Hijacking the mainstream: CCP influence agencies and their operations in Italian parliamentary and local politics

Policy brief by Sinopsis and the Global Committee for the Rule of Law “Marco Pannella”.

Summary of findings and recommendations

Recent controversy on the overt alignment of some senior Italian politicians with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talking points has attracted overdue attention, yet failed to expose the broader phenomenon behind it: the party’s centrally-guided efforts to shape policy and public opinion by influencing élite figures across Italy’s political spectrum, an instance of its global influence work.

This paper provides the first overview of the Italian activity of external influence agencies across the systems that compose the CCP-led apparatus, including three case studies that illustrate multi-system operations targeting Italian politics from the national to the municipal level. The CCP International Liaison Department (ILD), the Chinese Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT), as well as units in the party’s propaganda and united front systems and fronts linked to intelligence agencies, the cases show, are key actors in efforts to coopt parliamentarians, political parties, local officials and mainstream voices in think tanks and the media.

Using politicians, lobbyists and other local intermediaries as proxies, these operations repurpose democratic institutions as instruments of CCP policy. Vague appeals to ‘friendship’, ‘culture’ and trade help enlist mainstream, often CCP-critical figures as unwitting endorsers of a discourse-engineering endeavour: the installation of propaganda memes that normalise the CCP’s totalitarian rule and global expansion. Surrendering policy-making creativity to this new common sense, parliamentary circles have relayed propaganda whitewashing the party’s human rights abuses, while local governments joined a ‘Belt and Road’-themed network set up by a CCP influence agency.

The knowledge asymmetry between CCP influence agencies and their targets is a vulnerability these operations exploit. Unfamiliarity with influence agencies and tactics compromises the integrity of political institutions by making them easy cooption targets. Effective policy-making towards a balanced relationship with China requires knowledge of CCP influence work.

Policy-makers have tools at their disposal to address these vulnerabilities.

  1. Government bodies and political parties should build a cordon sanitaire around the CCP’s influence agencies, avoiding interactions that turn them into their instruments.

  2. Senators and MPs should reclaim Parliament from totalitarian cooption, declining to endorse parliamentary ‘China friendship’ groups and other platforms acting as effective proxies for the ILD and other CCP influence agencies.

  3. At the local level, authorities should focus exchanges with PRC counterparts on legitimate issues within their competencies, avoiding induction into propaganda initiatives pursued by CPAFFC, CCPIT and their local facilitators.

  4. Bodies such as the parliamentary security and foreign affairs committees and individual legislators should investigate CCP influence operations, bringing transparency and accountability by scrutinising government exchanges with PRC counterparts and publicly disclosing their own.

  5. Parliamentary bodies and political parties should use regular briefings to make up-to-date research on CCP influence available to parliamentarians and local officials.

  6. A democratic consensus across the political spectrum in Italy and its allies should support an adaptation of the legislative framework to effectively counter foreign interference.

Full text (English)

Full text (Italian)