Italy

Vulnerable
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
High
43 85
Local Resilience & Response
High
45 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

Report by: BC Han and Laura Harth 

 

  • Increased influence efforts: The Chinese government’s media influence efforts intensified during the coverage period of 2019-21, especially in the context of the COVID- 19 pandemic. Media cooperation agreements and content sharing proliferated after Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy in March 2019 and Italy’s subsequent signing of a Belt and Road Initiative Memorandum of Understanding. The early days of the pandemic featured increased levels of disinformation from Chinese state representatives. In September 2021, People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, launched an Italian version.
  • Mixed public opinion: Italian perceptions of China were overwhelmingly negative in the mid-2010s but warmed in the run-up to the Belt and Road Initiative agreement in 2019. Public opinion reached a high point in early 2020 amid Chinese pandemic aid and pro- Beijing narratives in the media. The Italian public attributes blame for the COVID-19 pandemic to the Chinese government, but also views its crisis management as a model to emulate and pandemic support to Italy as genuine. By 2021, views were more cautious. Most survey respondents still supported greater cooperation in areas of shared concern, but a larger proportion saw China as a threat compared to 2018, preferring to ally with the United States and Europe (see Impact).
  • Chinese state media cooperation with key public and private outlets: Italy’s National Associated Press Agency (ANSA) had a content-sharing agreement with the Chinese state news agency Xinhua throughout the coverage period, though in August 2022 reports emerged that it had been terminated. Agreements with other Italian news agencies and broadcaster Mediaset have also dried up in recent years. Italian media company Class Editori, which publishes a business paper, still has partnerships with multiple Chinese state media outlets, including Xinhua and China Media Group. In 2019, Il Sole 24 Ore, a national daily business paper and one of the country’s most trusted periodicals, signed a partnership with Economic Daily, a Chinese state-sponsored paper. The same year, Italian public broadcaster Rai signed a cooperation agreement with China Media Group. Various outlets that do not have formal cooperation agreements also regularly publish content from Chinese diplomats or state media (see Propaganda, Resilience and response).
  • Heavy engagement by China Radio International: China Radio International is highly active in Italy, operating a bilingual magazine, a mobile application, and various social media accounts with over 500,000 followers. Some accounts, particularly that of China Radio International correspondent Liu Pai, receive high levels of engagement from users. Liu frequently appeared on mainstream television as a commentator in early 2020 (see Propaganda).
  • COVID-related disinformation, preferential coverage by public broadcaster: A pro- Beijing disinformation network on Twitter amplified Chinese state media narratives regarding COVID-19, the European Union, and Chinese aid for two weeks in 2020 until it was exposed by local journalists. Italian national broadcasters—particularly Rai, with its China Media Group partnership—offered laudatory coverage of China amid Beijing’s pandemic-related assistance to Italy (see Propaganda, Disinformation).
  • Self-censorship due to Chinese embassy intimidation and media industry troubles: Government budget cuts for Italy’s traditionally state-dependent media have made foreign content deals and investments more attractive for news outlets and journalists, creating an incentive for Italian journalists to self-censor in order to maintain any Chinese patronage and access. Chinese diplomats also occasionally engage in intimidation to affect coverage (see Censorship).
  • Strong influence on Chinese diaspora media: Chinese-language media are dominated by pro-Beijing content. The Chinese diaspora of approximately 300,000 is increasingly active in business and public affairs and has displayed a willingness to mobilize across the country, generating more influence in local politics (see Diaspora media).
  • Vibrant civil society and diversity of China coverage: Italian civil society activists and journalists have increasingly focused their attention on foreign disinformation and interference, including from China. A wide range of news sources on China remain available, including international sources that offer critical coverage. China-related expertise is growing but has yet to meaningfully penetrate the mainstream media (see Resilience and response).
  • Shifting political reception, increased regulatory safeguards: Italy’s leadership presented a more conciliatory approach to China prior to a 2021 change in government but has since taken a stronger stance on criticizing Beijing’s human rights record and Chinese Communist Party influence in Italy. The Italian government took steps to thwart influence efforts, including by requiring more sectors to undergo strategic investment screening, and limiting the presence of Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei. Chinese companies still have a substantial presence in the telecommunications market and ties with content providers like Mediaset (see Propaganda, Content distribution, Resilience and response).
  • Political threats to press freedom: Press freedom in Italy has deteriorated in recent years, and Italian media still lack a robust self-regulatory system. Most outlets have links to political parties, media ownership concentration is high, and political actors continue to target journalists using defamation laws (see Resilience and response).

header2 Background

Italy is a constitutional democracy with a status of Free in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2022 report on political rights and civil liberties.1 It also has a status of Free in Freedom House’s most recent report on internet freedom.2 Civil liberties are generally respected, but endemic problems of corruption and organized crime pose an enduring challenge to the rule of law.3

Italy’s media landscape has traditionally been dominated by television, though as of 2021, 76 percent of Italians got their news from online sources, including social media.4 Facebook is the social media platform that is most frequently used for news.5 Television still sets the direction of public discourse; 75 percent of Italians got their news from television channels in 2021.6 Only 18 percent of Italians used print newspapers as a source of news in 2021.7 Italian print outlets survive thanks to government subsidies and financial backing from major corporations interested in shaping policy discourse.8 Skepticism of the news media remains widespread: as of 2022, only 13 percent of Italians believe the media are free from inappropriate political influence.9

