Dreaming of Chinese Solutions
China actively promotes the idea that the world is a “community of common destiny,” and that China’s values can be shared by all. Now formally a partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Italy should have a more open discussion about what exactly those values are.
Meeting with his Italian counterparts in Rome in January this year for the 9th joint meeting of the China-Italy Government Committee, just two months before Italy signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) making it the first G7 country to join the controversial Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) appealed to shared historical legacies as he urged deeper cooperation between the two sides. According to an account by China’s official Xinhua News Agency (in English here), he said that “China and Italy are, respectively, the birthplaces of Eastern culture and Western culture” (中意分别为东方文明和西方文明的发源地).
Across Asia and Europe, plenty of people might take umbrage at this audacious claim. But it turns the spotlight on the sorts of mis-judgements and distortions of history that can color the present as China struggles to find common ground internationally.
Since late 2012, China has spoken in its foreign policy about the need to create “a community of common destiny for mankind.” In Italian, this phrase has been rendered variously as “un destino comune per l’umanità intera,” “un destino comune per tutta l’umanità,” and “comunità di destino comune per l’umanità.”
While the associations that come with the phrase are not necessarily negative, the notion of “community” in the context of foreign relations can certainly bear the stigma of history for Italians, recalling the uneasy legacy of Italian fascism (1927–1943) and the push in propaganda and official rhetoric for the construction of an Italian national community. Some might recall the so-called “Great Community of the New Roman Empire” (Grande Communità del Nuovo Impero Romano), which in August 1941 brought Italian annexation of the Greek Ionian Islands, and the process of compulsory cultural and ethnic assimilation known at the time as “Italianization,” or Italianizzazione.
Fascist ideology in Italy in during the first half of the 20th century was also shaped by the idea of Imperial destiny, an inescapable part of life at the time. Writing a quarter century ago in the New York Review of Books, the Italian novelist Umberto Eco recalled how he had, as a boy in 1942, won a writing competition responding to the question (in the affirmative, naturally): “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?”
Fascist ideology in Italy in during the first half of the 20th century was also shaped by the idea of Imperial destiny, an inescapable part of life at the time.
This is a past that can often prompt discomfort for Italians. And surely, these are things Foreign Minister Wang Yi never considered as he invoked the glories of the Roman Empire, alongside the glories of China, to underscore the strength of the diplomatic relationship.
But neither is the notion of “common destiny” necessarily a negative one in the Italian context. It has had some currency in intellectual circles since the turn of the century, thanks in large part to the work of French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin, who has had a strong influence on Italian contemporaries.
Morin’s Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future, published in 1999, and available in full-text English form here at the UNESCO Digital Library — it was published in its original French the same year (Les Sept savoirs nécessaires à l’éducation du future) — introduces the notion of humanity as rooted in a common “Homeland,” the “endangered Homeland” of Earth. The English phrasing used here is “community of fate”:
Humanity is no longer an abstract notion, it is a vital reality because now, for the first time, it is threatened with death. Humanity is no longer just an ideal notion, it has become a community of fate and only the conscience of that community can lead it to a community of life.
The phrase as it appears in the Italian edition of Morin’s Seven Complex Lessons, published in Milan two years later, in 2001, is “comunità di destino.” It can be found quite readily in discussions in particular of global environmental challenges in Italian from this time on — as, for example, in this article from July 2012, just months before Chinese leaders introduced their phrase, addressing the issue of globalization and global, or planetary, identity. Apparently referencing Morin, the author refers to a “community of planetary destiny,” or “comunità di destino planetario.”
Ideas very similar to Morin’s inspired the creation of the Earth Charter, “a declaration of fundamental ethical principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century.” As Valerio Contini and Enrique Garcia Pascual of the University of Zaragoza have written, the Earth Charter is premised on “an innovative theoretical foundation that calls for a new educational orientation, an educational orientation very similar to the paradigm of complexity developed by Morin.”
The Earth Charter was created through a process of global consultation, with participation from a range of actors, including experts and civil society groups. And the preamble to the charter, introduced in the year 2000, includes a phrase tantalizingly close to the eventual Chinese foreign policy phrase:
“To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.”
The official Italian site for the Earth Charter, “Carta Della Terra,” bears the tagline across the top: “We belong to a single human family and a community of the Earth with a common destiny” (Noi apparteniamo ad un’unica famiglia umana e a una comunità della Terra con un destino comune).
