The Chinese Communist Party is using European newspapers to push its global agenda to Western audiences.
The Chinese Communist regime is waging an aggressive offensive targeting Italian mainstream media. It has so far managed to infiltrate the country’s leading wire service, the National Associated Press Agency (ANSA), the online edition of national paper Il Giornale, owned by the Berlusconi family, and the financial newspaper Milano Finanza. This infiltration is the result of a deliberate strategy by Beijing, and part of its broader effort to achieve political and economic hegemony worldwide.
The Chinese state media, which is under the ideological control of the Communist Party, is required by the regime to establish a strong presence abroad and reach media cooperation agreements with foreign press agencies, tabloids, and newspapers. It is no secret that over the last decade Chinese media has rapidly increased its presence in Western Europe and the Balkans, two areas of enormous strategic importance for Beijing. It is worth noting that Italy is geographically in a key position in the Mediterranean, overlooking the Balkans, and functioning as a bridge between Europe and North Africa.
Moreover, it is important to keep in mind the fact that Italy was the first G7 country to sign a memorandum of understanding with China on the Belt and Road Initiative, in March 2019, mainly pushed by the Five-Star Movement (M5S), a political actor that has never hidden its sympathy for Beijing. At the time M5S was the leading party in a ruling coalition with Matteo Salvini’s League (Lega) led by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who has recently become the new leader of the M5S party.
On March 21, 2019, the Cinitalia website reported on a meeting between Chinese and Italian media, held in Rome, with the participation of Deputy Minister of the Communication Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Jiang Jianguo, the Chinese Ambassador to Italy Li Ruiyu, the undersecretary to the presidency of the Council of Ministers with responsibility for information and publishing Vito Crimi, and the director of China Foreign Languages Publishing Administration Du Zhanyuan.
Among the representatives of the media, the meeting included deputy director of international relations of Rai (Italian public broadcasting) Simona Martorelli, the CEO of Class Editori Paolo Panerai, the deputy editor-in-chief of Radio China International Ren Qian, the director of in-depth programs of Mediaset Alessandro Banfi, the deputy editor-in-chief of the Economic Daily Zhen Qingdong, the deputy chief editor of China Daily Sun Shangwu, the CEO of Gruppo 24 Ore Giuseppe Cerbone, and the director of the Xinhua overseas service department Wang Jinye.
On such occasion, Crimi, who is also a leading member of the M5S, praised the Silk Road initiative, claiming that “it is not just for transporting goods, but also for culture and information,” and said he hoped for further collaboration between the two countries. Two agreements were signed during the meeting: the first between Economic Daily (a political party newspaper directly under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party) and the Italian financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, the second between the official Chinese agency Xinhua and Milano Finanza.
ANSA is the leading Italian wire service, with over 20 offices in Italy and a presence in over seventy countries. Its stated mission is the distribution of fair and objective news reporting. ANSA also provides the ANSAmed service, with a flow of approximately 200 stories per day on political and economic issues related to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, in Italian, Arabic, and English.
However, ANSA has also been publishing up to 50 articles per day directly taken from the Chinese Xinhua News Agency, which is the official state-run press agency of the Chinese regime. Its president is a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The leading Italian wire service reserved a specific page for its Beijing partner under the name “Notiziario Xinhua” (Newsroom Xinhua).
As reported by ANSA itself, the collaboration agreement was signed on March 22, 2019, in Rome, on the margins of Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy. The agreement was a further development of a previous accord signed in 2017 between the two media outlets, which planned the exchange of their respective news services, together with collaboration on the production of content.
Unfortunately, ANSA does not warn readers that the content published by Xinhua is controlled and approved by the Chinese Communist regime, which immediately raises a question: Is this agreement compatible with ANSA’s goal of distributing fair and objective news? It is worth recalling that recently the United States forced Xinhua to register as a foreign agent. When Chinese authorities complained, they accused the United States of “restricting and oppressing the Chinese media.”
Another Italian media outlet that is very active in spreading Chinese propaganda is Il Giornale’s online edition. On December 20, 2018, just three months prior to Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy, the first of a long series of articles was published in a section named “Cinitalia,” within Il Giornale’s website. Today, this section counts over 29 pages of articles. Cinitalia is a Chinese-language magazine and multimedia outlet developed for the Italian market by the state-owned China Media Group, linked to the Italy-China Chamber of Commerce.