Italy established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1970, following years of advocacy by Italy’s popular socialist and communist parties.10 Since then, Rome’s relationship with Beijing has been defined by similar inter- and intra-party divisions, reversals, and ambiguities. For many years, China was a minor concern in Italian foreign policy.11 However, after China’s admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the early 2000s, competition between Italian manufacturers and Chinese imports gave rise to an increasingly negative public discourse.12 Italian industry groups and center-left parties portrayed China as an economic rival; Italian firms initiated the majority of the European Union (EU)’s work to prevent the “dumping” of cheap Chinese goods, while Italian politicians proposed EU rules to screen and potentially halt Chinese investments in strategic sectors.13 Shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, Chinese state entities began investing in Italian state-owned energy companies. Other investments followed, such as the takeover of the privately owned tire manufacturer Pirelli in 2016 by the Chinese state-owned company ChinaChem.14

Most significantly, in March 2019, under prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s first government—a coalition of two outsider populist parties, the loosely left-leaning Five Star Movement and the right-wing League (Lega)—Italy signed an MOU to establish itself as one of Beijing’s official partners in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 15 The details of the MOU were unclear, though Reuters quoted an unnamed government source as saying that the planned projects could be worth up to €20 billion ($22.5 billion).16 The signing of the MOU, which coincided with a visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping, unleashed a number of cooperation agreements between the two sides, including in the media sector.17

The BRI memorandum, while non-binding in nature, divided the ruling coalition at the time and triggered a swift backlash from Italy’s allies and citizens. Matteo Salvini, leader of the League and then deputy prime minister, objected to the MOU despite the fact that League associate Michele Geraci had coordinated the signing.18 Chinese assistance at the onset of the pandemic in early 2020 generated mutual goodwill between Rome and Beijing, but by October of that year, the Italian government had begun blocking transactions between the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and Italian companies building fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks.19 After coming to power in February 2021, prime minister Mario Draghi’s government permitted some 5G procurement from Huawei—under strict conditions—but mostly consolidated a return to the more China-skeptical policy favored by the United States and the rest of the EU, unambiguously labeling the relationship with Washington as “far more important” than that with Beijing.20

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key narratives

The main narratives pushed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Italy follow the standard Chinese state propaganda package, with a mixture of rapport building, positive promotion of China, and counternarratives against criticism.

One set of narratives focuses on China and Italy’s shared economic interests while downplaying their ideological differences. Chinese outlets identify China as an essential economic partner for Italy, citing the two countries’ growing trade (and ignoring Italy’s growing trade deficit) to make the case that bilateral cooperation should not be undermined by disagreements on human rights.1 These economic engagement narratives have largely centered on the opportunities offered by the BRI, especially in the run-up to Italy’s signing of the BRI MOU in March 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic and China’s related medical aid to Italy have led to an upsurge in messaging about the Health Silk Road program since 2020.2 Chinese state narratives downplayed aid coming from the European Commission and did not mention the fact that large quantities of medical supplies were paid for by the Italian Civil Protection Department.

Another set of Chinese state narratives focuses on blunting or neutralizing criticism stemming from Italy’s democratic values. One of these narratives simply denies the existence of human rights problems in China. The Chinese embassy in Italy posts content on social media claiming that Western news sources exaggerate the number of Uyghurs in detention camps in Xinjiang,3 or highlighting Tibet’s “development” under the CCP’s “guidance” while neglecting to mention the repression faced by Tibetans and their struggle for self-rule.4 A related narrative deflects substantive questions about China’s human rights record by insisting that controversies like the crackdown in Hong Kong are “internal affairs,” rejecting international critiques as “foreign interference.”5 Lastly, during this report’s 2019–21 coverage period, the embassy repeatedly equated Western criticism of Beijing’s conduct with a “new Cold War” that China did not want,6 appealing to Italian leftists’ traditional distrust of perceived American imperialism and their hopes of serving as a middle ground between the United States and China.7

Key avenues of content dissemination

Large-scale cooperation with private and public media: Several major Italian outlets had cooperation agreements with Chinese state media, many of which were signed after Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Rome in March 2019.8 During the coverage period, ANSA (Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata), Italy’s leading news agency, had a content-sharing agreement with Chinese state news agency Xinhua, allowing Chinese state media content to appear in the wide variety of outlets that rely on ANSA’s newswire. The partnership began in 2016 with a deal to encourage cooperation between the two companies.9 In March 2019, another deal was signed “for the diffusion in Italy of an Italian-language Xinhua news service.”10 A journalist for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica observed that on a given day in September 2020, 10 out of 11 China-related articles on ANSA’s website were written by, or in collaboration with, Xinhua.11 This relationship persisted until the end of the coverage period but was reportedly terminated in June 2022.12

At least two other news agencies—AGI (Agenzia Giornalistica Italia) and Adnkronos—had reported agreements with Chinese state media. Adnkronos published regularly from the Xinhua Silk Road Information Service throughout the coverage period and maintains an “ongoing dialogue” with Xinhu.13 The partnership goes back to 2017.14 AGI, whose relationship with Xinhua dates back to 2008, signed an agreement with Xinhua in 2014 that was reportedly renewed in 2019.15 During the coverage period, however, articles from Xinhua could not be easily detected on the website.16

