Caught in the middle? Italy and China after COVID-19

If we look only at trade figures, Sino-Italian relations might not be considered worth our attention. In fact, they are very lop-sided. For Italy, China is not a significant partner, accounting for 3.4% of exports and 7.2% of imports. For China, Italy is even less important, representing less than 1% of both imports and exports. So why should we bother?

There are at least two reasons to be interested in Sino-Italian relations.

The first is that bilateral trade explains only a part of the economic interconnections, since China and Italy are linked through complex global supply chains that involve other countries. For example, automotive components produced in Italy that are exported to Germany, end up in China in the export of German cars.

The second reason has to do with the global implications of the political economy of bilateral relations, before and after COVID-19.

Italy is a highly-indebted country with a public debt/GDP ratio that was already one of the highest in the West and is expected to grow further. In addition, the Italian manufacturing structure – based on small and  medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – is often undercapitalized. This indebtedness will be put under further pressure, due to lack of demand and liquidity constraints arising from the pandemic.

The stronger presence of Chinese investors in Italy is considered a serious concern both in Europe and in the US; as Italy is seen as a possible Trojan horse for Chinese interests in the EU – especially after Italy signed in 2019 a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The decoupling of the US economy from China may also influence Sino-Italian relations, as trade and investment in technology could be limited by eventual American sanctions. Italy’s room to manoeuvre will depend then on how the US-China relations will evolve.

In the medium term, Italy needs to develop its own Chinese strategy, defined within the EU framework. Only an EU-wide common strategy will open some space for Rome to shape a more tailored approach to Italy’s specific needs and interests, but at the same time coherent with the Italian Republic’s long-term foreign policy pillars; Europeanism and Atlantism.

In the longer term, Italy must avoid being caught in the middle of rising Sino-American competition over its economic spoils.

This post is an excerpt from “Italy After COVID-19”, a forthcoming book edited by Andrea Goldstein and Giorgio Bellettini (Bononia University Press).

Giuseppe Gabusi is Assistant Professor of International Political Economy and Political Economy of East Asia at the University of Turin.

Giorgio Prodi is Associate Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Ferrara.


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A New Cold War? Can we maintain good academic relationships with China post Covid-19?

As a social scientist working in the field of Chinese politics, I note with interest the speed with which perceptions of China changed these last months. A Cold War mentality is detectable.

We hear from many parts of the world that China’s rise as a superpower is a challenge to the status quo. Politicians and media often label China’s Party-state as an illiberal regime. Nobody should trust it to play a positive role globally, not even in science.

Such criticisms have accelerated and turned into a movement-like wave, especially so under the Trump presidency. In the US, it has reached the level of a shrill crescendo during the Corona crisis.

Shrill as the criticisms may seem, China’s claims to innocence are no less high-pitched. China’s authoritarian Party-state has little tolerance with critics, neither abroad nor at home. This is especially true under Xi Jinping’s leadership, and more so during the Corona crisis. China’s leadership is not shy about admitting it.

While the Communist Party pursues an active and engaging science diplomacy internationally, it has strengthened its control with the organization of the country’s research environments; it demands political loyalty from the field and openly criticizes Chinese researchers with liberal inclinations or international connections.

At the same time, some governments, think tanks and media across the world accuse Chinese researchers of seeking to influence foreign research environments or to exploit them for illicit purposes, with the backing of the Chinese Party-state. Chinese entities of different hues have also come under critical scrutiny in the US and the EU. They are handled with suspicion; they may be sanctioned or even barred from entry or further operation.

At home, I was quite surprised to learn that after 10 years of collaboration, that my university one-sidedly scrapped the ongoing collaboration with Fudan University without discussion.

Navigating this fast-changing landscape is not easy for us or for Chinese social scientists. Last year I wrote about concerns for academic freedom in social science in China, and the Corona crisis has been a time for reflection about the way to counteract this.

Yet, although we are under pressure to accommodate public opinion, and the Communist Party of China demands that our Chinese colleagues align with their ideas, our common enterprise must still be that of independent critical research.

China will not go away; we must find new ways to do research on China and work with our Chinese partners in responsible and transparent ways, while dealing with the changing perceptions and the escalating Cold War mentality that pervades scientific collaboration. We must insist with our trusted partners that we maintain the bridges that we spent decades to build. Tearing then down is unfortunately much easier than building them.

Jørgen Delman is Professor of China Studies at Department of Cross-cultural and Regional Studies (ToRS), University of Copenhagen


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A View from China: Will COVID-19 Change the Way We Teach?

Isolating at home has become the norm, in what feels like an ultra-long winter vacation!

The Chinese Ministry of Education has decreed that “classes will be suspended, without school suspension” and so, like the rest of the world, we have had to turn to the webcast.

Webcast teaching has a number of advantages. It provides students with a more flexible way of learning, with some watching ‘live’, whilst others can, so long as they can access the Internet, undertake their learning when it is convenient.

There are also many online live teaching platforms, our class models are live broadcast, mu class, conference room, QQ group, WeChat group and so on. Teachers and students choose what is suitable for them, according to their own needs.

Most of the live broadcast software has recording and broadcasting function, and in places where you don’t understand or didn’t pay attention (and we all lapse at times), you can go back and review.

Immersive teaching videos are also far more vivid than words. After watching the teaching video online, students can also leave messages and send e-mails to the teacher about problems they do not understand; providing that two-way interaction and feedback that we all miss when we are not face-to-face.

Of course, there are also some challenges in online teaching.

Colleges and universities all over the country launched “online teaching” all at the same time. Due to too many people online at once, there have been problems such as stutter, flicker, and the continuous spooling circle.

Students also have to download and be familiar with many platforms, and there is not enough mobile space. Some students have also reported they have been busy downloading and learning to use the major online course applications had added to the stress of being a student.

There are also some students who live in remote mountainous areas who have to find the Internet on foot every day; and so it can take a lot of trouble to attend classes.

At the same time, online teaching challenges a student’s autonomous learning ability.

Many teachers say that in the classroom, teachers have more control over students, and it is difficult for students to escape from the teacher’s gaze. Online teachers can only see on-screen comments and ‘likes’, and it is difficult to evaluate students’ learning status immediately. There are also many students reflect that the environment at home is not as good as the classroom; noisier, more interference, and so learning efficiency is not so high.

No doubt these problems are universal – and so it will be interesting to see how many of these practices we retain, and how many we give up, when teaching in physical classrooms resumes.

Su Hong is a Senior Nurse Lecturer at Harbin Medical University Daqing. She also collaborates with staff at Edge Hill University


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