The Chinese Panacea?
With Xi Jinping going on an official visit to Italy this Thursday and the Italian government considering the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), we felt that it was a fitting time to republish this open letter signed by 23 Italian scholars in the field of China studies. The letter was originally released in July 2018 as a response to a number of disturbing declarations by Michele Geraci, who serves as Undersecretary of Economic Development in the current Italian government. Geraci is largely credited with bringing Xi to Italy and helping to draft the agreement that will forge even closer relations between Italy and China.
As news of the impending signing of the MoU spread, media all over the world started paying close attention to the relationship between the Italian and Chinese governments, and in particular to the background and actions of Undersecretary Geraci. In these past few days, the discussion in Italy has become quite heated. Many supporters of the agreement point out that a deal with China—even a vague one—would bring economic benefits to the struggling Italian economy and, as such, should not be opposed. In my opinion—and in writing this I do not claim to represent the views of the other signatories to the letter—it is a mistake to look at the agreement only in terms of its (alleged) economic benefits, when in fact it is first and foremost a political declaration. In my view, to blindly provide the Chinese authorities with such a powerful endorsement is wrong not only politically, but also ethically, especially considering the increasingly authoritarian tendencies demonstrated by the Chinese leadership in the past few years. One might argue that placing ethics in a primary position in politics today is totally unrealistic, but there must be some moral baseline that cannot be crossed, even in such political dealings. At the same time, decisions like this, with long-run implications for Italy, should be taken at least with a bare minimum of public awareness and debate and not in response to pressures coming from other international actors with their own priorities and agendas.
To be clear, to advocate for a critical approach to China today does not mean demanding disengagement, as shown by the fact that the letter below was signed by people who have dedicated their entire lives to working in and with China. Quite the opposite: it demands real, honest engagement that is not motivated by economic gains or some other hidden personal agenda. If we give up on critical engagement in the pursuit of some—again, purely alleged—economic benefit, how are we supposed to resist the tide of authoritarianism that is sweeping the globe (not only China)?
Be that as it may, as it is now a matter of public interest, with the hope of contributing to the debate, here below we republish in English the letter that we released in July last year (the Italian version can be found at this link).
The Chinese Panacea? A Response to the Undersecretary of Economic Development of the New Italian Government
A few weeks ago, the new Undersecretary of Economic Development Michele Geraci published an article entitled ‘China and the Government of Change’ on Beppe Grillo’s blog, in which he explains his vision for ‘a more attentive foreign and economic policy towards China’ in order to ‘[increase] the likelihood that the government pact succeeds.’ With this response, we want to bring to the attention of the public how Geraci’s article includes a series of risky statements that, in our opinion, bear witness to a very dangerous drift that is taking place today in many western societies, including Italy. Two issues are particularly alarming to us.
China as a Model to Manage Migration
First, Geraci argues that Italy should learn from China on how to manage migration. Over the past forty years, China has managed massive internal migrations to such an extent that today more than 286 million farmers have left the countryside to work in urban areas. Overlooking the exploitative labour conditions and social tensions generated by China’s internal migration, Geraci writes about ‘hospitality’ and ‘respect of the social pact’, as well as ‘dignity and jobs’. In his view, China ‘has limited loitering and criminality’ since those ‘who reach the city know the rules and respect the social pact of the hosting place.’
Such a statement is problematic from at least three points of view. First, Geraci does not mention how, in the Chinese case, this was an internal migration, thus absolutely not comparable with the migratory flows in the Mediterranean area. Nor does he acknowledge the fact that since the beginning this migration was driven by the central government in Beijing.
Second, even if one accepts the questionable and politically framed linkage between migration and criminality (also present in official Chinese discourse), if the level of criminality in China is perceived as lower than those in the United States or certain European countries, this is not because Chinese migrants know the rules and want to respect the social pact. This happens for several other complex reasons. One is the fact that many crimes are not reported and statistics are often forged by local officials who have an interest in displaying the efficiency of their own administration in terms of maintenance of the public order and social stability. Another is the different spatial organisation of Chinese cities, where, for a long time, administrative areas did not reflect social stratification nor division between social classes. Another one again is the brutal system used to repress crime in China. Scholars and activists have widely documented how China still resorts to torture in its police stations and how harsh ‘anti-crime’ campaigns still regularly take place in the country. During these campaigns, laws are often neglected and ordinary legal procedures are simplified to allow police and courts to arrest and sentence a ‘correct’ number of criminals.