The Italian media company Class Editori, which publishes the business paper Milano Finanza, has multiple partnerships with Chinese state media, including Xinhua and China Media Group (CMG). Since 2010, Class Editori and Xinhua have partnered in endeavors like news exchanges and online trainings. In 2019, they jointly launched Classxhsilkroad.it, a platform which provides companies with information on BRI-related opportunities. Classxhsilkroad.it stems from an agreement between Class Editori and China Economic Information Service, which operates directly under Xinhua.17 In 2021, Class Editori and Xinhua hosted a webinar on the BRI that was streamed live on the website of Milano Finanza, with the participation of the Italian ambassador to China Luca Ferrari.18 Class Editori’s agreement with CMG entails the joint creation of the “Focus Cinitalia” column, which is published on Milanzo Finanza; the co-organization of television programs; and resource sharing.19 A new MOU between Class Editori and CMG was signed in 2019.20 In December 2020, Class Editori and CMG coproduced a documentary celebrating five decades of Italy-China diplomatic relations which was broadcasted on several Chinse and Italian channels.21

Il Sole 24 Ore, the country’s leading business paper and one of the most trusted papers in the country, signed a partnership with Economic Daily, a Chinese state-sponsored paper, in March 2019.22 The agreement was aimed at “the development of editorial products tailored to the business world of the two countries.”23 The day after the agreement was signed, Il Sole 24 Ore published 17 pro-Beijing articles, including direct translations from the Economic Daily and a collection of Xi Jinping quotations about the BRI.24 In 2021, the paper also published two articles from the People’s Daily.25

The private Italian media company Mediaset, which leads the country’s television viewership,26 signed an MOU with CMG in 2019, continuing a partnership that began in 2007.27 Luca Rigoni, a prominent Mediaset anchor, said his news organization had no China correspondent of its own and relied on a formal contract with CMG to access reporting from China. By May 2021, the contract had reportedly dried up.28

In 2018, during the period leading up to Italy’s 2019 BRI MOU, Il Giornale, which is owned by the same family that owns Mediaset, signed an agreement with CMG to distribute CRI magazine Cinitalia.29 Content from the magazine, which is available in Italian and Chinese, was regularly published on Il Giornale’s website during the coverage period.30

The Italian public broadcaster Rai also signed an agreement with CMG in 2019, expanding a partnership dating back to 2016.31 On the occasion of Xi Jinping’s visit in March 2019, Rai, Mediaset, and Class Editori broadcasted a total of 20 CMG productions as part of a “Settimana della TV cinese” (“Week of Chinese TV”), which included an Italian version of a program featuring quotations by Xi Jinping.32 Rai also broadcasted portions of an 100-episode documentary produced by CMG in 2020.33 At one point during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rai gave Chinese pandemic aid more than three times the amount of coverage it provided for pandemic aid from the United States, which had pledged $100 million in assistance.34

Diplomatic communications in traditional and social media: In recent years, Beijing’s foreign policy has become more assertive and proactive, and diplomats have used social media as a primary means of conveying its messages.35 The Chinese ambassador to Italy since 2019, Li Junhua, regularly posted and engaged with users on Twitter, though his account was only opened in December 2021 and had only 4,000 followers as of January 2022.36 The Chinese embassy in Rome and consulate in Milan also have pages on Facebook and Twitter, with followings of up to 150,000.37 These social media pages receive regular engagement from users, though it is uncertain how many of them are fake accounts. During the coverage period, the ambassador was able to reach Italians through a wide variety of traditional media outlets as well, including one of Italy’s oldest and most widely read papers, Il Corriere della Sera,38 and the news agency Adnkronos.39

China Radio International (CRI) and other state media: CRI publishes a bilingual magazine known as Cinitalia. The magazine in turn has its own mobile application, which had more than 10,000 downloads as of May 2022.40 The app was first announced at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome in September 2016.41 Shortly after its launch in July 2017, a promotional event was held at the Italian embassy in Beijing.42 In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, a one-off printed copy of the magazine was distributed among members of the Italian parliament.43 Content from the magazine is also disseminated in Il Giornale and Milano Finanza (see above).44

CRI correspondent Liu Pai has a Facebook page called Studio Tiramisù that he opened in November 2019. Liu presents himself as “a Chinese Italian who spreads Chinese culture among Italian friends.”45 Despite being labeled as Chinese state-controlled media, his page had half a million followers as of January 2022, and it receives apparently genuine engagement from users, though it is uncertain how many of them are inauthentic.46 Videos on his page consistently received tens of thousands of views.47 During the early months of COVID-19, Liu was also frequently invited to appear on Mediaset’s 24-hour news channel TGCOM24 as a commentator on the situation in China.48 The CRI Italian Facebook page had about 500,000 followers as of January 2022 but receives much more limited engagement from users.49 CRI also has YouTube and Twitter accounts, with followings that ranged from 2,000 to 3,000 as of December 2021.50

