By Tracy Beanz
Italy has been ravaged by the Wuhan Coronavirus, but the reasons why are linked more closely to globalism than the age of the infected.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants now live both legally and illegally in Italy, with 300K legally registered and many more illegal.
Italy recently entered into a new economic partnership with China called “One belt, One road”
China has revitalized northern Italian ports in order to transport goods more efficiently to the rest of Europe
The mayor of Florence initiated a social media campaign called “Hug a Chinese” using Chinese produced video as an engine to dispel the “racism” against the Chinese in Italy
Thirty years ago, Italy saw the beginnings of what would become a serious issue with illegal immigration. What was surprising, was that the immigrants couldn’t just walk over a border to enter the country, they had to flock from China. It began with Italians hiring the Chinese off the books at cheap wages to work making garments in towns and villages renowned for their craftmanship, and morphed into Italians seeing the Chinese learn how to do it faster and cheaper; often times watching as their family owned businesses were shuttered because they were outbid. The Chinese took over the Italian craft and made it their own. What didn’t change was the coveted “Made in Italy” label. The NY Times began documenting the trend in 2010 writing:
Over the years, Italy learned the difficult lesson that it could no longer compete with China on price. And so, its business class dreamed, Italy would sell quality, not quantity. For centuries, this walled medieval city just outside of Florence has produced some of the world’s finest fabrics, becoming a powerhouse for “Made in Italy” chic.
And then, China came here.
Chinese laborers, first a few immigrants, then tens of thousands, began settling in Prato in the late 1980s. They transformed the textile hub into a low-end garment manufacturing capital, enriching many, stoking resentment and prompting recent crackdowns that in turn have brought cries of bigotry and hypocrisy.
The city is now home to the largest concentration of Chinese in Europe; some legal, many more not. Here in the heart of Tuscany, Chinese laborers work round the clock in some 3,200 businesses making low-end clothes, shoes and accessories, often with materials imported from China, for sale at midprice and low-end retailers worldwide.
The trend continued as whole villages in Italy became Chinese villages, with the Chinese displacing the Italians who lived there, creating their own neighborhoods, and pushing out decades of Italian family owned business. They weren’t known for following the rules. It caused much local consternation; the Italians were forced to pay their taxes and follow the employment guidelines, while the Chinese seemed to have built flourishing enterprises by skirting the rules, treating their people poorly, and engaging in rich human smuggling operations, to boot. There was little accountability for the Chinese, and much for the native Italians.
Outside of the typical problems one would see with such an influx of immigrants from a far-off land, were also other, more scandalous ones.
In 2017, the Bank of China agreed to pay a 600,000 euro fine to settle a money laundering case involving its Milan branch, court documents showed. The Florence court hearing the case gave four employees of the Milan branch of China’s fourth biggest bank a suspended two-year prison sentence for failing to report illicit money transfers. Florence prosecutors leading the so-called “River of Money” investigation alleged that more than 4.5 billion euros ($4.78 billion) was smuggled to China from Italy between 2006 and 2010 by Chinese people living mainly in Florence and nearby Prato. About half of the money was sent via BOC, the prosecutors said. The court also ordered BOC to pay back 980,000 euros which it said it had earned through the illegal operations. According to the prosecutors, the proceeds sent to China came from a series of illegal activities, including counterfeiting, embezzlement, exploitation of illegal labour and tax evasion. Bank of China said in a statement it had not committed any crime and was not admitting guilt by agreeing to pay the fine, which was a way of closing the case and saving time.
The wheel of corruption kept spinning, and the Italian people became more and more angry. Sometimes, this led to violence. It also led to a nationwide sentiment that something needed to change, and the populist uprising we have been seeing across the globe also began to take a foothold in Italy.
At a time when Europe is filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric, political extremists have pointed to the demographic shifts in Prato as proof that Italy is under siege. In February, Patrizio La Pietra, a right-wing senator, told a Prato newspaper that the city needed to confront “Chinese economic illegality,” and that the underground economy had “brought the district to its knees, eliminated thousands of jobs, and exposed countless families to hunger.” Such assertions have been effective: in Italy’s recent national elections, Tuscany, which since the end of the Second World War had consistently supported leftist parties, gave twice as many votes to right-wing and populist parties as it did to those on the left. Giovanni Donzelli, a member of the quasi-Fascist Fratelli d’Italia party, who last month was elected a national representative, told me, “The Chinese have their own restaurants and their own banks—even their own police force. You damage the economy twice. Once, because you compete unfairly with the other businesses in the area, and the second time because the money doesn’t go back into the Tuscan economic fabric.”
In March of 2019, Italy entered into a new agreement with China, part of its “one belt, one road” initiative, a sweeping economic agreement with the country that saw the port of Triesta in northern Italy “revitalized” and managed by The PRC.
The project makes enormous infrastructure investments to move Chinese goods and resources. Italy became the first of the Group of 7 nations that once dominated the global economy to take part in China’s “One Belt One Road” throughout Asia, Africa and Europe.