How China is Using the Pandemic to Build Its Influence in Italy
The Chinese Communist Party is using the pandemic to penetrate the Italian political and economic systems. The immediate physical manifestation of this is large (and highly publicized) shipments of medical aid. Behind this is the extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the “Health Silk Road” jointly announced a week ago by prime minister Giuseppe Conte and President Xi Jinping.The real goal of this is to capture Italians’ healthcare and other sensitive data and boost Huawei’s image and plans for 5G in Italy.
The massive diplomatic campaign in Italy builds on years of effort spent boosting bilateral ties. A year ago Italy was the first G7 country to sign a BRI Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China. The move drew criticism from Italy’s Western allies, even though it failed to turn into more contracts with Beijing than those won by other EU countries such as Germany or France.
Today, Italy is paying the bill. Rome is at the center of Chinese Covid-19 propaganda. Not that China has to try that hard. Last week, the Chinese government sent 30 tons of medical supplies to Rome. Videos of Chinese aircraft landing appeared on the Facebook page of Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio. He publicly expressed his gratitude and linked the shipment to a call Foreign Minister Wang Yi two days before. A few days later, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to the Italian government showing his solidarity with the Italian people. The same day U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted “The USA loves Italy,” but the Italian public TV gave precedence to Xi’s letter in the evening news. Meanwhile, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson tweeted a video showing Italians chanting “thank you China” amid the Chinese national anthem. Similar videos appeared on the twitter page of the Vice-minister for Foreign Affairs Lijian Zhao and of the national TV CGTN (China Global Television Network). All of them were faked, as David Puente, a well-known Italian de-bunker, showed in detail on the “Open” online magazine.
Speaking to the Adnkronos news agency, the CEO of Huawei Italy, Thomas Miao, rejects claims that China is weaponizing the coronavirus for political ends. The emergency demonstrates the “absolutely strategic role” of telecommunications, he says, and the need for a “dedicated industrial policy” that adopts the best technologies “without prejudice.” His company’s emergency plans provide a “responsible and effective response” to the emergency, he claims, highlighting the use of 5G by Chinese authorities in combating the outbreak in its first hotspot, Wuhan. “Effective data exchange” was crucial in diagnosis and remote monitoring, the transmission of high resolution images, better collaboration between hospitals, and therefore better prevention and treatment, he says.
Miao’s not so veiled statements highlight the (much-contested) organic relationship between corporate policy and Chinese diplomacy. But even his defense of the Chinese government pales beside the words of his boss, Luigi De Vecchis, president of Huawei Italy, whose tweets not only defend the CCP but excoriate President Donald Trump as “an opportunist who thinks only of his political campaign.”
Huawei has been at the forefront of the solidarity campaign for Italy. Miao said he had set up “an internal crisis unit to better collaborate with national and local institutions and initiate concerted support actions with telecommunications operators and their partners” and that he had already donated “1,000 protective suits intended for some hospitals in Milan, while 200,000 FFP2 CE type masks are arriving from China.”
However, behind the health situation there is another one with serious implications for security: the future of cloud-based data in the Italian healthcare system. Miao highlights the way in which 5G, along with other technologies such as the cloud, AI, and big data, can guide the digital transformation of health systems to provide a more effective response to major public emergencies. In particular, he references a collaboration between Huazhong University of Science & Technology and Lanwon Technology to develop and launch an artificial intelligence-assisted quantitative diagnostic imaging service for Covid-19. “Thanks to our AI technologies such as computer vision and diagnostic imaging, the service can provide therapists automatically, quickly and correctly with the results of the computed tomography (CT Scan) quantification, remedying the shortage of medical images experts, accurately diagnosing Covid-19,” he says.
That might seem like a neutral statement about technological progress. But at stake are patient data. Medical records in Italy are subject to a strict privacy regime. There is no mention of that in the Huawei chief’s interview. “The service combines clinical information and laboratory results to help doctors distinguish more accurately between the initial and advanced stages and severe Covid-19, facilitating early screening, prevention and monitoring,” concluded Miao.
De Vecchis announced in a recent interview that the company is discussing the possibility of “connecting Italian hospitals to each other in the Cloud, communicating with crisis units and allowing some hospitals in different regions to communicate with the crisis units itself in real time, exchanging information, data and collaborating in an emergency.” It is not a small deal because many sensitive data passes through the Cloud of hospitals. In fact, there are already those who in Rome and Brussels want to ask for a parliamentary clarification for what appears to be the feeder road—or slippery slope—onto the “Via della Salute.”
Photo: “An Italian flag hung outside of a window in Bologna with the slogan ‘Andrà tutto bene’” by Pietro Luca Cassarino under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Francesco Bechis24 March 2020
Common Crisis is a CEPA analytical series on the implications of COVID-19 for the transatlantic relationship. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.