The People’s Daily has an Italian version known as Quotidiano del Popolo Online, which was launched on September 1, 2021.51 Cina in Italia, a magazine in Chinese and Italian published by Chinese state news agency China News Service (CNS), is sold in newsstands and has been distributed widely in hotels, planes, and the Italian parliament.52 The English-language China Global Television Network (CGTN) is available via satellite on Tivusat, the first free digital satellite platform in Italy,53 and the Chinese-language China Central Television (CCTV) is available to stream online.54 Xinhua had offices in Rome and Milan as of 2021.55

Social media influencers: The Chinese government is increasingly using social media influencers to promote Chinese state narratives in a less obvious way to local audiences, a method that has proven to be effective in eliciting engagement from users.56 Following the start of the pandemic, adding to the increased presence of CRI’s Italian service journalists on mainstream outlets, China-based Italian Ilham Mounssif, became active on Twitter and YouTube repeating Chinese narratives, including on Xinjiang and COVID-19 management.57 She received coverage in both Chinese and Italian media in 2020.58 Her social media follower counts are low, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand in December 2021, but she participated in at least 10 talk shows in the span of one week in 2020, including one broadcasted by Rai,59 and one of her videos praising China’s management of COVID-19 was shared by Radio Deejay, an Italian outlet with over one million Instagram followers.60

Subsidized press tours: There is generally very little reporting on government-sponsored visits to China by Italian journalists and politicians. An account of a 2019 trip can be found in an unpublished readout of a closed-door roundtable of Italian journalists hosted by the International Federation of Journalists on February 11, 2021.61 Following the March 2019 BRI MOU, the Chinese government invited journalists from Rai and Mediaset to tour different parts of the country, visiting various television stations. According to a Mediaset journalist, the Chinese government took a cautious, rather than demanding, approach throughout the trip.62

A number of journalist trips to China were reported prior to 2019.63 In 2018, journalists from the public broadcaster Rai and three major newspapers—La Repubblica, Il Corriere della Sera, and Il Giornale—traveled to China with the declared goal of “exploring new opportunities for cooperation between Italy and China.”64 The project was organized by CMG, its subsidiary CRI (CRI’s Liu Pai accompanied the group), and Sichuan province’s CCP Office of External Propaganda, in collaboration with the Rome-based Istituto per la Cultura Cinese (ICC) and the Chinese embassy in Italy. The trip included a public security-themed tour of ethnic Han Chinese and Tibetan areas.65

Amplification from left-leaning public figures: Left-leaning media outlets, think tanks, and politicians (particularly those linked to the former Italian Communist Party and today’s Five Star Movement) frequently amplify Chinese-backed messages decrying a “new Cold War” between China and the United States. These entities and individuals have argued that Chinese funding could help Rome escape a default on its massive accumulation of public-sector debt,66 while repeating Beijing’s talking points on issues like Xinjiang and Hong Kong.67 On May 19, 2021, immediately after the Foreign Affairs Committee in the lower house of the Italian parliament adopted a resolution condemning the grave human rights situation in Xinjiang, Five Star Movement founder Beppe Grillo published on his blog an anonymous report in both English and Italian entitled “Xinjiang: Understanding Complexity, Building Peace.”68 The post dismissed well-documented accusations made “over the last year by the United States and their main allies on the alleged Uyghur genocide taking place in Xinjiang.69 It was endorsed by a number of supporters, including then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Vito Petrocelli of the Five Star Movement.70

A recent report by the Czech thinktank Sinopsis noted that prominent politicians including Petrocelli, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, and former prime ministers Romano Prodi and Massimo D’Alema have promoted Beijing’s preferred narratives. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Di Maio, until 2022 a representative of the Five Star Movement, live-streamed the arrival of medical teams from China.71 D’Alema declared that communism had “great historical merit” during the CCP’s 100th anniversary in July 2021.72 Petrocelli has said he does not believe that “ethnic persecution” or “genocide” exist in Xinjiang,73 while Prodi opposed sanctions on Chinese trade and investment.74

Some public figures have also been invited to tour China. Fabio Massimo Parenti, associate professor at China’s Foreign Affairs University and a frequent commentator on Beppe Grillo’s blog, was invited to Xinjiang in September 2019. He repeated CCP propaganda points and falsehoods when discussing his September 2019 visit on the blog75 and on Omnibus, a morning talk show.76 Michele Geraci, former undersecretary of state at the Ministry for Economic Development, was invited to tour Xinjiang in May 2021 and subsequently published articles repeating Chinese state narratives.77 Geraci had a Twitter presence with around 15,000 followers as of July 2022 and has reportedly sent private messages to users who criticize the CCP.78 The influence of some of these individuals has waned since the Draghi government took power in early 2021, but they remain prominent in Italian public life, especially on the political left.

Disinformation campaigns

Italian social media users were the target of Chinese government-linked disinformation campaigns during the coverage period. For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—such as the use of fake accounts—on global social media platforms.

