Why we should all pay attention to China’s influence on Italian politics

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Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda and political influence organs have deeply penetrated Italian politics, according to “Hijacking the Mainstream,” a report published this month by the Global Committee for the Rule of Law (GCRL), an Italian-based organization that works in defense of human rights worldwide, and Prague-based Sinopsis, a project implemented by the nonprofit association AcaMedia, in collaboration with the Department of Sinology at Charles University in Prague.

The report documents how, as the result of an orchestrated, “united front” effort involving coordinated CCP-linked strategies, an “idea of submission” to China “percolates into officialese” in the Italian political and public sphere. The normalization of the CCP agenda has become a widely held, even commonsense assumption, while critics of China’s totalitarian regime and egregious human rights violations have been ostracized as “extreme.” This now broadly-based assumption, it appears, could be strong enough to resist the influence of this shocking report, unless public figures have the political will to follow recommendations that are crucial to the integrity and security not only of Italy, but of other European and liberal democratic countries seen by Chinese authorities as obstacles to their global ambitions.  

While Italy’s responses to China’s influence operations have unique aspects, they show how a key U.S. ally and power in the European Union can be infected by CCP propaganda — and in revealing the basic architecture of those operations, the report thus should be a jeremiad and guide for other Western societies.   

Enabling China’s successful Italian influence operation is what the report’s authors call “knowledge asymmetry.” Three in-depth case studies show how numerous naïve but nationally influential Italian politicians apparently have come under the sway of propaganda through the application of techniques that lie within the Leninist tradition of “friendly contacts.” The process has been orchestrated by the CCP’s International Liaison Department (ILD), “the main party organ in charge of exchanges with foreign elites outside of state-to-state diplomacy,” posing as a “legitimate partner of democratic political life” and with the main goal of “brainwashing away” anticommunist views.   

Working within the framework of the ILD are other programs responsible for various dimensions of its task — for example, the China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CNIE), which aims for “the installation of the CCP’s concept of human rights in the Human Rights Council.”  Judging by the adulation showered upon China following its last human rights review by the council, where a solid majority of state delegations praised China’s economic achievements as human rights victories, and tacitly accepted China’s description of Uyghur detention camps in Xinjiang as “vocational skills education and training institutions,” CNIE is on a roll.

Some Italian organizations partner with the ILD, giving it public legitimacy while promoting transparently ideological pro-CCP and anti-American positions, yet appearing as politically neutral institutions devoted to peace and international understanding. The head of the Centro Studi sulla Cina Contemporanea, former Italian Ambassador to China Alberto Bradanini, for example, praised China for “favoring peace and balance in the world” instead of “submission to the U.S.,” and referred to “Uyghur terrorism.” 

Another affiliate of the ILD is the Chinese Association for International Understanding (CAFIU), which organizes events with European institutions — for example, Germany’s Social Democratic Party Foundation the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, which collaborated with CAFIU in a United Nations side event. The China Foundation for Human Rights Development, which answers to the State Council Information Office, was recently awarded consultative status in the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), a coveted accreditation allowing nongovernmental organizations access to and the capacity to intervene in Human Rights Council meetings. But CAFIU is hardly a civil society organization.

In the Italian Parliament, the Friends of China association is a main partner of the ILD. The group has defended China’s policies in the “New Tibet.” But the report documents how another center, the Instituto per la Cultura Cinese (ICC), established in 2016, has been most influential in promoting CCP political narratives, such as China’s “great human rights achievements,” under the guise of a nominally cultural organization. Its members are from among Italy’s most influential political leaders. But the ICC also includes critics of China’s policies, giving it “an aura of neutrality that obscures its nature as a partner of key CCP influence agencies,” according to the report. Even critics of China in the group thus associate themselves with CCP propaganda organs.

The way out of this dangerous infiltration and subversion of Italian politics lies in seemingly simple steps that, no doubt, would not be simple to undertake. The authors of “Hijacking the Mainstream” recommend avoiding alliances, participation or contact with CCP-affiliated organizations and rejecting exchanges with China. Italian politicians and officials must cleanse themselves by disengaging from entanglements that have made them victims to China’s influence operations that, in turn, have turned Italy toward a posture of accommodation. 

But what would be the consequences of such moves? Italy’s Libero was the only newspaper to extensively cover the report. The media silence is eloquent.

Laura Harth, of GCRL and one of the report’s three authors, says that “the main objective of ‘Hijacking the Mainstream’ is to shed light on the who, what and why of the CCP influence agencies.” Some of Italy’s more overt actions catering to the CCP have drawn attention in recent years — for example, the continuing adhesion of Rome to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the CCP’s attempt to Sinicize globalization. But other actions have been superficial. 

It is important to provide the necessary background and knowledge to international institutions and the general public so that a real debate and investigation can take place — which is what the report’s authors apparently want. This could lead to much-needed reforms to counter operations taking place mainly in the shadows. 

While Italy is definitely not the only country facing such exposure, Harth says it is evident “that its status as a G7 country and one of the founding members of the [European Union] makes it a very ‘big catch’ for the CCP. And Italy’s ambiguity towards the PRC has consistently continued.”  

Is this the reason that — while the United States and United Kingdom are discussing a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Olympics — Rome remains formally engaged in co-promoting the event? A formal parliamentary inquiry on the findings of the report has been announced, and those named in it may fire back. For sure, this is only the first round.

Aaron Rhodes is senior fellow in the Common Sense Society and president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe. Follow him on Twitter @Rhodesaaron.

Marco Respinti is director-in-charge of Bitter Winter: A Magazine on Religious Freedom and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter @MarcoRespinti.

Tags China Chinese Communist Party Italian politics Italy

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