The Chinese phrase has actually gotten little attention in and of itself in the Italian press. In the wake of China’s National People’s Congress in March 2018, Chinese Ambassador to Italy Li Ruiyu (李瑞宇) offered reassurances in an official press release about China’s continued opening and reform, and he defended recent changes to the country’s constitution (which included not just an amendment adding the phrase “community of common destiny,” but the dropping of term limits for the Chinese presidency). Li’s press release used the Italian phrase “un destino comune per l’umanità intera”:
China will strive for its internal development and to create a better international environment, and at the same time will keep its eyes on the whole world, think of the whole world and be ready to join forces with other countries to build a common destiny for all humanity.
The ambassador’s remarks, chockfull of Chinese Communist Party jargon, were repeated verbatim by the Rome-based Italian Journalist Agency (AGI).
In an August 2018 article written for China Radio International, Xu Xiaofeng (许晓峰), economic minister at the Chinese Embassy in Rome, used instead the Italian phrase “un destino comune per tutta l’umanità” while discussing the Sino-Italian trade relationship:
[There] is a profound transformation of the system of international economic governance directed at supporting multilateralism, seeking negotiation and a process of development that is shared and open to all; focused on the creation of closer partnerships and the building of a common destiny for all of humanity, now an inevitable trend for global economic governance.
Italian experts have so far not commented a great deal on the idea of a “community of common destiny for mankind,” but the idea that China is at the center of a “profound transformation” of international governance is a point of some uncertainty and skepticism, even as some look upon China with admiration.
Italian sinologist Maurizio Scarpari writes that Xi Jinping is “the first Chinese president with a truly global vision,” having put devoted “huge financial and human resources” behind the idea of “building a common destiny for the whole of humanity.” But Scarpari also remarks the deep skepticism surrounding China’s ambitions. On the concept of a “community of common destiny” — which he renders as “un destino comune per l’intera umanità” — he writes:
[While] it attracts its interlocutors for the undoubted economic opportunities offered, at the same time it scares them for the difficulty of foreseeing its political, financial and ideological implications.
Concerns over the implications of the relationship with China were front and center last summer, after Italy’s new Undersecretary of Economic Development, Michele Geraci, the Sicilian former professor of finance who spearheaded the MoU with China on the Belt and Road Initiative, wrote an article calling for “a more attentive foreign and economic policy towards China” and praising many aspects of Chinese governance, including its policies on migration and public security.
On February 26 this year, The Contemporary World (当代世界), an official journal published by the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, said it was China’s responsibility to remake the system of global governance. The very next day, a piece in the official Study Times (学习时报) journal by Zhang Yining (张怡恬), a researcher at a Beijing city-level think tank devoted to the study of Xi Jinping’s flagship political concept, wrote: “With the foundation of the concept of building a community of common destiny for mankind, General Secretary Xi Jinping has raised a series of new ideas and viewpoints on global economic governance, and has provided Chinese knowledge and a Chinese solution to promote the healthy development of economic globalization, to commonly face challenges of a global nature, and to build a fair and reasonable international order.”
In July, shortly after Geraci’s online post, a group of 23 Italian China scholars and young researchers, all but five of whom are based in academic institutions outside of Italy, released an open letter criticizing his praise of China’s system: “The positions of the Undersecretary are cause for both surprise and concern,” they wrote, “not only because they take an authoritarian system as a model, but most of all because of the system of values that they seem to support and underline.”
I was among those who signed the letter, and in it we invited Geraci to openly debate the substance of his remarks on China’s national strategies. But no response was forthcoming from Geraci or from his administration, led by Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte. The open letter unfortunately received little attention from Italian media, appearing only in coverage from Il Corriere della Sera and l’Espresso (and in English-language coverage by Quartz discussing Italy’s engagement with China over investment in Africa).
In a July 13 post reporting on the most recent meeting of the Association of Italian Academics in China (AAIIC), an organization founded in 2015 to bring together Italian scholars working in and on China, China observer Nicolette Ferro quoted a spokesperson from the AAIIC as defending the remarks made by Geraci, also an association member. “In the space of a blog post, it is not possible to deal comprehensively with all of the issues Geraci raises,” the spokesperson said. “But we believe it is always useful to analyze the facts from a comparative perspective.”
