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10:15 am | July 18, 2019

Filling the Void with China

Echowall speaks to Italian scholar Ivan Franceschini about Italy’s hopes for deeper engagement with China, one year after he penned an open letter objecting to the enthusiastically pro-China remarks of the country’s new junior minister for economic development, Michele Geraci.

By Echowall Staff

With the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on March 23, Italy became the first G7 nation to formally endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative. While the terms of the MOU are non-binding — and it remains unclear what impact, if any, the agreement will actually have on the Sino-Italian relationship — the signing was generally regarded as an important victory for China

As the world’s eighth-largest economy, Italy provides an important vote of confidence in BRI that China hopes can help to shift perceptions about the benefits and risks of the initiative. In the official Chinese state narrative, Italy’s historical links to China and the Silk Road also served as an important source of connection for the two countries, and this comes through in the text of the MOU itself, which states that both parties are “[conscious] of the historical common heritage developed through the land and sea routes linking Asia and Europe and of Italy’s traditional role as terminal of the maritime Silk Road.”

It should be stressed that the term “Silk Road” in fact did not appear until late in the 19th century, emerging from the imagination of Ferdinand von Richthofen


Ferdinand von Richtofen. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Imagining the Silk Road

While lucrative trade in silks and other goods from China was made across the Eurasian continent to the Mediterranean since around the time of the Han Dynasty (207 BCE – 220 CE), it was not until 1877, during a period of European colonial expansion in Asia, that the term "Silk Road," or "“Seidenstraße," was coined by the German scientist and geographer Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen. Richtofen employed the term to describe a network of land and sea routes stretching from China, Japan and Korea all the way west to the Aegean Sea and Italy. For a more nuanced view of the route's history and imagination, we recommend this scholarly account of the "Silk Road" by Tamara Chin of Brown University. 

China’s goal in courting Italy’s endorsement is clear enough. But what does Italy hope to gain from the engagement over Belt and Road? And are these hopes based on a realistic assessment of what China can offer?

On these questions, Echowall reached out to Ivan Franceschini (方易仁), a postdoctoral fellow at Australia National University’s Department of Political and Social Change, and founder and co-editor in chief of the open access quarterly journal Made in China. Franceschini was the author in July 2018 of an open letter signed by scores of Italian experts on China speaking out against points made online by Italy’s then newly-in-office undersecretary for economic development. 

ECHOWALL: Last summer when we ran into you in Florence, the government of Giuseppe Conte was brand new, and Michele Geraci was the new under secretary of state at Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development. You had just penned the open letter, signed by many Italian experts, laying out your concerns over a “series of risky statements,” as you called it, in a piece Geraci had published online called “China and the Government of Change.” Now, almost a year on, Italy seems truly to have embraced China, formally backing its Belt and Road Initiative back in March. Let’s maybe start with your understanding of where Italy is right now in its thinking — or perhaps hoping — on China. What does it hope to gain?

Ivan Franceschini: After a few years of relative recovery, Italy’s economy is currently facing stagnation, if not outright recession. Obviously, the Italian government hopes that by getting closer to China and involved in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, Italy will benefit from a new bonanza of Chinese investment that will somehow reboot the Italian economy. 

In the article that you mention — which was published the day before he was officially appointed junior minister for economic development and reads very much as a programmatic statement — Michele Geraci posed the following rhetorical questions. Who can help us to handle debt and spread? China. From whom can we learn how to handle migratory fluxes? China. The flat tax works better if we receive foreign investment, but where from? China. 

On public security: Which is the country where public security works, and from which we can learn? China. On promotion of the “Made in Italy” brand and Italian exports, what market has the largest potential? China. On the green economy and electric power: What country invests and produces the most in electric cars and renewable energies? China. On infrastructure and the TAV, what country has maximum know-how and invests the most around the world in the development of transportation, railways and ports? China.


Ivan Franceschini. Photo provided by Ivan Franceschini. 

ECHOWALL: If I can just elbow in here, you’re talking about the proposed high-speed rail line between Italy and France, which has been quite controversial, with even a report from the Italian government saying that it would not be profitable. But you seem to be saying that Geraci’s answer to just about every economic question is China.

