China Isn’t Helping Italy. It’s Waging Information Warfare.
The populist Five Star Movement has become China’s chief enabler as Beijing spreads disinformation about the origins of the coronavirus while sending aid shipments to EU countries where it seeks influence.
Italy is an ideal outpost for China’s wide-reaching propaganda effort to cover up its own responsibility for the global spread of the new coronavirus, all the while presenting itself as a compassionate power aiding Western countries in need.
The government has been pursuing a two-pronged strategy that carefully combines sending medical supplies to assert its relevance in a leaderless world—call it mask diplomacy—while at the same time spreading conspiracy theories to conceal the true origin of the virus. In this “global battle of narratives,” as the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, called it, “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner.”
Italy provides the perfect environment to test Beijing’s strategy. It was the first Western country to be hit by a large coronavirus outbreak, and it is therefore urgently in need of medical supplies to support a health care system on the brink of collapse. But it’s also led by a government coalition that includes the Five Star Movement, a Euroskeptic and increasingly pro-Chinese party that has for years relentlessly promoted a stronger relationship with Beijing while downplaying the traditional trans-Atlantic alliance and fueling suspicion toward NATO. As a result, last year Italy was the first G-7 country to join the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s global infrastructure project.
Recently, China’s state media outlets suggested the new coronavirus originated in Italy, not in Wuhan, by shrewdly twisting the words of the Italian physician Giuseppe Remuzzi, the director of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan. In an interview with NPR on March 19, Remuzzi said some doctors in northern Italy “remember having seen very strange pneumonias, very severe, particularly in old people in December and even in November,” an anecdotal fact that potentially suggested that the virus that originated in China had spread elsewhere even before commonly suspected.
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The state-controlled Global Times wrote on Twitter that “#Italy may have had an unexplained strain of pneumonia as early as November and December 2019 with highly suspected symptoms of #COVID19, reports said.” A misleading version of Remuzzi’s statement was then broadcast by other arms of the Chinese government’s propaganda apparatus, such as China Central Television, and became a trending topic on the popular microblogging platform Weibo.
The Italian doctor, for his part, never even hinted that the coronavirus originated anywhere but China. “We can be certain that the virus emerged in Wuhan first, where it had probably been circulating for some time before it was made public in China,” Remuzzi told Foreign Policy, explaining that, if anything, the unconfirmed observations regarding previous cases of pneumonia in northern Italy would worsen—rather than ease—the burden of Chinese responsibility in covering up the early cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Genetic tests confirmed that the virus originated in China “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” said Remuzzi, who has recently been inundated with requests from Chinese journalists attempting to politicize his expertise to corroborate Beijing’s narrative.
At the same time, Italy was the first beneficiary of China’s mask diplomacy. On March 12, a Chinese cargo plane bringing nine doctors, masks, respirators, and other medical equipment landed in Rome. The material displayed the words “The friendship road knows no borders” and was presented as a gift to the country going through the emergency. But it was not really a gift at all.
As the Italian reporter Giulia Pompili explained in the newspaper Il Foglio, it was part of a commercial deal formalized a few days before in a phone call between the foreign ministers of China and Italy, Luigi di Maio and Wang Yi. Italy was buying medical equipment from China, but the government took advantage of a parallel donation made by China’s Red Cross to make it look like an instance of its “politics of generosity.” A few days later, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the phone that he was willing to cooperate on a “Health Silk Road” to combat the pandemic.
Di Maio, who recently resigned as the leader of the Five Star Movement, is the point person for the Chinese initiatives in Italy and was instrumental in consolidating the partnership even under the previous government, when Five Star was the junior partner in the unorthodox, all-populist coalition with Matteo Salvini’s League.
“Those who scoffed at our participation in the Belt and Road Initiative now have to admit that investing in that friendship allowed us to save lives in Italy,” Di Maio declared glowingly in an interview, sparking reactions from some of his Democratic Party colleagues in government, who are growing tired of seeing their political ally selectively praising China’s generous efforts while downplaying the belated solidarity coming from EU members.
“Many Euroskeptic leaders are acting as China enablers,” said Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban personally welcomed a flight from China transporting nearly 70 tons of medical supplies, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic theatrically kissed China’s flag when a team of doctors landed in Belgrade last week. “China is the only friend who can help us,” Vucic said, complaining about the lack of support from the EU.