“The idea that the Chinese model is replicable in Italy is a false controversy in the sense that the Chinese themselves believe the Chinese model, arising from China’s national conditions, cannot be exported abroad. But this does not mean that we do not have much to learn and understand from China.”
The spokesperson’s assertion about Chinese belief, or not, in the exportability of its values itself merits further questioning. When Xi Jinping addressed representatives from political parties across the world at a forum held in Beijing on December 1, 2017, (Chinese speech here), he certainly did say that China’s would not “export” its model of development. In the very same speech, however, he said that the “initiative of building a community with a shared future for mankind” (“future” being preferred to “destiny” in Xinhua’s English translation) was now “being transformed from a concept into action” through the Belt and Road Initiative, a “huge cooperation platform” for regional and international connectivity.
When China talks seriously about the actualization of its values through a global initiative, does it not make sense to ask, as we did in our open letter last year, whether the politicians engaging with China on our behalf actually understand what those values are?
In fact, China does speak about the global applicability of what President Xi Jinping called quite early on in his administration, in a March 2014 speech hosted in Berlin by Germany’s Körber Foundation, “the Chinese solution for improving global governance.” The notion of a “Chinese solution,” or zhongguo fang’an (中国方案), is now a regular feature of Chinese foreign policy, easily discernible in its official discourse.
When China talks seriously about the actualization of its values through a global initiative, does it not make sense to ask . . . . whether the politicians engaging with China on our behalf actually understand what those values are?
Anti-Liberal Politics Looks East
In Italy, the idea of Chinese solutions has found a welcome audience against the backdrop of anti-liberal politics at home and opposition to the neoliberal policies of the European Union. This can be readily seen in the phenomenon of rossobrunismo, or “red-brownism,” which employs Marxist-inspired arguments, generally decontextualized and contorted, to buttress nationalist and racist political positions. The movement, dating back to the 1970s, has lately drawn a following among those who feel they must “move left” in order to counteract liberal and pro-EU forces.
A number of recent publications in Italy can be seen to reflect this trend. Two of the most prominent are Red Cement: the Chinese Century Brick by Brick (Cemento Rosso, Il Secolo cinese, mattone dopo mattone), written by Italian journalist Giuliano Marrucci, and China of the New Era: Journey Into the 19th Congress of the CCP (La Cina della Nuova Era, Viaggio nel 19° Congresso del Partito Comunista Cinese), edited by Fosco Giannini and Francesco Maringiò.
Marrucci’s book, published in late 2017, offers an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of China’s breakneck economic development and rapid urbanisation since 1978, and argues that “the fate of a good portion of all humanity depends on the ability to find an answer ‘with Chinese characteristics.’” China in the New Era, published earlier this year by the Communist Party of Italy (PCI), sets out — according to an online announcement of the book’s launch in Rome — to “decode” China in its current stage of development, but without “negative caricature. It seeks to address the concern that the current political establishment in Italy, and much of Italian society, undervalues the complexity of contemporary China, and it offers more in-depth discussion of such notions as a “community of common destiny for mankind.”
The publishers of China in the New Era make clear that the book “conceptually took shape” through a discussions between “the companions of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Rome, the Chinese Communist Party and some of the authors of the book.” The book’s preface is written and signed by Li Ruiyu, China’s ambassador to Italy. The Communist Party of Italy notes on its website that this is a “sign of the total involvement of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Rome and the Chinese comrades in the drafting of the book.”
Italy’s right-wing populist government — comprising the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and its anti-Europe and anti-immigration agenda, and the anti-migrant League — hopes to cash in on greater investment from China under the Belt and Road Initiative. Within months of its formation on June 1, 2018, Italy’s new government moved to open its arms to China, establishing a “China Task Force” under the Ministry of Economic Development.
Italy’s endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative is the culmination of this turn toward China. Michele Geraci has stressed that joining BRI is all about investors, and that Italy stands to gain. “The way we see it, it is an opportunity for our companies to take the opportunity of China’s growing importance in the world,” he told the BBC.
Whether and how this endorsement will benefit Italy is an open question. The benefit for China, on the other hand, is clear. Pinning its hopes on the vague promise that it will be a “privileged partner,” the world’s 8th-largest economy has affirmed China’s signature foreign policy initiative, and by extension the system of values entailed by its “community of common destiny for mankind.”
All without the need to explain to anyone what those values actually mean.