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China’s propaganda efforts & influence attempts in Italy

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Italy, a member of G-7 and once a close economic partner for China including getting itself admitted to BRI, has brought out a report highlighting Beijing’s propaganda efforts and influence attempts in Italy as well as long-term attempts at controlling Italian infrastructure and inserting China’s agenda into Italy’s day to day political and social life.

A conference was organised by the Italian Senate last week in the backdrop of the report. The conference focused on two major issues, China’s attempts at infiltrating Italian research and academia as well as China’s focus on Italian infrastructure, especially ports and other decentralized but key infrastructure assets.

“In recent years, the focus of Italy’s security agencies has been repeatedly drawn towards China. It is not so much the race towards global dominance that is frightening but how several indicators confirm China’s consolidated competitiveness on a global scale. But this evidently shows the strong deceleration of its economy. The progressive slowdown in growth rates, the low fertility index, a still weak currency on a global level, the most indebted real estate sector in the world, these are all large obstacles to China’s further expansion,” remarked Senator Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata while inaugurating the conference “Italy, Europe and China: Academic influences and Economic Imbalances” at the Italian Senate on March 6.

The conference comes after the publication of the Report on Information Policy for Security 2023 by the Italian government. Published in February 2024, the report highlights not only fake news, propaganda efforts and influence attempts in Italy by the people’s republic of China, but also long-term attempts at controlling Italian infrastructure and inserting China’s agenda into Italy’s day to day political and social life.

ET has learnt that China currently has 12 Confucius institutes in Italy and teachers of Chinese language teach in middle schools, all paid for by the Chinese government. This serves not only as a tool of their propaganda but also as a means of reporting back to the Chinese government, according to Italian journalist Giulia Pomphili. “The Italian government is aware of China’s influence operations in Italian universities and schools, however, there still lacks political will to take concrete steps to contrast this”, she said.

Not only does China use education as a tool to further its propaganda and political agenda, it also uses plush positions and chairs in Chinese universities for Italian professors to co-opt them. Technical collaboration with universities is often used to keep a tab on new Italian technologies and subversive ways to obtain them.“We have shut our eyes and ears to these obvious problems because of money. This has blinded us to the risks. Only the other day, an FT report showed that Imperial College had been conducting research partnerships that directly benefited the PLA”, said Luc de Pulford, founder and executive director of Safeguard defenders, an NGO which monitors China’s activities worldwide including advocacy for Chinese dissidents who are incarcerated or have been disappeared by the regime.The second part of the conference focused on China’s infiltration into Italy’s infrastructure. “Chinese companies actually own shares of Italy’s gas and electricity distribution companies and it is almost impossible to get rid of them”, said Prof. Francesco Galietti, the founder and CEO of Policy Sonar, a Rome based political risk consultancy.

China has a natural attraction for loosely coordinated, highly decentralized systems into which it can quietly slip. It takes a dedicated supranational watchdog to counter its network strategy’ explained Galietti illustrating Chinese attempts to take over Italian ports, which are largely autonomous and decentralized despite their immense strategic importance.

China’s attempts at creating a global network under its Belt and Road Initiative has created an important threat. Despite the economic failure of Gwadar, the opposition in Balochistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a “success” for China. It is imminent that Gwadar will eventually become a Chinese military port in the Indian ocean, said Gianni Vernetti, former undersecretary for foreign affairs and member of parliament. Despite creating misery and indebtedness in several countries, today a small, at-risk country like Maldives is still willing to accept China’s investments when it has evidence that it is signing off its political future, Vernetti highlighted.

The weakening of China makes it more dangerous and desperate was the conclusion of the conference which was attended by members of the diplomatic community, parliamentarians and several EU and Italian stakeholders.

The conference has served to underline the risks that Italy and Europe continue to face China despite Rome withdrawing from BRI last year. The Italian Prime Minister has been a critic of Italy’s signature of the BRI since her time in opposition and worked at walking away from the agreement prior to Italy’s Presidency of the Group of Seven (G7) this year. Despite strong steps to protect Italy’s companies, technology, security and data from China, Italy still has a long way to go. China continues to use technology, hardware, software as well as various social media tools to gather data which is eventually used for its influence operations.

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