Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 25, 2020
As the political leadership cedes to the manoeuvres of the China-Russia combine, Italians are taking a stand.
Covid19: China-Russia make strategic geopolitical moves in Italy

The Chinese propaganda machine never stops and never sleeps. It has become more aggressive with each passing week, even as other countries and people the world over appear to be growing more disgruntled with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. China is going out of its way in a desperate attempt to make the world forget that the virus originated in Wuhan and spread around the globe because Beijing curbed information in the initial days of the outbreak. Chinese President Xi Jinping is using this situation to assert the country's 'soft power'.

The case of Italy, the only G7 country to join the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is emblematic for many reasons. The country has now become the latest battleground for economic and geopolitical supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. The players? China and Russia. An odd couple, but a couple nonetheless. Beijing and Moscow have for a while been strengthening their relationship; despite their differences and mistrusts, they are collaborating at the infrastructural, military, economic and technological level, and have recently announced a pharmaceutical collaboration to fight Covid-19.

In Italy, China and Russia are using the same kind of strategy—dispatching assistance and then broadcasting their propaganda on social media, all with the connivance of a part of the Italian government. The Five Star Movement is responsible for Italy joining the BRI and, along with the Lega Nord, for advocating an alliance with China and Russia (Russian President Vladimir Putin is a good friend of Lega Nord chief Matteo Salvini) against the EU and NATO.

It started in March when Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio was sharing enthusiastic posts on his Facebook page of Chinese doctors and medical supplies arriving in the country. Then Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Liljian Zhao shared a video on Twitter with the hashtag #grazieCina showing 'Italians' allegedly thanking China for their help, with the Chinese anthem playing in the background. Interestingly, the same clips have been shared with the Pakistani national anthem playing in the background and the hashtag #graziePakistan.

According to social data intelligence analysis by Alkemy SpA's R&D lab, in collaboration with Deweave, Luiss Data Lab and Catchy, almost half of all Twitter posts with the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia, and published between 11 March and 23 March, were generated by bots. The findings were similar for tweets with the #grazieCina hashtag; 37.1 percent of the tweets were produced by bots.

Meanwhile, Chinese state-run paper Global Times quoted Italian nephrologist Giuseppe Remuzzi as saying the virus might have originated in Italy. Remuzzi later said his words—that a 'strange' pneumonia had been noticed around late November in Italy—had been distorted for propaganda purposes. In November, China already knew about the Covid-19 virus, but the country was busy pretending everything was normal, even as it silenced doctors and journalists and sent thousands of tourists and business people to Italy.

China is desperately trying to clean its image by offering help—a money-making tactic, since most of the 'help' offered has been a business transaction—and assert itself as a global leadership alternative to the US. China's so-called 'support' to Italy is systematic and provided through companies and associations. Huawei, Zte, Alibaba and Lenovo are all donating to Italy, but the donations are tied to the development of the 5G network and the support for the local Chinese community.

Moscow has gone even further. Russia supplied Italy with ventilators, masks and decontamination equipment, which arrived in Bergamo, one of the most affected Italian cities, with a military convoy of 122 people. Among them were members of the Russian military intelligence, according to Italian newspaper La Stampa. The article quoted experts as saying Italy did not need the military decontamination equipment because it has some of the best nuclear, biological and chemical capabilities within NATO. Following the publication of the article, La Stampa has been officially threatened via a press release from the Russian defence minister—a mafia-style threat, made i the deafening silence of the Italian government. The propaganda machine kept chugging: to assert the failure of EU during the pandemic and fill in the cracks left by the union; to strengthen the anti-European feelings of the extreme right and among Lega Nord and Five Star Movement supporters; and, above all, to exploit the NATO alliance and, in Russia's case, gather intelligence.

The EU is clearly struggling with the pandemic and with the notion of the union itself, while the US is showing its current administration's lack of strategic leadership. But something far more dangerous is going on. In Italy, many pretend it is not part of a precise strategy, the same one behind BRI and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—create the need, make money by satisfying the need, and make countries and people dependent from you while you occupy them. The strategy includes rampant corruption among politicians, diplomats, scholars and journalists, and hiring trolls to spread fake news. But anger among citizens is growing, because of the virus and because of the Chinese insinuations and propaganda. A growing number of Italians now think that China should be held responsible for the spread of Covid-19 and pay compensation for the damage caused to the country's economy.

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Francesca Marino

Francesca Marino

Francesca Marino is an Italian freelance journalist specialising on South Asia. She writes regularly for LimesItalian Review of geopolitics and some of the most prestigious ...

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