Home » As Rome leaves the BRI, Beijing sneaks in through local gov’ts

As Rome leaves the BRI, Beijing sneaks in through local gov’ts

Italy is working to (painlessly) exit the Belt and Road Initiative. But meanwhile, Chinese officials are consolidating ties with local entities through a “Local Authorities Silk Road.” Il Foglio details who is behind it and why it’s so oddly concentrated on key industrial areas

Out through the front door, in through the window. China seems intent on pushing its manner of cooperation, regardless of Italy’s ongoing rethink on a series of high-end dossiers – including its expected exit from the Belt and Road Initiative (which turns ten this year). This was clear when Beijing officials lobbied Italian businesses to consolidate relations even as the Italian government was reconsidering its China stance. And it became clear again with the renovated Chinese push at the local government level, with some Italian towns reacting positively – regardless of their political colour.

Side street diplomacy. On Wednesday, Il Foglio’s Giulia Pompili reported that as many as ten Italian municipalities and the entire Northern province of Brescia (through its former centre-left President Samuele Alghisi) have joined Silk Road Local – also known as BRLC – a sort of BRI for local authorities. Meanwhile, “even as the centre-right government is thinking about de-risking from China, its local representatives are actually forging more and more ties with Beijing.”

  • In June, two centre-right mayors of two twins in Lombardy, Stefano Meneghelli and Stefano Tramonti, flew to Hangzhou to formalise their request to join the BRLC (the latter is China manager for La Leonessa, a company known for the production of industrial bearings).
  • Cagliari, Camagna Monferrato, Fermo, Valdobbiadene and at least five other municipalities in the Brescia area, including Salò, are all on the BRLC list…
  • … as are three Italian pro-China lobby associations: “the Italian Obor Institute, the Smart City Association and the Italy-China Link Association, founded by Maria Moreni, who is even said to be the ‘co-founder’ of the [BRLC],” wrote Ms Pompili.

What is the “Local Authorities Silk Road” all about? That, along with the reason why Chinese officials are devoting so much attention to it, is not entirely clear. On its official website, the BRLC is described as an initiative that “complements” the government-level BRI by organising “various programmes and practical exchange and cooperation activities” with local governments so as to foster relations “between people” and not just “between states.”

  • “Beyond the smoky language typical of Chinese propaganda, it is interesting to note who is behind this platform: on the one hand, the city of Hangzhou, and in fact Yao Gaoyuan, the mayor as well as vice-president of the local Communist Party, is also the president of BRLC,” notes Ms Pompili.
  • The other managing institution is the Chinese People’s Friendship Association with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), linked to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, geared at “promoting the Chinese worldview abroad,” and “responsible for the Chinese leadership’s influence operations abroad,” according to several studies and numerous Western intelligence agencies.

Think strategic acquisitions. Citing sources, Il Foglio offers a reason why the BRLC has become so concentrated in certain Italian industrial areas: “relationships with local authorities, with mayors and municipalities of non-metropolitan realities, serve above all to promote the ‘China model’,” as well as promoting propaganda and – chiefly – “to obtain information and analysis on local industries, perhaps small excellences to be copied or acquired, without national politics noticing.”

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