Various investigations, including one by Italy’s Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (COPASIR), found that the Chinese government amplified false and deceptive narratives about Beijing’s COVID-19 aid to Italy. When Chinese masks and personal protective equipment was being delivered to Italy in March 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying posted a heavily edited video that inaccurately portrayed an Italian crowd’s cheers for doctors and nurses as the Italian people spontaneously saying “Thank you, China” for its medical assistance.79 The video was reposted by other Chinese diplomats, including outspoken Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian.80

The Chinese embassy’s many social media posts about the delivery were amplified using engagement from fake accounts, exaggerating the degree of Italian public support for Chinese aid. The digital research and consulting firm Alkemy SpA found that 46.3 percent of the Twitter posts using the embassy’s hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (“China and Italy strong”) were posted by bots, as were 37.1 percent of posts with the hashtag #grazieChina (“Thank you, China”).81 COPASIR concluded that this deceptive bot activity was coordinated by the Chinese government, and that Beijing-aligned bots also boosted misinformation claiming that COVID-19 originated in the United States instead of China.82

It is unclear whether these disinformation campaigns had a meaningful impact on mainstream Italian media coverage of China, though at around the same time, as noted above, Rai broadcasts reportedly gave Chinese pandemic aid disproportionate coverage compared to other countries' assistance.83

Censorship and intimidation

In 2022, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China noted that Chinese authorities had refused to renew press credentials for at least one Italian journalist.84 In a related phenomenon, foreign correspondents in China, such as Rai’s Giovanna Botteri, have reported that it was difficult to cover sensitive topics, particularly Hong Kong and Xinjiang, though Botteri did not clarify whether she was speaking of self-censorship or external constraints.85 This continues a pattern from before this study’s coverage period. In 2017, Radio Radicale requested opening an office in Beijing, but was denied due to its support for prodemocracy movements in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang.86

Pressure on Italian journalists from Chinese diplomats or companies with close ties to the CCP has also affected those reporting within Italy. In 2019, on the day before the signing of the BRI MOU, the Chinese embassy’s spokesperson explicitly warned Giulia Pompili, a journalist for the centrist daily Il Foglio, to “stop speaking badly of China;” other journalists have anonymously reported similar intimidating comments from this spokesperson.87 While Pompili has not changed her reporting since the incident, she said she was intimidated to the point that she declined to attend the MOU signing ceremony the next day. After she published an article criticizing Huawei in Italy in 2019,88 her previously good working relationship with the local Huawei press office was interrupted, and a Huawei spokesperson paid a visit to the director of Il Foglio, though there were no lasting consequences.89

Cuts in government support for Italy’s traditionally state-dependent media have made foreign content deals, investments, and other opportunities more attractive for news outlets, creating an incentive for Italian news organizations and journalists to self-censor in order to maintain Chinese patronage and access. One journalist noted that the pandemic put strains on the relationship between many reporters and the Chinese embassy. The journalist described the usual relationship as “opaque” and unilateral, but that during the pandemic, some were “privileged” to continue receiving communications from the embassy via WhatsApp, whereas others were increasingly excluded due to their perceived “bad reporting.”90 These circumstances and visa restrictions for foreign correspondents have contributed to a strong sense that reporters who are overly critical of the Chinese government risk denied access to travel to China or to embassy personnel for comment.

Control over content distribution infrastructure

China-based companies do not have a presence in Italy’s digital television infrastructure, but other Chinese firms with ties to the CCP have made gains in the social media and mobile phone sectors, creating potential vulnerability to future manipulation.91

China-based apps have become increasingly popular in public communication, and to a lesser extent, political communication. In February 2022, TikTok, a global subsidiary of the Beijing-based social media company ByteDance, was Italy’s most downloaded social media application for devices using the Android operating system.92 Some Italian politicians and media outlets were active on the platform during the coverage period.93 There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.94 A media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding data privacy of US users were false, and more broadly called into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.95

WeChat, a messaging application owned by PRC-based technology company Tencent, which has close ties to the CCP, appears to have been used by some Italian politicians. Upon his nomination as undersecretary of state at the Ministry for Economic Development in June 2018, Michele Geraci reportedly had the entire ministry staff install WeChat as their means of communication.96 It is unclear how the app was ultimately used and Geraci is no longer in government. There was no data available on the number of WeChat downloads in Italy.

Chinese firms have restricted but substantial roles in Italian wireless and cell phone infrastructure. As of early 2022, the Draghi government allowed equipment from Huawei—a PRC company with close CCP ties and a record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad—to be used in Italy’s 5G networks, but under “strict conditions” meant to minimize security risks. This includes a ban on Huawei engineers remotely taking control of the system, out of concern that the functionality could be used to interfere with communications under the guise of “fixing bugs” in the technology.97 This restricted permission was granted after the government of Giuseppe Conte, the previous prime minister, had blocked four different 5G transactions that would have given Chinese companies access to highly sensitive “core” data systems.98 Nevertheless, Chinese firms like Huawei and ZTE have substantial market shares in fourth-generation (4G) network equipment; they collectively control an estimated 40 percent of the market.99 Italy’s major telecommunications content providers also have notable business ties with Chinese firms. Huawei has assisted Mediaset with its digital transformation through the supply of storage devices and support for video delivery services.100

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

Chinese entities have offered trainings and junkets to Italian journalists and politicians alike, mostly focused on promoting Beijing’s views on topics like human rights in China and Hong Kong.101 There is little evidence of efforts to promulgate CCP governance norms or that such norms have taken hold.

