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Italy has officially pulled out of the Belt and Road Initiative. This dealt a major blow to the Chinese project as Italy was the largest EU member and only G7 nation to have become a member of the project. Washington D.C. and Brussels consider the project to be favorable for Chinese economic development, but not exactly desirable for other nations participating. The United States is concerned that China may be able to gain an inappropriate amount of control over infrastructure and technology in nations participating in the deal. Due to the characteristics of the EU nations participating such as a lower GDP per Capita or significantly smaller economy than Italy, it is not possible to compare whether or not Italy’s economic relationship has developed better than other participating EU member states. While Italy is leaving the Belt and Road Initiative, the nation is not trying to cut off ties with China completely. This decision has not come out of the blue but instead because in March 2024 the agreement was set to renew. In order to pull out, Italy or China had a deadline of at least three months to notify the other nation of their intent to withdraw. If not, the agreement would renew automatically. Italy makes history as the first nation to end its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Discontent In Italy
While numerous nations in the West never joined the agreement, former Prime Minister Conte is furious that Prime Minister Meloni pulled Italy out. He points to an increase in exports from Italy to China as a reason to remain a part of the project. In the first three quarters of 2019, Italian exports to China skyrocketed by 25.1 percent compared to last year with a total value over 15 billion euros. His anger may be in part due to Meloni undoing what he considers one of his accomplishments.
What Conte is not acknowledging however is that increasing Italy’s economic dependence on China can be dangerous. Germany is learning this difficult lesson currently. After helping the German economy grow for years while other member states such as Italy struggled, the German economy is now failing to do well. While it is true that Italian exports to China increased, Chinese exports have increased to Italy at a significantly faster rate. In 2019, China exported 34 billion dollars worth of goods to Italy, while it exported 62 billion dollars worth of goods to Italy in 2022. While Italy has a positive trade balance, this is not because of trade with China.
Complicated Relationship With China
While Conte may have genuinely thought that signing onto the agreement was a good idea, China’s relationship has become more complex since then. Since the agreement was signed, it has been discovered that China operates covert police stations around the world. Allegedly the primary purpose of these police stations is to collect intel on people considered to be enemies of the ruling communist party in China. Italy has 11 of these alleged police stations, the most of any nation worldwide. They operate under the guise of solely providing administrative services to Chinese citizens yet this is likely only a small part of their full purpose.
There is also wide debate over whether Chinese immigrants have helped or harmed the manufacturing sector in Prato. Prato has the second-largest Chinese community in Europe only after Paris. There are concerns that Italians have been forced to close their own workshops due to cheaper Chinese made imitations in the city yet the Chinese workers do not use their earnings to contribute to the Prato economy. Rather than buy products from Italian stores, workers allegedly buy goods from white vans that go between the factories selling almost anything a worker may need from Band-Aids to Chicken. Many of these Chinese factories also evade taxes. Chinese immigrants point to the same problem in southern Italy, but the Italian government needs to crack down on the issue in both areas rather than let immigrants contribute to the problem in northern Italy as well.
There are also concerns that Chinese criminals are illegally selling passports from deceased people and throwing their corpses in dumpsters. Since 1991 government officials have been suspicious of low or no deaths during any given period. Besides potentially selling passports, there are also concerns over illegal sweatshops taking advantage of Chinese immigrants who arrived in Italy illegally. These sweatshops can produce clothes at 20 percent of the cost they would cost an Italian company to legally produce, while also exposing illegal immigrants to work conditions without heat in the winter.
On the brightside, the Italian government has forced Chinese workshops to obey work conditions legislation following a tragic incident. Seven Chinese workers were killed in an electrical fire and one member of Italian law enforcement could hear cries for help from the workers who were trapped inside. These led to raids of Chinese businesses which exposed a grim reality. 93 percent of inspected businesses were violating working conditions and building codes. This was brought down to 35 percent. While some members of the community may be angry and feel targeted, Italy has been trying to crack down on all illegal activities committed by everyone, including Italians. This is apparent from the nation’s megatrial of 322 people accused of being a member of Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia group.
While Italy is pulling out of the Belt and Road Initiative, this does not mean that Italy is ending its economic relationship with China, but simply will not participate in the BRI as many other EU member states have chosen. It will be interesting to see if other EU member states in the EU’s periphery will follow suit or if they truly believe that the agreement is still advantageous to their national economies. While Italy is the first nation to leave the project, it may not be the last. Italy must also continue to work on integrating Chinese immigrants within China and protect them from surveillance from the alleged police stations.
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