I.F.: Yes, and not just on purely economic issues. On Africa and migrants, who can help Africa? China. On “Fornero” and the Italian pensions system, what country has a demographic problem very similar to ours [in the form of a steadily aging population] and can offer their experience? China. Even on cooperation with Russia. What country is closest to Russia and can help us rewrite geopolitics in Asia? China.

All of these points explain quite clearly what the current Italian government is expecting from China. Behind all this there is the idea, in my opinion very naive, that China alone will be able to turn the fate of the Italian economy through massive investment — investment that, so far, has failed to materialize. 

ECHOWALL: You used the word “naive” just now. And the situation you describe is not dissimilar from what we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe in terms of optimism — or maybe dreaminess is a better word — over what China can offer. Eastern Europe is perhaps a good example, and just this May Foreign Policy ran a piece suggesting that China’s strategy there was failing, in large part because of unfulfilled dreams and promise fatigue. What are the dangers for Italy in China-dreaming? Or, put another way, is there a longer-term cost of this naivete? 

I.F.: More disquieting, I think, is that the imagined relationship with China appears to be built in relation to the extemporary agenda of the present government — which we can see, for example, in the linking of Chinese investment to the flat tax, one of the battle horses of the Northern League [the anti-migrant political party of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini]. 

This seeking external solutions for Italian problems, this continuous search for a foreign savior on a high horse — whether it is the European Union, the United States, or China — is simply a way of deflecting responsibility, of avoiding having to look inward to seriously consider our own structural problems and implement the necessary changes, which would require an actual effort.

ECHOWALL: It does seem that Italy’s ruling coalition has pinned many of its hopes on China. In the blog post you criticized last year, I remember Geraci suggested that the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, which together now form Italy’s governing coalition, might succeed in their plans to institute a flat tax and universal income if Italy can draw Chinese investment. But do you think these hopes are shared by many Italians? Or is this turn toward China, if it’s fair to call it that, really engineered by a few influential figures like Geraci?

I cannot say whether these hopes are shared by many Italians or not — after all I spent most of the past fifteen years living abroad, ten of which were in China. What I can say is that there has not been in Italy any serious discussion about this latest turn to China, especially not about the challenges involved in it. 

This seeking external solutions for Italian problems . . . . is simply a way of deflecting responsibility, of avoiding having to look inward to seriously consider our own structural problems and implement the necessary changes, which would require an actual effort.

Generally speaking, I would say that public opinion in Italy — as probably in many other countries — saw a general shift in the attitude towards China around a decade ago. Up to then, media coverage of China largely focused on human rights issues and the negative effects of the rule of the Chinese Party-state. But around 2008 and 2009, when Western liberal democracies were engulfed in the global financial crisis they had caused, this idea arose of China as a model of stability and efficiency. Ten years later, that idea, buttressed by the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party, is still there and keeps gaining new proponents everyday — in Italy as everywhere. Undoubtedly, there is no lack of apologists. 

ECHOWALL: The rhetoric of the “China Model” is less pronounced in the Chinese political discourse these days. Everything seems to be all about President Xi Jinping’s grand foreign policy vision of the Belt and Road Initiative. How is that narrative playing in Italy? 

Today everywhere in Italy people are attempting to capitalize on China’s rise, from employers trying to sell their dying businesses to China to academics vying to apply for lucrative funding that cash in from Xi’s rhetoric of the New Silk Road — and if you consider that Italy was [historically] at one end of the Silk Road, you can imagine how pervasive this kind of rhetoric is. In this sense, China represents a hope of getting out of the depressing predicament Italy currently finds itself in. And indeed, without China there would just be a void. More often than not, it is not that those businesses or those universities have many alternatives. 

China represents a hope of getting out of the depressing predicament Italy currently finds itself in. And indeed, without China there would just be a void.

