Massive Chinese scholar delegation heads to Rome. A group of 50 Chinese researchers in the field of human rights and democracy is poised to attend a seminar in the Eternal City on September 20. Organised by the China Society for Human Rights Studies, which Beijing describes as its biggest NGO in the field, the event is supported by two highly-regarded academic institutes: China’s University of Chongqing and the law faculty of Italy’s La Sapienza University.
- The delegation is headed by Padma Choling, Vice-Chairman of the National People Congress’ Standing Committee and thus on the United States sanctions list.
Human rights with Chinese characteristics. The seminar, titled “Modernisation and Diversity in Human Rights Culture” (as if human rights weren’t universal…) is being advertised as a way to better understand China and its take on social issues – meaning it’s a way for Beijing to broadcast its point of view and defend its position on human rights on the international stage.
- According to Intelligence Online, the event is part of the second stage of the Chinese Communist Party’s new effort, launched in January 2023, to spread the core messaging packaged by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
- That’s a research institute and think tank that’s closely linked to the State Council and aids in formulating the CCP’s ideology and propaganda talking points.
The Italian connection. Reportedly, the seminar originated in contacts between staff at the University of Chongqing and Hu Lanbo, publisher of Cina in Italia, the Italian edition of China Newsweek (which in turn is edited by China’s national press agency China News Service) and head of the Roma 9 Association, a self-styled “Sino-Italian Centre for Economic and Cultural Exchange”.
- IO noted that the Chinese Ambassador to Italy, Jia Guide, has long relied on Roma 9 to organise events he couldn’t host at the embassy (that tracks with other instances of Chinese penetration in Italian civil society). With Ambassador Jia’s assent, Ms Hu then reportedly turned to Oliviero Diliberto to set up a form of cooperation between Chongqing University and La Sapienza.
- The latter is dean of the Italian university’s law faculty and a member of the Italian Communist Party, as well as former Justice Minister, associate researcher at Wuhan’s Zhongnan University and a regular commentator on matters concerning the Belt and Road Initiative.
The medium is the message. The seminar is unprecedented in terms of the size of the Chinese delegation and the sheer determination to cast Beijing as a reputable actor in the field of human rights and democracy that’s seemingly transpiring from the CCP. The timing is also noteworthy, as Rome is involved in a politically delicate process to withdraw from the BRI – with Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani recently travelling to Beijing to prepare the ground.
- Still, the prospect of losing Italy (the only G-7 content to join the BRI) is not deterring China from a number of influence operations. This academic outreach joins the likes of the economic, mediatic and local government-level efforts to foster stronger ties beyond the official relation between Rome and Beijing.