It will probably go little noticed outside of Italy that one of the agreements signed was a memorandum of understanding between RAI, Italy's state broadcaster, and the China Media Group, China's new umbrella state media organization which includes CCTV, China National Radio and China Radio International. While not binding, the MOU points to cooperation between the two sides and the creation of joint content over the next few years. RAI's communique talks about "cooperation in the sectors of radio, cinema, television, training activities, co-production of programs and content destined for the two countries' markets and for the international market".
At the same time a small incident that took place last Friday, the same day the agreement was signed, should alert people to the fact that the Chinese government continues to see negative coverage as an affront, and that its representatives are becoming increasingly aggressive in trying to discourage reporters from criticizing their country even outside of its borders.
Giulia Pompili, a journalist from the Italian newspaper il Foglio, claims that she was walking through the Quirinale, the official residence of Italy's president, in the company of an Italian official, in order to go and cover the joint press conference of the Italian and Chinese presidents, when a high-ranking official from the Chinese embassy caught sight of her and told her "to stop saying bad things about China". The journalist says that she initially took it as a light-hearted comment and smiled, but the official (who is named in the article) said "don't smile. You have to stop saying bad things about China". She then tried to shake his hand and introduce herself formally, but he refused, saying "I know exactly who you are anyway". When she then tried to take her mobile phone out, the official went up to her with a hard look and warned her to put her phone away again.
Il Foglio published an article about the incident the next day, entitled "We are not in Beijing". Someone also posted an English translation on Reddit. The article ends with an invitation "to ask a few more questions about these new friends of ours". I have no particular sympathy for il Foglio, a conservative rag that acted as Berlusconi's mouthpiece for years, but it has been a vocal critic of the Italian government's new coziness with China, and it obviously must have the right to continue doing so.
This incident has echoes of other more serious cases of Chinese diplomats clashing with local journalists throughout the world, and particularly what happened at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea last year, when Chinese officials literally prevented local and international journalists from entering various events. Other particularly egregious cases of Chinese diplomats trying to pressure local media recently occurred in Russia, Australia and Sweden. In itself this sort of behaviour is self-defeating and only damages China's image, at least in countries with freedom of the press, where it always ends up being reported. It is unlikely that attempts at intimidation will do anything to curb negative reporting, and in fact the opposite is probably true.
On the other hand, what cannot be achieved by open intimidation may be achieved more covertly. Some might legitimately wonder whether it is a good idea to engage in cooperation between Italian and Chinese state media of the kind implied by the MOU signed on Thursday, and what this agreement might mean for coverage of China in Italy. For a cash-strapped country like Italy, access to Chinese investment is obviously enticing. But lines clearly need to be drawn, and it would be most effective if the EU as a whole would draw them.