The rise of populist politicians and movements has been the political story of the decade in Europe. "Populism" is a very broad label, sometimes used as a smear against anyone who pushes for genuine change. All the same, it has currently come to indicate a wave of movements that all share some broad features: they claim to be outside of the political mainstream, reject traditional politics as corrupt, are hostile to immigration, view the EU with suspicion, claim to speak for the people against the elites and hark back to the "good old days" when every country was supposedly in charge of its own affairs.
Italy might well be the first Western European country to elect a government that belongs within this current. Although the prime minister Conte is an unassuming technocrat, the two major parties that make up the government, the Lega and the 5 Star Movement, embody two different brands of populism. The Lega's brand is more "right-wing", anti-immigrant, nationalistic and anti-EU. The 5 Star Movement is more anti-establishment and anti-traditional politics, and in some cases it promotes environmentalism, universal basic income and other progressive causes. On the other hand, it is strongly Eurosceptic and many of its leaders appear to feel an affinity with Putin.
Within this new government, the main link to China is the undersecretary for economic development, Michele Geraci. An ex-investment banker and economist, Geraci moved to China in 2008 and lived there for a decade, teaching finance in the University of Zhejiang and at the University of Nottingham's campus in Ningbo, until he was recently called back to Italy to take up his current post. He has long been close to the Lega, which proposed him for the government post, and he has also long been a strong admirer of the Chinese system.
Geraci is fond of claiming that Italy should learn from the Chinese model and copy what it can, a point he has made in numerous talks and articles. His view of how China works would appear to be extremely one-sided, since he never makes any reference to China's huge debt problem, or the slowing down of its economic growth, or its worsening repression and pursuing of dubious territorial claims. At a conference organized by the Lega last summer, Geraci exhorted the audience (link in Italian) to "study China and copy the things we can learn from, adapting them to our needs", and he explained the sources of China's success, which lie in the fact that China "decides every year how much to build and how many people will have to move from the countryside to the city, programs immigration, and controls the tariffs on international trade and the interest rates".
This June Geraci authored an article published on Beppe Grillo's blog (Beppe Grillo is the founder of the 5 Star Movement, and his blog used to be the movement's quasi-official media outlet). Entitled "China and the Government of Change", the article lists a whole lot of ways in which Italy's new government should learn from China, a few of which really raised my eyebrows. One area in which China could show Italy the way is apparently the control of migration. China's management of the influx of migrants from rural areas to the cities over the last 40 years is presented as a model for Italy to manage its own problem with migration. "Who can we learn how to manage the migratory flows from? From China".
Geraci claims that the Chinese government only let people move to the cities after investing to give them "dignity and work", but it also limited "loitering and crime" by making sure that the new arrivals "knew the rules and respected the social pact of the place that hosted them". No mention is made of the inequality between rural migrants and urban residents that the hukou system creates, an inequality that extends to the migrants' children and is hardly very dignified. There also seems to be no understanding of how disruptive, chaotic and costly the whole process of urbanization has been. But most of all, there is no recognition of the fact that China's experience with urbanization has nothing to do with Italy's need to deal with a constant inflow of people arriving from Africa on rickety boats across the Mediterranean, given which Geraci's recommendations appear to be nothing more than some cheap rhetoric about how immigrants should be "kept in their place like they do in China".
Even more strikingly, Geraci claims that Italy should learn from China in terms of public security. "Which is the country where public security works? Who can we learn something useful from? From China", claims the undersecretary. Mirroring the kind of discourse you find in the Chinese media, he says that "in China women can walk the streets happily at night without the terror that reigns over here". He then adds that "in the last few years, China has also improved a lot in terms of criminal and civil justice, overtaking Italy". He does add the caveat that cooperation would be good "within the limits that our culture and constitution impose", however we do not hear a single word about China's dire and worsening human rights record, in the face of which claiming that China's criminal and civil justice has overtaken Italy's can only make any sense if you think that the civil and human rights of criminal suspects are not worth respecting.
This pro-Chinese rhetoric is reflected in the new government's actions. Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement and minister of economic development, as well as unofficial head of the government alongside the Lega's leader Salvini, made an official visit to China last month, with Geraci going along as his sidekick. During the visit, Di Maio made it clear that Italy wishes to be the first G7 country to sign an MOU with China to become a partner in the Belt and Road project, something which the British and French prime ministers have already declined to do.
Geraci's uncritical expression of admiration for Chinese governance has elicited a reaction in the form of an open letter signed by a group of young Italian academics involved in the study of contemporary China. The letter calls Geraci's article part of a "very dangerous drift that is taking place today in many Western societies, including Italy", and takes him to task for his call to learn from China's handling of migration and public security, answering back with reasoned arguments. Strikingly, almost all of the letters' signatories work in universities outside of Italy. I recently met one of them in person when he visited Beijing. He told me that there is a very simple reason why most of the signatories are not based in Italy: the China Studies departments of Italian universities are linked to Confucius Institutes and receive funding from them. People are convinced that if they take this kind of stand, they put themselves at risk of being cut off from funding, cooperation, and visits to China. Now where have I heard all this before?
|Geraci and Di Maio signing a cooperation agreement with Sichuan province during their recent visit to China|