In Italy, the COVID-19 crisis has brought a health, economic, and social toll unseen since the end of World War II. As the country is slowly opening up after three months of complete lockdown, one aspect of the crisis that needs more attention is the active role of external players during the pandemic. A recent report of the Italian parliamentary committee for security (Copasir) has certified the existence of a massive “infodemic” during the COVID-19 crisis, and more specifically the role of Russian and Chinese propaganda in the country. The pandemic and its negative repercussions have created ample opportunities for influence operations, and the European Union and the wider neighborhood have been targeted by disinformation and conspiracy theories by various governments, including Russia and China.
The main purpose of Chinese communication efforts in the EU has aimed at shifting the narrative about China from “the country where the virus originated” to “the country that came to the rescue of other nations.” Italy has been of the main targets of Beijing, with specifically tailored messages meant for Italian audiences. At the epicenter of online disinformation activities, foreign state actors have aimed at manipulating the internal political debate in Italy, misleading the public, and influencing international geopolitical balances.
As Chinese interests are assertively fostering “pro-China” feelings in historically “pro-EU” countries, perceptions of China among EU states continue to diverge, putting the foundations of security and the solidarity in Europe at risk. The findings of a recent poll are concerning as they show that 52 percent of Italians feel China is a friendly government and 36 percent want a stronger future relationship with it; in contrast they express sour feelings toward European countries such as Germany and France.
Beijing’s strategy to increase its public engagement in Italy did not start with the pandemic, however, but with Italy’s decision to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in March 2019. China’s communication strategy aims at increasing its economic and diplomatic footprint in Italy. It has launched a number of initiatives to seek control of public relations and the media scene in Italy, paving the way for celebrations of 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Italy represents one of the most important players for Beijing to achieve its BRI objectives and its geoeconomic and political interests in Europe, although trade and investment opportunities for the Italian business community have been disappointing. The current economic crisis in Italy represents new opportunities for Chinese companies, a redux of what happened after the Eurozone crisis when Chinese acquisitions of Italian companies skyrocketed. This time things might get worse, and the playing field was being prepared during the pandemic.
China’s New “Art of War”: Weaponized Narratives
Out of the Chinese communication playbook, a combination of tools has been used in Italy, from the “manipulation” of economic cooperation to efforts to dominate the narrative, a reliance on political and economic elites, and the instrumentalization of the Chinese diaspora.
China, one of the first countries to come to Italy’s aid with medical equipment and medical teams, over-magnified its assistance using public diplomacy and social media, giving rise to “mask diplomacy.” The Chinese aid in supplying masks was presented as a sign of Italy’s privileged relationship with China, and a celebration of its participation to the BRI. This narrative aims at nurturing a nationalistic triumphalism coming from this partnership, which was previously depicted by Italian politicians as an act of freedom to regain Italy’s deserved role in relations between Europe and China, implicitly as a favored maritime access point to the EU market.
China used widespread media coverage, particularly social media, as a powerful weapon to increase its reputation and avoid the blame for spreading the virus, while distorting the status of other actors. The relentless flow of symbolic messages of solidarity and commitment toward Italy portrayed China as a friend and savior even while emphasizing the absence of a coordinated response from the EU, creating mounting animosity toward Italy’s traditional allies. The media presence of the Chinese ambassador in Italy has been remarkable, with the Chinese Embassy in Rome maintaining a very active Twitter feed depicting the substantial friendship between the two countries. More disturbingly, the efforts at narrative-shaping mobilized thousands of pro-Chinese bots on Twitter.
The massive campaign was aimed at shifting the narrative and magnifying the virtues of the Chinese management of the virus (using its early experience with COVID-19) while spreading doubts on the origin of the new coronavirus. In a clumsy effort, the Chinese state-owned website Global Times even tried to blame the disease on the Italians during the first days of the crisis. Some Italian politicians have raised the issue that the Italian government and citizens were unprepared to deal with this style of propaganda, slanted communication, and Chinese social media literacy.
Beijing’s mobilization and engagement of the Chinese diaspora (immigrants) in Italy has been noteworthy. Initiatives led by corporations, philanthropy groups, and foundations have been widely broadcasted. Chinese Youth Associations became active in many universities from the Polytechnic University of Turin, to the University of Genoa, funded by former alumni that have returned to their country. In Milan, the Confucius Institute of the Catholic University was promptly mobilized to organize a fundraiser to purchase health material for civil protection and for various hospitals.
In major Chinese immigrant communities such as in Prato, Florence, Milan, Rome, Padua, and Turin, hundreds of initiatives led by Chinese associations and local Chinese entrepreneurs have taken place, mainly donations of surgical masks and hand sanitizing gel to be used by police authorities, municipal officials, and others. Private social media messages from average Chinese immigrants have been retweeted by the Chinese embassy account — vignettes, videos, and expressions of solidarity to show the commitment of Chinese people to supporting the country that hosts them, including an open letter to “Italian friends” pointing out the “very effective” cooperation with China to fight the pandemic.
“China’s Model” Narrative
Through these efforts, a narrative of China’s supposedly superior model of governance prevailed through media channels. Chinese officials started to praise the Italian adoption of “China’s model” to deal with the pandemic. A wide-spreading sentiment of gratitude was further incited by several Italian commentators and politicians on mainstream media, which have celebrated the benefits of the Health Silk Road. A case in point was the narrative of successful aid through “BRI diplomacy” with the Port of Trieste, Beijing’s main investment partner in the new maritime route to Europe. The China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) has received public recognition for its rapid response in providing the necessary masks to workers.
To bolster its success, Beijing used popular dissatisfaction in Italy with the EU’s initial confusion in handling an unseen crisis in its history. This, coupled with lingering sentiments around the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent austerity measures, as well as the perceived lack of European support during the 2015-2016 immigration crisis, led to an anti-European feeling that became a feature in social media through the hashtag #Italexit.
The aim of the entire campaign was to positively shift the public opinion to be more favorable to China, to incite people by touching off patriotic sentiment and marking biases against the EU and the United States, and to foster an anti-establishment narrative affecting EU cohesion and transatlantic unity (Italy-U.S. relations).
The truth is that what was held up in the media as Chinese aid, including large quantities of medical materials, were in reality paid for by the Italian Civil Protection Department, with the Support Structure to the Extraordinary Commissioner for Emergency COVID-19, and made available with the contribution of national agencies and foundations.
Similarly, China’s narrative downplays the aid coming from the European Commission through its Emergency Support Instrument, which was the main supplier of more than 330,000 protective masks distributed to Italy and Spain from April to May 2020, delivered mainly from the distribution centers in Germany. In fact, Germany has been one of the main supporters not only in donating masks (much more than China) and medical instruments, but also in taking patients to be treated in its hospitals. On the other side, the U.S. administration will deliver a package of $100 million of aid, added to the $25 million already donated by the U.S. private sector.
The last few months have become an invaluable test for crisis communication and a real learning platform. It has become a necessity for Western democracies to coordinate together in the new post-COVID era. Concrete action is needed to counter the Chinese narratives in Europe. New capabilities need to be built to improve societal resilience for combating current and future challenges, and to build stronger public literacy in digital communication to reduce society’s vulnerability to manipulation. The issue is much bigger than COVID-19 and its consequences; it is about the foundation of security and solidarity, the very concepts of the EU.
Dr. Valbona Zeneli is the Chair of the Strategic Initiatives Department at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.
Federica Santoro is a Political Analyst specializing in China’s foreign policy and society and former researcher at the Rome Center for Higher Defense Studies of the Italian Ministry of Defense.
The views presented are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent views and opinions of the Department of Defense or the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.