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Italy is believed to be the target area for Chinese propaganda, as Beijing has reportedly identified Italy as “the soft belly of the West”. Some claim this is why China readily agreed to assist Italy in its deadly fight against the virus, as the European state quickly became the worst-hit country on the continent at the beginning of the outbreak.
For example, a Financial Times investigation found China had manipulated video footage of Italians applauding Beijing for sending medical supplies to Italy.
The clips, broadcast by Chinese state media, showed images of Italians applauding along to the Chinese national anthem on their balconies and streets.
Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Chinese State Department, shared one of the videos on Twitter and wrote: “In Rome, while the Chinese anthem was being played, some Italians shouted ‘Grazie, Cina!’ on their balconies and their neighbours applauded.”
But the video was manipulated, alongside the hashtags #ThanksChina and #GoChina&Italy – which were generated by computer bots.
The videos of applause were taken from Italian news footage of people thanking the country’s medical staff.
Alessandro Ciapetti, from fact-checking website Pagella Politica, described the video as an “artfully created montage”.
Similarly, a Carnegie Foundation report identified Italy as being “a target area for China’s propaganda”.
An article, titled ‘Why the COVID-19 epidemic is so politicised’, said: “Some Westerners are beginning to lose confidence in liberal democracy” and “some [western countries] have become psychologically weak”, pointing to Italy.
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Commentators have also claimed China is purposely targeting Italy as a site for Chinese propaganda.
Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs think-tank, said: “Italy has become a big prize for China.”
When Italy became the first country in Europe to be hit by COVID-19 there was a big opportunity for China to reverse some of the negative publicity it had got by being seen to come to the aid of Italy.”
Antoine Bondaz, a researcher at the French Strategic Research Foundation, shares a similar view.
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He told Politico: “China sees Europe as the soft belly of the West.”
In their logic, there is the West, including the United States, which will stand against China for structural and ideological reasons, and its European allies, who have to be neutral in the event of a conflict between China and the United States.”
As a result, Italy is feared to become “China’s Trojan horse in Europe”, according to Italian journalist Giulio Meotti.
He said Italy is most vulnerable to the Chinese offensive because of its current economic circumstances.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast Italy’s economy will contract by almost 10 percent in 2020.
Such a sharp fall will cause Italy’s budget deficit to balloon to around 8.5 percent of GDP and its public-debt-to-GDP ratio to skyrocket from 135 percent to 160 percent by the end of the year.
Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg
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