Is China keeping its citizens in Italy, both tourists and asylum seekers, under watch? A chat between Bitter Winter and Alessandra Bocchi, a young journalist with a long experience of all matters Chinese.
by Marco Respinti
Recently, The South China Morning Post published an odd video. It showed smiling Italian police walking side by side along the streets or Rome with Chinese police officers, smiling as well. It is something going on since 2016. What do they have to smile about, exactly?
Alessandra Bocchi is a young Italian journalist. Since 2017, she has been covering foreign affairs from North Africa, Italy, the U.S., and Hong Kong, writing in English for Middle East Eye, The New Arab, Al-Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, First Things Magazine, The Daily Caller, The American Conservative, and The Spectator, and in Italian for Il Foglio, il Giornale.it and La Verità. She studied Journalism at the NCTJ-Press Association in London and holds an MA in Political Philosophy from the University College of London. She graduated in International relations at King’s College in London, and studied Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. A native of Milan, Italy, she has closely followed the bizarre presence of Chinese police in Rome. I met her for a coffee and a chat near the central Via del Corso in Rome.
“Officially, Chinese police agents roam the streets of Italian cities to protect tourists from Mainland China,” she told me. “This is an implementation of the memorandum of understanding signed in September 2015 in The Hague, The Netherlands, by the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China, at the time when Mr. Matteo Renzi was Prime Minister here in Rome.”
Yes, collaboration between different countries, involving also their police forces, is neither strange nor new. But China is China. Considering its staggering record of systematic and brutal violation of human rights, including illegal actions to silence critics and opposition at home and abroad and sabotage UN activities, and systematic high-tech control and espionage now extending from China to other countries, seeing Chinese policemen walking side by side with Italian law enforcement personnel is shivering. For sure, those who shiver are many Chinese citizens who escaped to Italy to avoid persecution. We know that the CCP is also trying to intimidate and control Chinese exiles abroad, and this is going on even in a theoretically safe country such as the US. In addition, we witness daily what the pro-CCP riot police is doing to people in Hong Kong, militarizing ordinary life in a police state that seems to come directly out of The Dark Knight Rises, the 2010 movie directed by Chistopher Nolan, a superb metaphor of how totalitarian powers behave since the French Revolution (1789-1799). Who could then excuse and justify the CCP, and thus regard as normal that its police walk the streets of a peculiar but undoubtedly democratic country like Italy?
In order to better understand the issue, I consulted with a few Italians familiar with matters Chinese and generally not pro-CCP. Some found it normal to have Chinese public security agents among us. It is called cooperation, they told me, it’s normal. But is today’s China normal? Is it normal for Italy to welcome the police force of a country harshly abusing its own citizens, humiliating them in their most personals feelings, detaining them in millions with no trial, torturing them, harvesting organs from their bodies, including when they are still alive, torturing and killing them in the thousands? What would have Italians said if, before the destruction of the Berlin Wall, a person strolling through Piazza San Pietro or Trastevere in Rome had met the “VoPos,” the dreaded policemen of Communist East Germany, who used to shot dead those who tried to escape to the West—or perhaps directly agents of the Soviet police?
“The number of Chinese policemen in Italy is very limited,” Bocchi explained. “They should be no more than 10.” This may reinforce the case of those arguing that there is nothing to fear. Perhaps. But symbols talk, and we can imagine the feelings of a refugee who escaped the horror of detention and torture in China and came to Italy to meet in the streets the same nightmare he or she had just left.
“Yes,” said the young journalist. “The presence of Chinese police here certainly influences the freedom of movement and the lives of asylum seekers who are persecuted by the Beijing government. These people would in fact be frightened by knowing that Chinese police stations in a country that should protect them precisely from China, even if in theory the agreement strictly regards tourists. This is precisely the problem: in itself, the agreement states that its scope is limited to tourists, yet a tyrannical state can make a different use of it. For example, the Chinese police may in fact gather information on certain Chinese citizens who are currently in Italy.”
“What is even more disturbing,” Bocchi added, “is that China has become the largest world power after the United States, but unlike the latter, it has no domestic system in which abuses of power are both reported and punished, neither does it respect international law on human rights.”
La Cina è vicina is the title of an Italian 1967 movie, directed by filmmaker Marco Bellocchio and inspired by a 1957 book, published under the same title, by Italian writer Enrico Emanuelli (1909-1967). The title means that “China is near” and, thanks to its rhyming and round sounding, has become a slogan to denounce an imminent peril. The film was a typical leftist product, mocking the fear of Communism among the Italian bourgeoisie of that time. But in fact there was nothing to laugh at. Then as now, the Communist threat was quite real. Perhaps, the movie La Cina è vicina, “China is near,” only came too early. China is becoming “near,” in fact too near, right now. Ten CCP police officers in Italy may look like a small threat. Yet, the power of symbols comes from using small signs to evoke larger and even universal scenarios.