Marco Respinti | Bitter Winter
Finally, after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the corresponding Chinese reaction, somebody reacted. But it was too little too late.
One of the most formidable weapons in all wars is propaganda. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) fights its present “cold war” with considerable skills, poisoning the information well all over the world. A case study of the international relevance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s information war is Italy, a country that is important for two reasons. First, Italy is the European country where the Chinese propaganda war and colonization of media started earlier, and it was massive and systematic. Second, some Italian media decided this month to break free of Beijing’s propaganda shackles, even if not all problems were solved.
The seriousness of the colonization of Italian media by Chinese propaganda has been repeatedly denounced. In May 2021, a report by the International Federation of Journalists revealed how China manipulated the media about COVID-19 and Xinjiang, pointing specifically at Italy as the worst case. In October of that year, Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), an influential center for international studies based in Rome, published a second important report on the subject, ironically entitled “One Belt One Voice: Chinese Media in Italy.” In November, Prague-based NGO Sinopsis published a third exposé on the CCP infiltration in Italian politics and media. The Czech report was covered by the Italian press, chiefly by the daily newspaper Libero, which, under the direction of Alessandro Sallusti since May 2021, became a significant anti-CCP bastion.
Italian journalist Andrea Morigi, writing in the May–June 2020 issue of the Italian periodical Cristianità, documented that it all started in 2010, when Class Editori, the publisher of the daily newspapers Milano Finanza and Italia Oggi and of some other periodicals, and the owner of TV channels Class Cnbc, Class Life, and Class TV Moda, signed a contract of collaboration with the Chinese state press agency Xinhua, the official mouthpiece of the CCP. In 2014, one of the major Italian press agencies, AGI, signed a similar agreement with Xinhua, following one entered into in 2011 and preceding another one concluded in 2015. In March 2015, AGI also became a partner of the CCP’s mouthpiece Peoples’ Daily.
The 2021 IAI report notes that “AGI was among the first media outlets to partner with Chinese news groups. In 2008, together with Xinhua and China Radio International, they launched AGI China 24, a web branch of AGI devoted exclusively to news about China, which, however, lasted only a few years.” It should be remembered that AGI is a press agency owned by ENI, the Italian multinational oil and gas company created by the Italian state in 1953. While partially privatized since 1995, the Italian state still maintains a golden share and controls more than 30% of the company.
In 2016, ANSA, the leading Italian press agency owned by 36 leading news organizations in the country, signed a similar contract with Xinhua. IAI points out that in 2017 also another major Italian news agency, Adnkronos, “signed a content-sharing agreement with Xinhua.”
Mediaset Group, the largest private commercial broadcaster in Italy, founded by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi before he entered politics, started a collaboration as early as 2007 with China Media Group (CMG), the largest Chinese state media conglomerate, created in 2018 through the merger of all pre-existing state media holding enterprises and directly controlled by the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the CCP. “[T]he two entered into a joint venture partnership in which Mediaset acquired 49% of the sports channel of China Global Media, CSPN,” IAI reports (the percentage decreased to 12% in 2009.)
Also, “thanks to a partnership agreement signed in 2018 with the conservative Italian
newspaper Il Giornale,” which is owned by the Berlusconi family, “CMG manages to distribute ‘Cinitalia’ to a rather vast audience. Interestingly, Il Giornale’s editorial line towards China has been—and still is—especially hawkish.” “Cinitalia,” however, is sponsored by the Italian Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and is the self-styled “only official bilingual magazine for institutions in China and Italy.”
On March 20, 2019, the IAI report added, Il Sole 24 Ore, the most important Italian economic and financial daily newspaper, owned by the General Confederation of Italian Industry, signed an agreement with China’s Economic Daily, a newspaper founded in 1983, put under the control of the State Council of the PRC, and managed by the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the CCP. This agency, founded in 1921, is known as the Central Propaganda Department and is an internal division of the (CCP) in charge of information circulation and media censorship.
The “Memorandum of Understanding”
March 2019 was a crucial date. President Xi Jinping visited Italy on March 21–23. While on March 20 Bitter Winter promoted, published, and publicized an appeal by 15 NGOs to Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, urging them to raise the issue of human rights when meeting Xi, Italy joined the Belt and Road Initiative and signed with China a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MoU) that gave the penetration of the CCP’s long arms into Italian media a significant further boost within an official framework. Practically, the MoU was a political bank check signed by Italy when it became the first major Western power that joined the Belt and Road Initiative. And while subsequent Italian governments often said it needed a revision, revision never came.
