Relations between the Chinese and Italian governments have warmed in recent years, as evidenced by the Italian Government’s decision to join China’s enormous infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative and by Chinese aid delivered during the coronavirus crisis. Nonetheless, polling suggests the Italian public remains undecided on its opinion of China. In late June, we found that a plurality of 40% of respondents view China neither as a threat nor as an ally to Italy.
Overall, perceptions of China in Italy follow broad partisan affiliations. The governing 5 Star Movement and Democratic Party coalition generally favours closer relations with Beijing than Matteo Salvini’s opposition party, The League. The 5 Star Movement, in particular, has expressed its support for China, with Italian Foreign Minister Di Maio posting messages on social media praising the help brought by Beijing in the early days on the pandemic. While roughly a third (32%) of overall respondents view China as an ally and 19% as a threat, there is clear variation in the level of support or opposition depending on who one voted for in 2018: 38% of those who voted for Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement in the 2018 elections and 41% of those who voted for the Democratic Party (PD) view China as an ally against just 29% of those who voted for Matteo Salvini’s League.
Regarding the Italian Government’s relationship with the Chinese Government, we found that a plurality of 43% of Italian voters want Rome to maintain the current level of relations with China. However, roughly a third (33%) of those who voted for the League in 2018 stated that the Italian Government should seek more distant relations with China.
In contrast to the rest of Europe, Italian respondents, at 25%, are less inclined to view China as a threat than their European counterparts in France (38%) and Germany (33%).
A significant majority (80%) of Italians believe that a degree of blame for the coronavirus pandemic lies with the Chinese Government. Just 12% of the Italian public think the Chinese Government is not to blame at all. However, respondents were divided on the extent to which the Chinese Government is to blame: 22% of Italians think that the Chinese Government is “significantly to blame”, 29% of Italian voters stated that Beijing was “moderately to blame” and a further 29% that it was “somewhat to blame”.
Again, 2018 Lega voters were more likely to express their aversion towards Beijing: 31% of them stated that the Chinese Government was significantly to blame for the pandemic.
In contrast, a topic a clear majority of respondents seem to agree on is the way in which Beijing communicated the number of cases and deaths related to the coronavirus. Indeed, an overwhelming majority (85%) of respondents believe that the official numbers reported by the Chinese Government are not trustworthy. It is unclear whether the lack of trust the Italian public has in the Chinese Government on this issue has impacted on their general beliefs about whether the countries should pursue closer ties.
Beijing has demonstrated its keenness to publicise strong Sino-Italian relations. For example, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry Zhao Lijian, posted a video on social media – which many have called out as a fake news – showing Romans chanting from their balconies “Grazie, Cina!” as the Chinese anthem played in the background. Despite Zhao Lijian’s assertion that Italians are grateful for Chinese support, polling indicates that 41% of Italian voters think that the pandemic most probably originated from a special lab in Wuhan where a researcher studying coronavirus accidentally got infected, contradicting official reports from China. 39% believe that it originated from a wet market in Wuhan where an animal carrying the coronavirus was sold.
A 2015 RAI news report showing Chinese scientists studying coronaviruses resurfaced in the midst of the crisis, perhaps accounting for our finding.
In terms of the economic relationship between Italy and China, the coronavirus crisis may well impact the sales of Chinese goods. Back in May, we found that a majority (62%) of Italians believed that most products labelled ‘Made in Italy’ are actually primarily produced in China, suggesting a degree of suspicion in Italy over the prevalence of Chinese-made goods in Italy.
Those who believe that the Chinese Government is to blame for the pandemic may well favour locally-produced goods in the future – 48% of respondents would be willing to pay more for products made in the EU if it meant that the EU would be less reliant on China. Only 12% would not be willing to do so.
Nonetheless, among those who say they would be willing to pay more for EU-made goods, the majority (52%) would only be willing to pay between 0% and 10% more for EU-made goods than they pay for Chinese-made goods. Meanwhile, 35% of the Italian public would be willing to pay between 10% and 25% more. The coming economic crisis following the lockdown may explain respondent’s reluctance to pay significantly more for domestic goods, and may also ensure that the Italian Government continues to build amicable relations with China.
Despite the Chinese Government’s so-called “propaganda war” in Italy, our findings show that Italians do not have a clear or overarching view of Beijing. Indeed, we found that 37% of respondents didn’t know whether Prime Minister Conte would be tough on China, just as they weren’t sure whether the Chinese Government was to blame for the pandemic. In the face of impending economic crisis and increasing tensions between Italy and the EU, it would not be surprising for the Italian Government to continue to build strong relations with China.