Finally, we cannot forget how Chinese economic development over the past decades has been widely based on the exploitation of the country’s rural workforce. It is well-known that Chinese migrants are subjected to a regime of subalternity that puts them in a position of subordination and treats them as if they were second-rate citizens. Consider the institutional discrimination of the ‘household registration system’ (hukou), which binds the provision of public services to the citizens’ place of origin, or the mass evictions of migrants from the Chinese cities, as the events that unfolded in Beijing in November last year demonstrate. It is also important to note how the Chinese authorities themselves have acknowledged the inadequacy of their policies on migration, and have been looking for viable alternatives for many years. In light of all this, it is really hard to argue that Chinese approaches to migration is a model based on respect of dignity and of the social pact.
China as a Model to Manage Public Security
Geraci argues that Italy should learn from China regarding public security ‘within the boundaries imposed by our culture and constitution’.
Since 2015, dozens of lawyers and activists involved in politically sensitives cases have been silenced—jailed and often tortured—in an attack that has not spared even their families. In the meanwhile, Chinese media have been gagged in an attempt to reinforce the Party orthodoxy, and civil society has been undermined through the adoption of severely restrictive norms, such as the new legislation on foreign NGOs. The latest Chinese innovations in matters related to public security are twofold. First, there is the experience of Xinjiang, where the Uighur population is being subjected to profiling and mass deportations in ‘re-education camps’. Next there are several experiments with ‘social credit systems’, in which citizens are assigned a ‘score’ based on their behaviour online and in real life; this score is then used to determine facilitations or restrictions in accessing various services. In all of this, we believe that there is very little for Italy to learn from, not only for clear ethical reasons, but also for the very simple fact that China itself is still experimenting in these areas without having a fully defined idea of the possible consequences.
In such a context, Geraci argues that ‘China has improved even for what concerns criminal and civil justice.’ If compared to the the Maoist era or the early 1980s, we cannot object to the fact that the administration of criminal and civil justice in China has undergone significant change. This is evident as much from the number of laws that have been passed, as from the level of sophistication of the legal system. In practice, however, the situation remains highly problematic. One of Xi Jinping’s priorities is the promotion of the ‘rule of law’, which, however, has clear authoritarian connotations and underpins a system in which the law is used instrumentally, when not outrightly manipulated, to buttress the power of the Party-state. Moreover, it is not possible to forget that in China to this day there is little if no separation between the powers of the Party and those of the State.
Other issues raised by Geraci appear highly problematic from both conceptual and ethical points of view. For instance, Geraci’s article introduces the issue of Chinese investment in Africa without any mention of the political and social tensions that have emerged on the African continent as a consequence. Similarly, the Undersecretary shows significant trust in the positive effects that Chinese investment could bring to Italy, without any hint at the delicate political and geopolitical issues involved. At the same time, he equally overlooks the complex issues related to privacy that the recent passing of the new Chinese norms on cyber-security have accentuated.
The positions of the Undersecretary are cause for both surprise and concern, not only because they take an authoritarian system as a model, but most of all because of the system of values that they seem to support and underline. As scholars who have been studying contemporary Chinese politics and society for years, we hope for a close and constant engagement with China, but without giving up that critical approach that should be foundation to any effort of mutual understanding. For this reason, we cannot but denounce any attempt to subordinate the exercise of our critical faculties, in particular among people in a position of responsibility.
Ivan Franceschini (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and Australian National University)
Elisa Nesossi (Australian National University)
Giorgio Strafella (Universität St.Gallen)
Fabio Lanza (University of Arizona)
Paola Voci (University of Otago)
Andrea Enrico Pia (London School of Economics)
Luigi Tomba (University of Sydney)
Gianluigi Negro (Università della Svizzera Italiana)
Anna Lora-Wainwright (University of Oxford)
Gaia Perini (Tsinghua University e Scuola di Lingue di Forlì, Università di Bologna)
Elena Nichini (The Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Carlo Inverardi-Ferri (National University of Singapore)
Valeria Zanier (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven)
Martina Caschera (Università di Chieti-Pescara, G. d’Annunzio)
Renata Vinci (Università Roma Tre)
Laura Lettere (Università di Bologna)
Federico Brusadelli (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg)
Lisa Indraccolo (Universität Zürich)
Francesca Congiu (Università di Cagliari)
Rossella Ferrari (SOAS University of London)
Alessandra Mezzadri (SOAS University of London)
Maurizio Marinelli (University of Sussex)
Federica Ferlanti (Cardiff University)