China is buying up Italy, one company at a time

Staking a claim.
Staking a claim.
Image: AP Photo/Antonio Calanni
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For several years, Italians have received a steady diet of scare stories about everything made in China. Signs in the market halls, editorials in the papers, and word of mouth have delivered a clear message: do not buy “Made in China” items. For a country that prides itself on the quality of its local products, cheap imports from China are often demonized as inferior knock-offs—some 90% of fake ”Made in Italy” merchandise allegedly comes from China, and even staples like tomato sauce and olive oil are not immune. Beyond appealing to their national pride, consumers are warned that jobs—a rather scarce commodity in Italy—are also at stake.

But while Italian shoppers may be urged to shun Made-in-China products, many cash-strapped Italian entrepreneurs can’t afford to be as picky when they choose business partners. Ahead of Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang’s upcoming visit to Italy, local businesses are looking to strengthen ties with their Chinese counterparts. To encourage Chinese investment in Italian companies, publisher ClassEditori set up an online portal—, which means “sell to the Chinese”—that features all sorts of classified ads directed at Chinese investors. Advertisers list everything from real estate to consumer products to entire companies.

Some 200 Italian business are now controlled by Chinese owners (not including the ones owned by Chinese living in Italy), according to La Repubblica, while China’s central bank holds stakes in several Italian blue chips like Fiat, Telecom Italia, Generali, and Eni, among others. Only the UK has attracted more Chinese money for acquisitions in Europe so far this year, according to Bloomberg. Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi was in China a few months ago, laying the groundwork for what he hopes will be even more investment in the months and years to come.

But while Italy’s political and business elite welcomes Chinese investments, the same isn’t necessarily true for pockets of the general public. Chinese people in Italy can face rather frequent racism based on worryingly widespread stereotypes. These prejudices aren’t something that money alone will solve.