A short and slightly journalistic piece for Whose World Order? over at ECFR, based around a conversation I was quite pleased with myself for having on a train in Italy. A fascinating topic I know that others are doing far more complex and interesting work on than this.
Date: 18th January 2011 | Author: Raffaello Pantucci,
Shanghai View has been on the road for much of the last month, hence the protracted silence. However, during my travels I had the good fortune of travelling through Italy and in particular of going through the Tuscan region near Florence and Pisa. While the slow pace and clear sky is about as far away from China as you can get, Beijing came back to me as I sat on a train from Empoli to Florence and Mr Wang came and sat down next to me.
Mr Wang was originally from a village just outside Xiamen in Southern China. He had moved to Italy almost 10 years ago and though still unable to speak much Italian, he had nevertheless set up shop with a wife and two children and worked in a leather factory near Prato. His son was apparently bilingual, but wanted to move to England to study, while his daughter now lived in China where she was fiercely proud of being Chinese (his characterisation) and had no interest in leaving the country. Typical of Fujianese, Mr Wang came from a large family that had left China to pursue opportunity around the world. He had a sister in Aberdeen, a brother in New Zealand and some others scattered elsewhere that I was not quite able to catch.
He had come to Italy to work, and while he didn’t go into the specifics of how he got there, once there he had clearly worked hard to achieve what he had. He seemed ambivalent about Italy and found there were problems with the locals that he could not understand. While initially bashful, he eventually blurted out that it was because the Italians were resentful of the long hours that the Chinese were willing to put in. This rang true with some stories I have read and heard elsewhere where locals in the textile manufacturing area of Prato have been overwhelmed by the volume of Chinese migrants coming to the city and this has led to tensions. Stories abound in Italy that this is part of a precise strategy by the Chinese government to “get a foothold in Europe,” but going on my conversation with Mr Wang, this seems like an unlikely scenario.
Instead, this phenomenon should be viewed through the prism of human migrations throughout history, as part of which people leave less prosperous areas to reach more prosperous ones. The difference with China is the sheer volumes involved, and the seemingly endless potential for more to come that exists. The issue of the Chinese in Prato is almost half a decade old now, but clearly no resolution has been found and nor is it likely that a tidy one will be. As long as there are Chinese citizens who want to migrate and are willing to take the low paid opportunities offered by Chinese firms in Prato, then this flow will likely continue (with or without government sanction). The same can be said for a vast array of other immigrant communities that are out there and eager to come to Europe or anywhere else.
What struck me as more interesting, however, were the different paths being pursued by Mr. Wang’s two children – one was clearly eager to stay in the West and in fact move to the UK, while the other was staunchly Chinese and had no desire to leave the Middle Kingdom. This dichotomy seems to reflect the reality of an increasingly cosmopolitan and internationalised young China that is torn between a keen interest in the world and a strong sense of national pride. What will be interesting is how the world reacts to this new international Chinese class, and whether it might prove to be the face of future Chinese soft power. What vision are this group going to project of their country in the world as it continues its upward trajectory?