As part of the MoU, major news service ANSA renewed its contract with Xinhua, and RAI, the state Italian television network, did the same with CMG. Noticeably, IAI stresses, “many of the collaborations mentioned above were renewed in 2019. The link between such renewals and the signing of the MoU was evident. However, none of the above made it into the official 29 agreements signed that day, with the exception of the agreements of RAI and ANSA with China Media Group and Xinhua.” Not contradictorily, IAI’s also adds that “[o]n top of the importance of ANSA and RAI, the pre-existing collaborations with the respective Chinese media must have also weighed in their inclusion amongst the other 29 agreements that were ‘attached’ to the MoU. Unfortunately, neither of the agreements is publicly available. The information provided in this paper has been gathered through research on secondary sources and interviews.”
RAI’s efforts to develop collaborations with Chinese media, IAI explains, “predates March 2019 and can be traced back to 2016.” IAI notes that “[t]he relationship between RAI and CMG is embedded in a network of collaborations and agreements Rai holds with Asian as well as global partners. In such a context, the collaboration with CMG is neither exceptional nor preferential.” This is of course true, but given the totalitarian nature of the Chinese regime, it’s systematic trespassing on human rights, and the level of disinformation methodically circulated by its propaganda department and agencies, that partnership, which is supported by Italian taxpayers who should pay a mandatory annual fee to RAI, cannot be regarded as normal.
Reactions and breaks
This collaboration between the CCP’s agencies and the Italian media brought the latter to feature two kinds of news from China: amenities and leisure-time information on a variety of subjects, and Communist Party propaganda on hotly debated topics such as the policy about the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, COVID-19, democracy in Hong Kong, and threats to Taiwan. As a result, Italian readers became progressively accustomed to pro-China long paid articles and whole pages on such important outlets as Corriere della Sera (the most authoritative Italian daily newspaper) and Il Sole 24 Ore.
But this machinery, that seemed to go so smoothly for China, jammed. On August 5, 2022, Corriere della Sera published yet another paid half-page-long article by the General Consul of PRC in Milan, Kan Liu, on the PRC’s territorial claims regarding Taiwan, whose title echoed Xi Jinping’s remarks to Joe Biden about Nancy Pelosi’s visit: “He Who Plays with Fire Risks of Getting Burnt.” The reaction of Associazione Lombarda dei Giornalisti, the labor union of the journalists of Lombardy region, was immediate. In a press release, it lamented an “uncritical circulation of contents,” even more upsetting if “published as a paid article.” Its president, Paolo Perucchini, found it “embarrassing, for the Italian press, that a daily newspaper should publish a paid advertisement of this tenor (not the first, and always from the Chinese General Consulate in Milan).” It is, he concluded, “a bad sign for the autonomy of information when Italian publishers [….], in return for payment, are ready to offer an uncritical showcase with no contradictory opinion in the columns of their newspapers, a showcase that may even be contrary to a transparent editorial line of independence.”
Reporting the news in “Libero” on August 7, journalist Andrea Morigi added that ANSA, “thanks to the moral suasion” of the Italian government led by prime minister Mario Draghi and “renouncing a sum that should be around half a million euros,” managed “to rescind the contract of collaboration it had signed with Xinhua.” An unsigned note in “Libero” for August 10 also reported that, under the direction of journalist Mario Sechi, AGI broke with Xinhua in 2019.
Good news indeed, but some other news is cause for concern, as the following three concluding comments demonstrate.
Plenty of fish in the sea
First, while the pervasive penetration of the CCP’s agencies in Italian media has often been proudly trumpeted by Italian media outlets themselves, denouncing this alarming presence had a limited echo or went almost unnoticed. Even the end of some of those important collaborations did not enjoy the same level of publicity. This is also worrying. Why being so shy?
Second, as Morigi wrote on August 7 in Libero, all this “means that, in addition to putting on the page, on the web, on air, and online everything that corresponds to the wishes of a totalitarian state, where at this very moment concentration and detention camps are operating at their full capacity,” perhaps Italian media “also fail to report on what really goes on behind the Great Wall. This is the great misunderstanding generated by the entry of socialist systems into a market economy. Having become economic powers, they believe it is enough to pay or blackmail to erase human rights.”
Third, with plenty of fish in the sea, no single fish is indispensable, as the proverb goes. And so, as Campaign Director at Safeguard Defenders and regional liaison in Italy of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China Laura Harth (one of the authors of the Sinopsis report on Italian media) notes, that if some collaboration broke, others had already started. If ANSA does not echo Xinhua in Italy anymore, another Italian press agency, Agenzia Nova, cheerfully continues to do it.