Last week, Italy became the first country to pull out of the Belt and Road Initiative, as the Italian foreign ministry delivered a note to Beijing stating its intention not to renew the memorandum signed by the first Conte government in 2019.
China has not taken it well. But this time — unlike the small storm that ensued over the summer when news of the possible withdrawal surfaced — we can only read China’s displeasure in its uncharacteristic silence over Italy’s decision.
On December 7, Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni made the reason for her government’s decision clear. Economically, she said, the agreement had not benefitted Italy in any way. She pointed out that although the only G7 country to sign an MoU with China, Italy’s trade with the economic giant lagged far behind that of non-signatories such as France and Germany.
Officials in the Meloni administration avoided fireworks about the decision to withdraw, responding to media requests with a simple “no comment.”
Nouvelles d’Europe (歐洲時報), or Europe Times, a Chinese-language newspaper distributed across the EU and linked to the state-run China News Service under the United Front Work Department (UFWD), featured an interview with Gianni Alemanno, the former mayor of Rome and secretary of the anti-NATO and anti-EU Movimento Indipendenza. Alemanno, who recently has been a big fan of the PRC, stated that Italy would regret the decision to exit Xi Jinping’s initiative‚ calling it “stupidity.” He also pulled the eurocentrism card, stating that the Italian government’s decision to withdraw from the BRI represented the unwillingness of the West to deepen its ties with the BRICS nations.
Meanwhile, in an interview released by FX168 (FX168财经报社), a globally directed Chinese-language outlet based in Hong Kong and focusing on Chinese finance news, former Conte government undersecretary Michele Geraci — for many, the personification of the CCP propaganda machine in Italy — stated that as a consequence of leaving the BRI, Italy will suffer great economic loss, implicitly voicing his view that following the West will only hurt Rome.
An Angry Silence
Perhaps revealingly, comments available on the popular social media platform Weibo about Italy’s exit from the BRI all seemed to date back to July and August, when news surfaced that the decision was imminent. Were social media censors also trying to save face?
The reaction online at the time is best characterized as grumpy. “Italy is a fake developed country,” wrote one user. “We don’t care about them,” wrote another. “Just wait until they see all the other countries develop, and then they will regret it!”
This time? Crickets.
As news came of Italy’s formal withdrawal from the BRI, there was also no comment from China’s state-run media. State-run media outlets, both in Chinese and English, have been notably silent over the past week, a stark contrast with the burst of related coverage in July and August, as Italy’s intention became clear — and as China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and state media sought to play up BRI cooperation as “the right choice.”
This week, foreign language state media channels such as China Daily, CGTN and the Global Times have grown quiet about what is surely a sore subject. Searches for news about “Italy” + “Belt and Road” in Chinese turn up coverage from a wide range of overseas outlets, including the BBC, Radio Canada International, Japan’s NHK, Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao, and Initium Media.