The first published article speaks for itself by providing a very debatable picture of China’s approach to politics and human rights:
The legal network created to protect the rights of citizens is increasingly widespread: in 2004, over 20 articles on fundamental human rights and freedoms were included in the Chinese Constitution; while in 2012, the expression “respect and guarantee human rights” was included in the criminal procedure code.
The vision of a “democratic China” was also promoted on August 7, 2020, by one of InsideOver’s contributors (InsideOver is a section of Il Giornale focused on foreign affairs) on Facebook: “It’s easy to talk about red dictatorship. In reality, the Chinese political system is a very interesting laboratory, democratic at its base and extremely meritocratic at the top.
Going back to Cinitalia, on February 26, 2019, the section launched an article promoting the work of China Media Group, active in disseminating the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (as indicated in the article itself).
On March 25, 2019, a long article on Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy, accompanied by a photo of him shaking hands with the Italian President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, covered the Chinese leader’s trip to Italy and promoted the Belt and Road Initiative, a topic that would be covered repeatedly.
Early October 2019 was dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Communist China, with a 4-minute-long video on the main steps of the country’s history from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, whose statements have been constantly published by Cinitalia, turning the Giornale’s section into a propaganda bulletin of the Chinese regime, rather than a news webpage.
On December 31, 2019, Cinitalia published Xi Jinping’s end of the year speech, and the following day, the New Year message of China Media Group’s president, Shen Haixiong. The same thing occurred the following year, for the 2021 celebrations.
On March 13, 2020, while Italy was at the beginning of its war with Covid-19, Il Giornale’s website published an article entitled “The president of China Media Group to Il Giornale: together against Coronavirus.”
Take note, not Cinitalia! The piece is posted under “editorial staff.” The article points out CMG’s president Shen Haixiong’s letter to Il Giornale’s owner Paolo Berlusconi (Silvio’s brother), which begins with praise of China’s Xi Jinping for his successful actions in response to Covid that brought the country back to normality. Haixiong then praises Il Giornale’s directive team and wishes for further cooperation between CMG and the Mediaset Group.
On January 9, 2021, Il Giornale’s Cinitalia section published an article where Manlio Di Stefano, undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, explains the new export pact and the priority that China represents for Italy. It is interesting to note that Di Stefano is notoriously a supporter of the Venezuelan regime, and has even traveled to Caracas, in March 2017, together with the former group leader of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Ornella Bertorotta, and the vice-president of the Italians Abroad Committee, Vito Petrocelli, to take part in a Chavez commemoration.
Recently, on July 1, Cinitalia published a long article to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. It did not include criticism, only recognition of achieved results and upcoming objectives.
Now, all this is very strange, incoherent, and confusing, considering that Il Giornale, whose founder was Indro Montanelli, has always been known as a conservative, right-wing newspaper.
National business newspaper Milano Finanza, which also operates online, has also been providing space to China by publishing Cinitalia’s articles, mainly focusing on commerce and finance, praising Beijing’s success in eliminating extreme poverty. The source? Xi Jinping’s statements at the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.
On June 28, 2021, during a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio claimed that Italy is a strong trade partner of China, but that such ties do not interfere with the nation’s relations with the USA and NATO. According to Di Maio “Italy is an ally of the U.S., a NATO and E.U. partner, and that is not only a strategic alliance but one of the values that enables our democracies to address questions like human rights where Italy has been on the front line.”
However, things are not so simple. China is a communist regime and its commercial and media offensive is part of a wider strategy for global economic, political, and ideological hegemony; it is, therefore, utopic to think that it will not interfere with Italy’s relations with the U.S. and NATO. Moreover, it is self-contradictory to state that Italy is on the front line in addressing human rights issues while it maintains relations with the CCP, a regime that violates human rights on a daily basis.
It is essential to pay close attention when choosing who to befriend. The deep and longstanding partnership between Italy and the United States is not only related to economy and security but also based on important shared culture, such as republicanism, freedom, and the rule of law. Unfortunately, China is very far from such principles.
Giovanni Giacalone is a researcher at Centro Studi Machiavelli and a senior analyst at the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies at the Catholic University of Milan.