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Prodi passes on pipelines, board seats to teach in China

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(SHANGHAI) - There were board seats and Vladimir Putin's offer to head up an oil pipeline project, but former European Commission president and Italian premier Romano Prodi opted for teaching in China.

Prodi, 70, said he had been offered many options since his 2008 retirement after two stints as Italy's prime minister, sandwiched around five years as EC president.

Many were lucrative, especially the Russian prime minister's offer to be president of South Stream, a pipeline venture by Gazprom and Eni. But Prodi turned them down.

"It's a choice. I explained to Putin that for a former politician it's better not to take a job that he has worked to shape when he was a politician. I didn't want to go into business," Prodi told AFP in an interview.

"When you retire, you better write, you better read, you better teach. That is what I'm doing now."

Prodi spoke to AFP in a classroom overlooking Shanghai's Huangpu river at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in the city's financial district, after giving his first in a year-long series of lectures.

"In my life, I changed so many jobs and this has been the best choice of my life," the bespectacled, grey-haired former leader said, looking relaxed and professorial as he leaned back in a chair.

Some of his contemporaries -- such as former British prime minister Tony Blair -- have profited from connections by taking on lucrative posts with banks or million-dollar speaking careers.

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sparked controversy when he accepted a position on the board of a Russo-German pipeline project, which he himself had approved.

But Prodi said he is happiest teaching.

"This is more fit for a former politician. Nothing bad about making money, but it's a different choice. If I wanted to make money I should have accepted Putin's offer," he said, laughing. "It was not bad."

Prodi said he also believes CEIBS, ranked as one of the world's top 30 business schools by the Financial Times, is making an important contribution by helping establish common points of reference between China and the West.

"To have the same dictionary, the same reaction, the same ticks, this will have an enormous value for peace, for development, for our future," he said.

"China is not in a process of economic change, but is in a process of total change," Prodi said, tapping the table for emphasis.

After 27 years of regular visits to China, Prodi said he is not ready to kick the habit yet.

This month, he began teaching a mixed class of Chinese and foreign business students with lectures focused on how European policy is decided and how positions on China are changing.

The total number, and the focus, of future lectures has yet to be decided but they will tap into the knowledge he gained in politics, said Prodi, who started his academic career in 1966 teaching political science at Bologna University.

He said his "antennae" are now tuned especially to a younger generation of Chinese -- aged 25 to 30 -- whom he has been meeting on university campuses, which are "absolutely much more open than before".

But Prodi said he does not plan to relocate from his base in Bologna to China for the job.

"You don't change your residence when you are 70 years old," he said.

Instead, he will make frequent visits to the country to meet his teaching commitments at campuses in Shanghai and Beijing, while juggling other roles.

He will fly from China to the United States to spend April at Brown University in Rhode Island, where he was appointed professor-at-large for a five-year term.

In May, he returns to Italy for an African development conference in Bologna organised by his foundation and Johns Hopkins University to follow up his work for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on peacekeeping in Africa.

Then Prodi will come back to teach in Shanghai.

"This is an unbelievable city. The rate of change, the speed of change in Shanghai has no comparison," he said.

"Not Los Angeles, not New York, not London or Paris... Shanghai is just a big cluster of new things that are happening."

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