By Peter Stevenson
FROM BILLBOARDS in Mandarin on the Paphos hillsides advertising villas for sale to the University of Cyprus’ planned Confucius Institute, the Chinese influence on the island is increasing rapidly.
The 290 million euro investment by China Glory National Investment in the Venus Rock golf resort project in Ha Potami in Paphos is just the latest, and largest, example of the growing links between the two countries. On a smaller scale are the growing numbers of villas, largely in the Paphos area, that have been sold to Chinese businessmen in the last two years.
With the eyes of our battered economy increasingly on the Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking region of the Far East, a major question becomes how two such disparate countries can find common ground particularly when it comes to language. Fluent Greek or even English to Chinese speakers in Cyprus are, not surprisingly, in very, very short supply.
One exception is 17-year-old JinLin Yao, or Lin as he likes to be called.
Lin, who was born in JiLin in China, is about take his IGCSE in Mandarin. Although we were unable to get confirmation from the British Council, Lin’s principal at the Nicosia American Academy, Richard Wildsmith, believes Lin is the first person in Cyprus to take Mandarin at IGCSE level. He arrived in Cyprus in 2005 with Mandarin as his first language but the eight years since he landed on the island have seen him prefer English.
“English is my first language now and although my Mandarin is a bit rusty, it should be good enough to pass the IGCSE,” he said. He jokingly adds that he speaks two and a half languages, English, Chinese and enough Greek to get by. Lin said that taking Mandarin had not really crossed his mind until his Greek Cypriot step-father suggested it to him.
“He thought it would be a good idea to have a qualification in the language after Chinese investment became a possibility on the island,” Lin said.
“It’s useful to have extra languages especially now that the world is become more globalised and the fact that China is a wealthy country whose influence is growing stronger internationally,” he added.
He added that the only Mandarin he speaks is with his mother, who is also his teacher, although it tends to get mixed with English at times.
“I’m planning on taking Mandarin for A level and I haven’t ruled out coming back to Cyprus after my studies if Chinese investment increases and there is demand for Chinese-speaking personnel in a field that interests me,” he said.
The need for speakers of Chinese language is one reason why the University of Cyprus has announced plans to open the Confucius Institute which it hopes will open the road for further cooperation between the two countries.
In a statement released last week, the university revealed it has been in talks with the Beijing Institute of Education (BIE) and other Chinese universities in their attempts to open the Confucius Institute as soon as possible. Representatives from the BIE and Beijing’s regional educational authorities visited the university in late April to begin discussions about opening the institute.
“An initial proposal has been given to Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing and we have been told that we should get a reply within the next two months,” Elena Avgoustidou, senior university officer for international relations and promotions at the University of Cyprus told the Sunday Mail.
Avgoustidou revealed the once approval is received they hope to have the centre up and running by the end of 2014.
“We have signed an agreement of cooperation with the BIE and part of that agreement is to introduce Mandarin lessons at the University of Cyprus. The agreement will not only be the promotion of the language but will also include an interactive exhibition centre to promote Chinese culture,” she added.
The business regime has become increasingly favourable for non-EU foreign investors, with attracting the Chinese a major reason for the changes.
Non-EU citizens making a minimum investment of €300,000 in a single property on the island, subject to certain requirements, can be granted permanent residency through a special immigration visa. This has led to the upsurge in Chinese purchases of villas on the island, particularly in Paphos.
Chinese and other foreign investors will also be able to obtain Cypriot citizenship if they invest €5 million, have large bank accounts or perform certain business transaction on the island. The cabinet approved the plan on May 24.
So far the icing on the Chinese investment cake has been the 290 million euro investment by the Hong Kong-based company ‘China Glory National Investment’ which is investing in the Venus Rock Golf Resort project in Ha Potami.
A delegation from the company, headed by Chinese investor Charles Zhang, recently met with President Nicos Anastasiades to discuss the investment. He was joined by local partner businessman Theodoros Aristodemou of Aristo Developers Ltd. One of the largest developers in Cyprus and at the forefront of developing business links with the Chinese, Aristo Developers opened an office in Jiangsu in China last year.
Aristodemou said that his company would jump at the chance of hiring Greek and Mandarin speaking interpreters, but they don’t exist. The company currently only hires English to Chinese translators.
“We would be greatly interested in hiring anyone who could speak Chinese and Greek as we believe it would help our negotiations and improve our relations with China Glory or other possible investors,” Aristodemou said.
Aristodemou said the companies are in constant discussions and negotiations with China Glory about further investment.
“There is plenty of interest, but the extent of their interest will depend heavily on how we treat them both professionally and on a personal level and having a good interpreter is extremely important,” Aristodemou said.