Chinese diaspora media

There are at least 300,000 Chinese citizens in Italy, making them the third-largest group of non-EU citizens in the country.102 The Chinese state views the global Chinese diaspora as a primary target for influence, and Beijing often uses media that cater to this population to influence both Chinese people in Italy and Italians more broadly. In the first half of 2020, the Chinese embassy’s Twitter account shared private messages from ordinary Chinese immigrants—including short clips and videos—that expressed solidarity between Chinese immigrants and their host country; one open letter to “Italian friends” highlighted Beijing’s “very effective” cooperation on pandemic issues.103

Diaspora journalists have attended trainings and events backed by the CCP or the Chinese government during the coverage period.104 Beijing-linked media owners have also explicitly tied their missions to the Chinese government’s goal of spreading “positive” stories about its accomplishments abroad. Sun Yunzhi (also known as Giulio Sun), the owner of the Chinese-language radio station Radio China FM (华夏之声), spoke about his role in “consolidating the hearts of overseas Chinese and telling Chinese stories well” at a local meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a key government advisory body.105 Sun’s previous media company, Radio Globale, had been identified as a Beijing-allied local news source as far back as 2015.106 By 2019, his new radio network was reportedly broadcasting to more than a third of the country’s population.107

Beyond Sun’s Radio China FM, diaspora news outlets display different degrees of adherence to propagandistic content. Radio Italia Cina (意大利中国电台), available also on television,108 published a large amount of apolitical Chinese cultural material.109 At the other end of the spectrum, the Ouhua Times/Il Tempo Cina Europa (欧华联合时报) primarily cited Chinese state media such as Xinhua and CNS, amplifying stories on virtually all of Beijing’s favored subjects.110 Another outlet, The World and China (世界中国), focused more narrowly on embassy news and stories of Sino-European economic cooperation.111

In addition to formal news outlets, several WeChat accounts attempt to disseminate Beijing’s talking points to the Chinese diaspora in Italy. Like most other Chinese embassies around the world, the embassy in Italy (意旅阳光) uses its WeChat presence to promote official narratives, as well as events that convene local diaspora groups and journalists. However, with only 13 posts from the first half of 2022, the Rome-based embassy account was noticeably less active than its counterparts in other countries. The news website CineseItalia.com (奋斗在义大利) uses its WeChat account to provide apolitical content on current events in Italy, occasionally mixing in Chinese embassy news and pro-Beijing narratives on topics like the BRI.112 There are no publicly available data on the audience size of any of these accounts.

header4 Resilience + response

Underlying media resilience

  • Press freedom culture: A healthy environment for investigative journalism is still developing, and the media industry remains under financial stress, but organizations like the Investigative Reporting Project Italy and the fact-checking website Pagella Politica are working to further strengthen the country’s journalistic culture.1 Italy has a vibrant nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector focused on press freedom, supported by numerous international and regional organizations like Reporters Without Borders and the EU-backed Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom.2 In September 2021, the University LUISS of Rome launched the Italian Digital Media Observatory, a national hub to fight disinformation.3
  • Diverse print and online media environment: Italy’s print and online media landscape is very diverse and pluralistic. No single outlet or political line dominates the market. While funding and personnel shortages for some outlets can make them especially susceptible to offers of free or subsidized training and assistance from the Chinese government, there are many other sources that readers can choose from. Italian media outlets subscribe to well-known foreign news agencies, and international outlets like the US-based Cable News Network (CNN) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) are regularly accessed by the public.
  • Safeguards against foreign and political influence of media: Italy’s “par condicio” laws attempt to prevent partisanship in the media by providing a strict indication of the airtime that can be devoted to competing parties and candidates, guidelines on the publication of survey results, a restriction on televised political advertisements, and limitations on political ads in the print media. Government interventions have also sought to establish ethical standards and practices in a few other areas, like the use of wiretapping by journalists.4 Italy’s Consolidated Audiovisual Media Act prohibits any single content provider from broadcasting more than 20 percent of all television programs, regardless of nationality.5 Cross-ownership is also limited (telecommunications operators with a certain market size cannot acquire interest in companies that publish newspapers, for instance), though there are some problems with implementation.6 Additionally, to ensure that media ownership is transparent, regulations require broadcasters, news agencies, and publishers of daily newspapers, periodicals or magazines to submit their ownership structures to a publicly-searchable database.7

