China and the World

The Italian job

Tuscan city worries about Chinese invasion

The Italian job

Says it all, really...

“They’re not like other immigrants, who can be pretty thick,” Ricardo Marini told the New York Times. “The Chinese are very clever.”

In fact, Marini and his fellow Italians are worried about just how clever the Chinese can be. Marini runs a textile factory and heads the Prato branch of Confindustria, an organisation for Italian industrialists. He has watched as Chinese entrepreneurs have come to dominate Prato, a walled city near Florence that is also Italy’s textile hub.

There are about 3,000 Chinese textile factories in Prato, turning out predominantly low-end clothes. Mostly they import their fabrics from cheap mills in China. But here there is a cultural twist. While the locals view it as a classic case of ‘Made in China’ goods, the factory bosses are profiting from selling them with a ‘Made in Italy’ label. While a factory in China needs two months to replicate the latest Milan fashions and get cheap products into Europe’s shops, Chinese operators in Prato can do it in two weeks. And all with a “Made in Italy” label.

This infuriates rival Italian garment makers, especially those trying to position themselves at the luxury end of the clothing market, so as to compete on quality rather than price. They insist that the Chinese factories are degrading Prato’s chic image (historically the city was famous for its fine fabrics).

Adding to the brew is the accusation that Chinese bosses are keeping costs low by employing cheap Chinese labour – the vast majority illegal immigrants. Out of a total population of 187,000 in Prato, there are now 11,500 legal Chinese residents. But the mayor’s office estimates there are as many as 25,000 illegals.

With street signs in both Italian and Chinese, the locals feel their Tuscan city is being transformed into a ‘Chinatown’. The local chief of police told the New York Times that resentment is running high: “You take someone from Prato with two unemployed kids and when a Chinese person drives by in a Porsche Cayenne bought with money earned from illegally exploiting immigrant workers, then this climate is risky.”

There has been a backlash. A newly elected right wing mayor has launched a series of raids on Chinese factories to ferret out illegal labour. But some also see signs of bigotry in some of Mayor Roberto Cenni’s recent measures – for example, a ban on drying fish on balconies, a practice favoured by the new arrivals but not by the descendants of Marco Polo.

What also seems to enrage the Italians, says the New York Times, is being beaten at their own game, especially in tax evasion and navigating the country’s complex bureaucracy. That also helps to keep costs low. Daily profits of $1.5 million are repatriated to China, according to the Italian central bank.

The Chinese media is hitting back. According to the Beijing Youth Daily the Chinese community is being “slandered” in Prato. Zheng Shi, president of the Adriatic Overseas Chinese Association of Italy, says memories are short. Prato’s textile industry was close to collapse in the late eighties, and the Chinese were encouraged to invest. Bo Yuan, a Prato-based garment maker, says Chinese enterprises employ locally-born workers, and pay €5,000 a month for Italian designers. But now the welcome mat seems to have been rolled up, despite the “indelible contribution” of Chinese workers, the Beijing Youth Daily reports.

Phoenix TV commentator He Liangliang notes that the Italian government plans to discuss Chinese immigration in a forthcoming meeting with Wen Jiabao. But in He’s view Prato is just part of the process of globalisation. And the Chinese people succeed there because of “hard work”, something that Europeans can’t accept.

Further evidence of China’s “European textile crusade” is reported by Jing Daily. Europe’s flagship textile show – Premiere Vision – used to be open only to the continent’s own mills. But that is changing as so many close down. Now invites are being issued to Chinese mills too. It’s no wonder that some Chinese bosses might be confused by the mixed message.

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