AROUND a year ago we in these isles were beginning to hear of a flu-like virus floating around China; assured that it was of no consequence, we carried on as normal. Fast forward a month or so and the scene in Italy was likened to Armageddon; the Italians began to make a series of policy responses that were very much like China’s own. The answers to why Italy was the first to ‘catch’ Covid, first to lock down, and now first in Europe to build a social control grid in Venice to watch tourists’ every move,all seem to point in one direction: China and specifically its Belt and Road Initiative.
On the surface this project is a global infrastructure development project linking China – the East – and Europe – the West. The project isn’t geographically limited to the old Silk Road: nations in Africa and South America are being tapped on the shoulder and invited to join. The initiative says China is to ‘secure through trade and infrastructure the future prosperity of the Chinese people and promote economic growth and co-operation’.
Partner nations are granted loans from Chinese state banks or the Chinese-led Asian Development Bank; these often come with preferential rates of interest or looser repayment plans than other NGOs. In return the country will build the infrastructure the Chinese request: deep water ports in Italy or Pakistan, railways across Central Asia. Alternatively the country may use the money as it wishes but must give Chinese firms a free hand to develop their own projects within its territory. These loans and the accompanying conditions have been criticised as predatory and neo-colonial, taking advantage of poorer nations to trap them in debt and ensure they kowtow to the lender. Of course, it is hypocritical for Western nations or NGOs such as the IMF to denounce practices in which they themselves are involved – but that is a discussion for another time.
Of more interest is the fact that Italy was the first G7 member to join this project, in 2019. The two nations signed a Memorandum of Understanding worth €2.5billion involving infrastructure projects around Italy, including energy and shipping. A lesser-known part of the scheme is the creation of a legal and political ‘level playing field’ between partner countries. Indeed, there is a centralised court which oversees adherence and deals with disagreements. It is no great leap to see the project as a way to create a new Sinocentric economic system, to wean countries away from the US into the hands of China.
It is common practice for China to move its own workers into partner nations; see examples from Nigeria, Zambia and Kenya. Recently Italy has experienced a sustained increase in Chinese immigration, described here by Jonathan Foreman. In Milan, riot police were brought in to quell disorder in Chinatown after police arrested a Chinese woman. Residents have been concerned out after Chinese textile factories moved into the city, saying they have caused pollution, traffic and unrest.
Imagining that China would use Italy as the gateway to advance its own policies, and for these to be seen as legitimate coming from a G7 nation, is not difficult. As China welded citizens inside their houses in response to Covid-19, Italy started what would become a default policy across the West: lockdown. Indeed, Professor Neil Ferguson recently admitted to being surprised that he has been able to get away with such draconian action in a free country, citing Italy as an example.
Meanwhile another Chinese export has arrived in Italy: the chilling Social Control grid in Venice. The freedom controlling spectre once confined to the dystopian world of science fiction is here. Under the guise of ‘promoting responsible tourism’, Venetian authorities have constructed an all-seeing, all-knowing unescapable system of surveillance. It knows where you are, where you have been, what you have bought, how long you have been here, whether you are a local or a tourist, where you have come from. It does this by tapping into Italian mobile networks to track telephone data; by monitoring electronic payments made within city limits; by carpeting the city in cameras and motion detectors. You can’t even run away: the machine knows when someone is not walking and alerts authorities in the panopticon control room to the ‘abnormal’ activity and will continue actively tracking the subject until the situation is resolved.
One need not wonder who supplied the experts needed for the three-year building project, or where the idea for such a system originated. Follow the money.