China-specific resilience

  • Growing media and civil society attention on CCP influence: Although most major outlets do not have a dedicated China reporter, they often have journalists who focus on covering foreign affairs or news from Asia. Giulia Pompili of Il Foglio has consistently reported on sensitive issues related to China, including CCP influence in Italy and elsewhere. Freelance reporter Ludovica Meacci has regularly covered bilateral relations in both international and Italian media, though her writing on relevant topics began in earnest in 2021.8 There have been a few domestically produced reports on Beijing’s media influence specifically, including ones by Formiche that examined disinformation efforts, Italian media’s preferential coverage of Chinese COVID-19 assistance, and the risk of Italian lawmakers amplifying CCP propaganda.9 Rai’s main investigative journalism program devoted numerous episodes to controversial issues involving China during the coverage period, including the use of Chinese technology in Italy and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.10 Italian outlets also cover or republish investigations by international newspapers and organizations.11  Civil society groups have devoted growing attention to CCP influence efforts. Think tank analyst Lucrezia Poggetti and Sapienza University academic Stefano Pelaggi wrote articles throughout this report’s 2019–21 coverage period about the risks of the BRI and the negative aspects of Beijing’s media influence.12 Laura Harth of the human rights organization Safeguard Defenders has been another prominent voice advocating for caution over deepening engagement with China and drawing attention to human rights abuses occurring in China.13 Over the past several years, well-established think tanks such as the Torino World Affairs Institute (TWAI) and Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) have started dedicating more time and resources to research on China and Chinese influence.14 From 2020 to 2021, IAI hosted a project on the development of BRI agreements in Italy.15 In October 2021, analysts at IAI published a report analyzing bilateral media cooperation agreements.16 In December 2021, a Sinopsis worked with Italy-based researchers to publish a piece on CCP influence in Italian politics.17
  • Termination of media cooperation: Cooperation agreements between Chinese state media and Italian news companies have apparently been dissolved in recent years. CMG’s content-sharing agreement with a Mediaset outlet dried up after the outlet published content about the theory that COVID-19 originally leaked from a Chinese lab.18 AGI’s reported content-sharing agreement with Xinhua did not appear to result in any content shared.19 In August 2022, it was reported that ANSA had quietly terminated its agreement with Xinhua two months earlier.20
  • Diversity of sources used for China coverage: Italy had several foreign correspondents in China during the coverage period, meaning that there was some capacity to access independent reporting on China. 21 As a whole, Italian journalism is heavily reliant on foreign sources for international news. Content and narratives from international sources like The New York Times and Reuters are frequently republished in Italian outlets, including those—like ANSA, Il Giornale, and Il Sole 24 Ore—that had content-sharing agreements with Chinese state media.22 As a result, pro-Beijing views do not dominate news and commentary on China. Moreover, given the relatively inward-looking nature of Italian broadcast media, China is featured less frequently on television and radio than in the press, meaning Chinese state media content will not reach large swathes of the population, decreasing its potential influence.
  • Political pushback: In 2021, Italian lawmakers began clearly condemning the Chinese government’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, though there was still reluctance to use the label of “genocide.”23 In January 2021, after then-prime minister Giuseppe Conte made comments promoting stronger relations between Italy and China, the League asked Conte to apologize to Italians and the “victims of the Wuhan virus.”24 Giorgia Meloni of the conservative Brothers of Italy party also criticized the remarks: “China takes advantage of our weakness to attack the Italian economy and beyond. You come here to exalt it and you should be ashamed.”25 Antonio Tajani of the center-right political party Forza Italia said he was “worried about Conte’s attention to China.”26 Such political pushback has resulted in concrete consequences: Italy took steps to block Chinese and other foreign influence efforts, including by requiring more sectors to be subjected to strategic investment screening, rejecting Chinese investment in a semiconductor company in 2021, and limiting the presence of Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei. 27 In January 2020, COPASIR announced that it would launch a new investigation to assess Italy’s exposure to the interference of external actors in economic sectors of national interest.28

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Concentrated and politicized media: Despite decreases in partisan influence in recent years, Italian media are often closely linked to political parties. The critical television market is highly concentrated, with three dominant players: the Sky group, owned by global media magnate Rupert Murdoch; the Mediaset group, controlled by Italy’s Berlusconi family; and the state-owned Rai. The powerful groups have at times used their wide audiences to shape political outcomes, most notably when Silvio Berlusconi leveraged his media empire to support his three stints as prime minister, and then to pursue a bid for the Italian presidency.1 Although the Italian political establishment has developed greater resistance to Chinese interference regarding Italy’s strategic interests, it is still susceptible to CCP influence, as seen with the preferential treatment accorded to China’s COVID-19 assistance on television (see Propaganda).
  • Lack of media self-regulation: Journalism schools and self-regulators for the print and broadcast sectors can play an important role in setting standards that would discourage biased reporting on China-related issues. Self-regulators specifically give complainants a venue to request corrections to unfair or inaccurate stories. Italy does not have such self-regulatory bodies for the media.2 The level of media professionalism is also considered to be low despite the fact that all journalists must take a professional exam as well as annual training courses.3
  • Press freedom under attack: Italian journalists face a growing range of economic, political, and even physical threats to their independence. In 2022, Reporters Without Borders ranked Italy as the worst country in Western Europe for press freedom.4 A variety of factors encourage self-censorship. Defamation can still be punished as a criminal offense, and public figures often launch strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) to silence inconvenient news coverage.5 Harassment campaigns by polarized political groups and physical threats from criminal organizations can make reporting dangerous. The media’s dependence on advertising revenue and government subsidies makes it even more difficult for journalists to take risks that could result in politicians and businesses launching expensive lawsuits or cutting off key sources of funding.6 With some exceptions, Italian media tend to dedicate little attention to investigative reporting.7
  • Gaps in Chinese-language expertise and China expertise penetration into mainstream media: There is some independent Italian expertise on China and its relations with Italy, but it appears to be largely confined within academic and think tank circles. 8 Such experts are not often sought out by reporters or quoted in relevant news articles. Experts with Chinese linguistic ability are especially rare in mainstream Italian media.

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

Italian public attitudes toward China are complex and changing, and Beijing’s media influence in the country has produced mixed results at best. Italians see China as a critical economic partner that must be engaged and not alienated, but they do not support all of Beijing’s policies, and despite a brief turn toward China in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy generally continues to favor its traditional democratic allies and their shared values and interests.

