese are going to get a taste of Greece’s world-class honey and saffron.
“Greece is the one country in ‘old Europe’ that is most open to Chinese investments,” Steve Tsang, the director of the School of Oriental African Studies China Institute, told the paper.
“In a world that is becoming more uncomfortable with Xi’s policy in asserting China, Greece seems like a reassuring, welcoming place for Xi to visit and show his domestic audience how much he is loved by a European country with the oldest civilization,” he said.