But that’s exactly the problem: China is simply filling a void left by the Italian state and by other actors, offering easy solutions that often are just temporary fixes. In such a situation, it is very difficult to have an open and critical discussion about the political and social challenges involved in having a tighter relationship with China. In this sense, I wouldn’t say that this turn to China has been engineered only by a few influential figures like Geraci. Yes, they provided the final push and engineered the practicalities of the case, but the ground had been prepared way before that.

ECHOWALL: That being said, I think it’s clear that Geraci’s role has been central. An article in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post recently called Geraci “the engine of Italy’s flirtation with Beijing.” You raised a number of concerns in your letter last year, and you touched on some of them just a moment ago. But perhaps, very briefly, you could revisit some of your concerns.

There is no doubt that Michele Geraci has been playing an important role in bringing Italy politically closer to China. At the time of his appointment, I had been following his writings for some time and I often found myself in disagreement with his positions. Still, his was only one voice among many, and didn’t in the past carry much weight in the Italian debate about China. His being appointed junior minister obviously changed everything. 

La Cina.png

In a post to the blog of Beppe Grillo in June 2018, Geraci argues for closer ties with China. 

For this reason, when I happened to read his article [on the blog of Five Star Movement founder Beppe Grillo], I felt that it was important to take a stance. While broadly speaking I could agree on some of the points he raised, for instance regarding the green economy or the need to engage more with China, other arguments left me dumbfounded. 

First, there was the absolutely naive view of geopolitics. Italy aligning with China and Russia to rewrite geopolitics in Asia? To my mind, such delusions of grandeur very much evoked the image of Charlie Chaplin in his sketch “The Great Dictator,” playing with the globe. Italy helping China to help Africa in order to reduce migrations towards Europe? There was something ominous in two countries even considering discussing among themselves issues related to an entire continent without even considering any of the third parties involved.

Still, what really made me cringe was the idea that China provided a model for Italy on how to manage migrations and public security. Really? When the Chinese government itself has been trying for decades, unsuccessfully, to reform the hukou system, which has been likened to a form of apartheid and in any case concerns only internal migrations? And when the Party-state, emboldened by new technologies, is quickly evolving in the direction of an authentic police state

It simply escaped me how could anybody even bring up such absurdities in the middle of what is happening in Xinjiang, and when then the organs of the public security in China are carrying out one of the worst crackdowns against civil society and political dissent in decades. There was something seriously wrong in all this. With these thoughts in mind, I got in touch with other like-minded Italian scholars and we eventually released the open letter.

ECHOWALL: Since you published the letter, last year and again this year, do you think these or other concerns have been discussed more seriously in Italy? In your view, what do Italians need to be talking about when it comes to China?

When Xi Jinping visited Italy at the end of March, all of a sudden all Italian media were full of stories about China. Some journalists engaged in not-so-funny bits of propaganda — for instance reporting how a farmer in north Italy had drawn a portrait of Xi on his field to welcome the Chinese president — but several others were very critical and did not hesitate to challenge the narrative of China as a knight in shining armor that has been promoted by the Italian government. 

Still, the attention quickly faded away since Xi left Italy, and now we are back to square one. The memorandum of understanding [on Italy joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative] has been signed and the political damage has been done; now we will just have to wait and see whether the economic benefits that have been promised will eventually arrive. 

For the rest, it is all business as usual. I don’t see any new sustained effort to have a meaningful discussion about China, whether in the media or in classrooms. You just have to think that most Italian universities that include a faculty of China studies have Confucius Institutes [operated by the Chinese government through Hanban], which provide funding for China-related activities that would not be available in any other way. So the dominant public narrative about China is far from critical — though in private, it is another matter.

I would like to stress that there is no point in blaming the Confucius Institutes here, since they are just doing exactly what they are expected to do, whether we like it or not. The real problem is a general lack of interest and funding regarding China on the part of the Italian state and society, which has driven Italian academia into this kind of relationship of dependency. Personally, I think it would be of the utmost importance to do more to raise awareness in Italy about what is going on in China today, for instance about the securitization of Chinese society, re-education camps and forced labor in Xinjiang, the ethical problems involved in technological transfers and certain kinds of academic exchanges.

July 18, 2019
Echowall Staff