“In Italy’s case, we can talk of ‘useful idiots’ fueling China’s propaganda,” Poggetti argues, insisting the term aptly describes Di Maio’s attitude toward China. “In part, he’s unaware of what he’s doing, in part he’s just trying to please the Five Star Movement electorate,” Poggetti told Foreign Policy. Meanwhile, the far-right League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, didn’t miss the opportunity to bash Beijing in order to hurt his former political ally (and now sworn enemy) Di Maio: “If the Chinese government knew [about the virus] and didn’t tell it publicly, it committed a crime against humanity,” he said during a debate session in the Senate, just a few days after re-upping on his social media an old clickbait hoax claiming that China was actively committed to engineering new viruses in its labs.
Antonio Talia, a journalist and author who writes extensively about China-Italy relations, isn’t surprised by the fact that China sees Italy as an easy target for its aggressive propaganda campaign. “For a decade, the Five Star Movement has been spreading the idea that the trans-Atlantic alliance is some sort of submission to the American empire, fueling suspicion of NATO, leading their voters into believing in alternative truths, and all the while promoting the notion that there are well-functioning systems outside the Western liberal democratic framework,” Talia said.
The Five Star Movement has long been a hotbed for conspiracy theories and fake news, and these days promoters of bogus ideas can be spotted without leaving the government palace in Rome. Gunter Pauli, an unorthodox economist who was hired as a consultant by Conte, recently suggested a correlation between 5G and the new coronavirus.
In the battle of narratives, optics matter. Following weeks of inaction and lack of support among European states, the EU Commission is now actively countering China’s narrative by stressing solidarity among member states. France and Germany combined have now donated more masks to Italy than China, and Austria contributed 1.6 million more. German hospitals are taking care of some patients from Italy, while France donated 200,000 protective suits.
But what stands out in the narrative are China’s so-called gifts, a team of Cuban doctors that recently arrived in the country, and Russian military vehicles moving around northern Italy, as part of an ostensible anti-COVID 19 agreement with Moscow. It’s the biggest Russian contingent ever to land in a NATO member state.
Intra-European disagreements in a time of crisis haven’t helped. The angry clash among EU leaders over “coronabonds” that erupted in the recent virtual summit—with Germany and the Netherlands starkly opposing common debt instruments advocated by Italy and Spain—proves the much-vaunted European solidarity is so far more of a public relations strategy than a political reality.
Andrew Small, a senior fellow focusing on Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, noticed that there has been a “mobilization from various countries in the last couple of days to push back against the efforts to use China’s provision of medical supplies as a means to discredit the EU and intra-European solidarity,” but how successful that will be “will depend on whether Chinese officials and companies continue to work hand in glove with various politicians in Europe who have other agendas or if Beijing decides it’s time to cool it down a bit,” he told Foreign Policy.
Beijing’s increasingly forceful efforts to push its broader soft-power strategy have been portrayed by some analysts as an attempt to position itself as a global leader, taking advantage of the relative absence of U.S. leadership as Washington struggles to get a grip on its own COVID-19 outbreak at home, with a caseload that now exceeds those of both Italy and China.
“My sense is that it’s as much a reflection of the pressure they’re facing to change the narrative that held Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party culpable for the cover-up and suppression of information during the critical early stages of what has since become a pandemic,” Small said, stressing that the attempts to pretend the virus had foreign origins are also “directed at the Chinese public.”
In other words, Chinese efforts may be the result of fear related to the government’s responsibility in mishandling and covering up the coronavirus outbreak, rather than an assertive way to affirm its global power in a leaderless world.
The Chinese government is blending international aid with information warfare. On one hand, it presents itself on the global stage as a helping hand to fight the enemy it has now supposedly defeated at home—even while growing doubts about the actual death toll in Wuhan and the many complaints over the quality of the medical equipment shipped from Beijing are casting shadows over the government’s benevolent rebranding.
At the same time, the Chinese propaganda machine is taking a page from the Russian disinformation playbook, and it’s widely circulating foggy and contradictory theories over the origins of the coronavirus, conveying the idea that it’s impossible to figure out its actual roots. Italy is ripe for both strategies.
A country where political weakness, a public health emergency, and pro-Chinese tendencies overlapped—mostly thanks to a governing party that has been peddling conspiracy theories since before the pandemic—has provided Beijing with an ideal testing ground.
Mattia Ferraresi is the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani. Twitter: @mattiaferraresi