More than 6,000 tourists were under lockdown aboard the Costa Smeralda cruise ship, docked near Rome, after two Chinese passengers were isolated over fears they could be carrying the coronavirus. Photo: Filippo Monteforte / AFP

Over recent weeks, Italy has been facing a critical phase due to the spread of Covid-19, which made the country the worst affected outside Asia in virtue of the elevated number of cases. The government is constantly monitoring the situation to implement responsive strategies oriented toward the containment of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, but this emergency is also highlighting the fragility of the Italian social system, which tends to adopt divisive narratives in the face of serious scenarios.

In particular, ethnic Chinese people who live in Italy have been the target of some critics, unpleasant episodes and unjustified responses to their activities, which raise questions about the impact of Covid-19 on the integration process among communities in Italy. 

The Chinese community in Italy

The history of Chinese immigration to Italy began after World War I, when small groups of families from the province of Zhejiang were looking for job opportunities in European factories. However, the number of new arrivals decreased in 1949, when the birth of the People’s Republic of China and the various campaigns activated to reinvigorate its unity did not facilitate the search for different prospects abroad.

Migration flows from the Middle Kingdom again looked consistent after 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organization and began to play a different role on the international relationship chessboard. Indeed, between 2010 and 2016 more than 6,000 individuals from Zhejiang, Fujian, Jilin and Liaoning provinces chose Italy every year to start a new life in the West.

According to data published by the Italian Ministry of Labor and Social Policies, 309,110  Chinese people were officially living in the country in 2018, comprising 155,305 men and 153,805 women with an average age of 31 years. Lombardy and Tuscany emerged as the two regions that received the largest number. Specifically, several businesses producing or selling clothes, supermarkets, and technological-device stores have been concentrated in the city of Milan, boosting a vibrant multicultural environment in Lombardy.

Similarly, the Tuscan city of Prato has always symbolized an essential epicenter for understanding the development of the Chinese community in Italy, especially because of its increased economic engagement in the local textile district. 

Covid-19 impact on Sino-Italian integration

In spite of debates that were generally translated as diffidence toward Chinese workers and their products, which were seen as a source of dangerous competitiveness in Europe, the Sino-Italian communities’ ties with the general population have always proved fruitful, thanks to diverse activities that certain organizations put in place to bridge these two cultures.

However, the outbreak of the Covid-19 is challenging that progress, as evidenced by words used by many Italians to comment on, and sometimes attack, Chinese people. Obviously, there is also a large part of the population that stands up against certain positions, but it is important to be fully aware of the risk that divisive rhetoric could spread the seeds of resentment and bigotry – the virus of hate and ignorance could be just as dangerous as the coronavirus itself. 

An example is provided by Shue Jin, who lives and works in the Italian region of Lazio, where she owns a store. She told me: ”Even before the outbreak of the virus in the north, the number of my clients drastically fell. The same is happening to many Chinese who manage stores and restaurants in Rome, Turin, Florence and other important cities, with consequences even for their Italian employees.

“But what really disappoints me is the spread of fake news about my family, which is raising concerns among the community I belong to. Indeed, many believe that we could  potentially infect people, but I haven’t gone back to China during the last three years.”

But Shue is only one example among several others who have also been insulted, isolated and discriminated against throughout Italy.

Jim Zheng, the vice-president of a cultural association committed to improving the dialogue between China and Italy, argued: “Newspapers and TV channels have a big role in the diffusion of news that could be instrumentalized by those who are only waiting for a chance to criticize China and Chinese people. It has already happened with the previous crisis related to the SARS coronavirus and bovine spongiform encephalopathy [mad cow disease].

“Nevertheless, we must stay positive and we must work toward the consolidation of Sino-Italian ties, focusing [our] attention on the initiatives that could take place in the future without fostering debates.” 

Toward cohesive action

In the face of these complex situations, fear could easily lead to mistrust, misbehavior and doubts. Indeed, according to Italian psychologist Luca Corbetta, there is a tendency to think of in-groups versus out-groups, looking for the source of a problem in a category we do not belong to. The only way to overcome this barrier in Italy, Dr Corbetta argues, is to filter information more accurately and to show solidarity with Chinese people through the voice of the most influential characters in the country. 

However, this has not always happened in Italy, as demonstrated by the episode that saw the governor of Veneto Region, Luca Zaia, expressing a negative opinion about Chinese concepts of personal hygiene. Even though the governor apologized, the Chinese Embassy in Italy commented by emphasizing the necessity of fighting together against the virus emergency instead of spending offensive and hurtful words.

In addition, many Chinese people would like to see a greater effort by the Vatican, which should continuously speak out against any racist episode, in accordance with the positive message shared between the Holy See’ secretary for relations with states, Paul Richard Gallagher, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the historic meeting on Vatican-China dialogue that took place on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February. 

We must all take an active role against Covid-19, because it is a common challenge that can be won only with the implementation of constructive and cohesive actions.

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Federica Russo

Federica Russo is an Italian freelance writer whose articles have been published by The Diplomat, Asia Times, OBOReurope, Asia Power Watch, Cultural Bridge and other platforms where she is focused on Chinese engagement in the global scene and corporate boards' dynamics. She is a researcher at Wikistrat.