In 2014, prior to a sharp rise in Chinese investment in Italy, 70 percent of Italians had strongly negative views of China.1 Gradually, Beijing’s engagement, together with growing skepticism toward the EU, produced more positive—if still contested—perceptions of China.2 By 2019, a poll from Instituto Demopolis found that 51 percent of Italians favored signing the BRI memorandum and strengthening economic ties to China, with support from at least 30 percent of the members of all four major Italian political parties, including a majority of the Five Star Movement and the League, both of which were part of the Draghi government’s coalition.3 However, 54 percent of Italians argued that strengthening economic ties to China should not come at the expense of Italy’s relationships with Europe and the United States.4

China’s aid and public diplomacy at the onset of Italy’s COVID-19 crisis in early 2020, when Italy’s traditional allies in the West appeared initially unwilling or unable to support Italy, made China seem even more relatively attractive. By May 2020, a poll by IAI and the University of Siena found that while 79 percent of Italians believed that China was responsible for the pandemic, 63 percent saw Beijing’s management of the pandemic as a model to follow.5 Furthermore, 77 percent saw Chinese pandemic aid as “a genuine form of solidarity”—even if, as 52 percent of Italians believed, Beijing’s aid was at least partly motivated by a desire to gain political influence.6 By contrast, 79 percent of Italians saw EU support as inadequate to the crisis, and 73 percent saw liberal democracy as incapable of meeting the challenge of the pandemic.7 A separate poll conducted in April 2020 showed that more Italians favored developing closer relations with China (36 percent) than prioritized the United States (30 percent), suggesting that Beijing had effectively portrayed itself as a better international partner.8

However, later in 2020, polling by the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) found that more Italians had negative or very negative views of China compared to those who had positive or very positive views9 —and a greater number had hardened their views against China over the past three years compared to those who felt more positively.10 Less than 20 percent of Italians trusted the Chinese government, compared with roughly 35 percent who trusted the United States and 40 percent who trusted the EU. When asked to rank their feelings toward 13 countries, Italians placed China fourth from last, above Vietnam, Israel, and North Korea. These negative feelings are strongest in right-wing nationalist parties like the League and Brothers of Italy, helping to explain League leader Matteo Salvini’s vehement opposition to the BRI deal.11 Between 2018 and 2020, a poll of Italian foreign policy experts registered a 20-point jump in the percentage of respondents who saw China as the greatest global threat.12

While Italian perceptions of China overall leaned negative as of 2020, particularly in terms of China’s military power, environmental impact, and influence on other countries’ democracies, Italians continue to have slightly positive-leaning views of the BRI and of Chinese trade and investment more generally. Roughly 68 percent of Italians identified China as at least somewhat important to Italy’s economic development, and roughly 65 percent favored promoting trade and investment with China.13 Perhaps due to these economic and aid relationships, Italians generally favored cooperation with China in 2020: approximately 80 percent of respondents said “cooperation [with China] on global issues like climate change, epidemics, and counterterrorism” should be a priority for Italian foreign policy, and 48 percent at least somewhat agreed that Italy should cooperate more with China in general.14

By the end of 2021, only 23 percent of Italians considered China to be an “ally of Italy in the world,” down from 36 percent in 2020.15 Instead, over a third of Italians identified China as the greatest threat to the world, more than a fourfold increase from 2018. Some 28 percent of Italians believed that Europe should side with the United States over China in the event of a “new Cold War,” while only 8 percent favored China and 64 percent opposed taking sides.16

header7 Future trajectory

The following are potential developments related to Beijing’s media influence in Italy that should be closely monitored in the coming years.

  • Increased Chinese state presence on social media platforms: The Chinese regime appears ready to step up its covert influence efforts in Italy through the increased use of social media influencers and disinformation. Domestic initiatives to combat such campaigns may not catch up in time, which could allow Chinese state outlets to establish an enduring presence on social media.
  • Long-term impact of content partnerships: It remains unclear whether the various cooperation agreements between Chinese state media and their private- and public-sector Italian counterparts will result in more content sharing or slowly taper off, as seen with the ANSA-Xinhua agreement in June 2022. Financial troubles in the Italian media industry that were exacerbated by COVID-19, including severe cuts in funding, may provide more opportunities for Chinese state media influence. After the ANSA deal was terminated, a minor news agency reportedly started a content-sharing deal with Xinhua, indicating that other under-resourced Italian news agencies may be willing to pad their coverage with Beijing-backed content.1 At the same time, policymakers may devote greater attention to the media as a “strategic sector” and effectively counter such vulnerabilities.
  • Growing coverage of Chinese influence efforts: Starting in 2022, coverage of China-linked disinformation, censorship, and propaganda has grown significantly in Italian mainstream media, driven by both journalistic and civil society investigations. This increased awareness could translate into pressure for political responses.
  • Changing public attitudes surrounding national elections: Italian public attitudes toward Beijing may be influenced by a number of factors, including the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic and upcoming national elections. The outcome of those elections will in turn determine whether there is momentum for a review of the 2019 BRI MOU. A larger role for right-wing parties like the League, Forza Italia, or Brothers of Italy would likely increase Italy’s diplomatic and economic distance from China, while a larger vote share for the Five Star Movement might open new avenues for CCP influence.

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