Sign in | Log in

Kublai Khan’s Revenge: The Silk Road is a Two-way Street

Kublai Khan’s Revenge: The Silk Road is a Two-way Street

Jerry Krase (April 17, 2019)
Jerry Krase
Chinese-Italian Meat Market on Via Paolo Sarpi, in Milan's Italian fashion Chinatown

In 1295 Marco Polo returned home to Venice from Kublai Khan’s Court near Beijing, China. Seven centuries later, China’s current Khan -- Xi Jinping -- is returning the favor via the One Belt, One Road. It’s been a long time in coming.


In the community pool near my summer home in Connecticut, the children play a game of tag they call “Marco Polo.” The object of the game is not to be caught by “Marco” who is chosen to be

"it." Marco then closes his/her eyes and gets on one end of the swimming pool. Marco counts to 10 and shouts "Marco" and the others shout "Polo." Once Marco catches a person, then that person is now "it" and so on… Evidently, the catch and release game is played a little differently in China

In 1295 Marco Polo returned home to Venice from Kublai Khan’s Court near Beijing, China. Seven centuries later, China’s current Khan -- Xi Jinping -- is returning the favor via the One Belt, One Road. It’s been a long time in coming.

In the Fall of 1996, while I was on sabbatical from Brooklyn College I spent six wonderful weeks as a visiting professor (Professore Visitando) in the distinguished Sociology Department (Dipartimento Sociologia) at the University of Trento (Universita di Trento) when my knowledge of the Italian language was limited to little more than the preceding parenthetical translations. My kind hosts therefore saw it necessary to assign an advanced doctoral student as my translator/interpreter, for the duration. Gangfeng was Chinese-born and in no time at all, we foreigners became good friends. He also introduced me to some of the other Chinese residents of the city, one of whom ran an authentic Chinese restaurant in the historically foreign “German” part of town. The restauranteur was an accomplished photographer who gave me an autographed copy of one of his books when I expressed interest in it. This kindness (gentilezza) is a feature of Chinese culture.

I was there to explore ethnic vernacular landscapes. You might know that Trento is in the German-Italian bi-lingual, bi-cultural autonomous region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Sudtirol.  So, I visited and photographed both German and Italian settlements as often as my hosts would take me. I also lectured on "Multiculturalism in American Urban Life" which was a touchy topic  as at the time, Umberto Bossi was leading the rising Northern League’s (Lega Nord) separatist anti-South /anti-immigrant Padania movement, which began about the time of my arrival.

The League (La Lega) is now headed by Matteo Salvini who as Deputy Prime Minister shares the leadership of all of Italy with the Five Star Movement’s (Cingue Stelle) Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Development Luigi Di Maio. Together they have led Italy further down the road to perdition. So much so that the anti-foreigner nation is almost begging for someone to save them from the European Union’s austerity demands.

With such strong anti-foreigner feelings in mind, I turned to my fabulously fluent friend, to help me understand Italy’s ironically strong connections with China. For example, China was sending students to Italy to study and Italy was keen on establishing good relations; especially with businesses in the rapidly growing Chinese economy.  It seemed to me during my research that in every large city in Italy there was a section loaded with Chinese export businesses shops. Not far from Florence at the time was the booming city of Prato dominated by Chinese residents and businesses including the great fashion houses.

According to a recent article in The New Yorker by D.T.Max: “If you were willing to be paid off the books, and by the piece, Prato offered plenty of opportunities.” The legal and illegal Chinese immigrants were also welcome because: “The Italians, being canny, would subcontract out their work to the Chinese,” Don Giovanni Momigli, a priest whose parish, near Prato, included an early influx of Chinese, told me. “Then they were surprised when the Chinese began to do the work on their own.”

It was hard for me at the time to understand, given the rabid anti-immigrant bias, especially in the North of Italy, how it was so easy for thousands of Chinese migrant workers and entrepreneurs to get through the allegedly tough immigration barriers. Even more surprising, given their being visually so easily distinguishable from most Europeans. This was simply explained to me by Gangfeng in English: First of all, Italians were amazed the incredible longevity of the Chinese who had traveled to Italy. He laughed wryly, when he added that since Italians were incapable of distinguishing one Chinese person from another, the migrants could use the same photo identification travel documents such as passports. This racial myopia mirrors my own experience during trips to China where “we” Europeans all looked alike.

The Business Insider reported that the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between China and Italy’s 8th largest world economy is “President XI Jinping’s biggest victory.”  The BRI is designed to inexorably link China to countries around the globe with trade-friendly railroads, gas pipelines, shipping lanes, and other Chinese-funded (and often staffed) infrastructure projects. However, as might be expected xenophobic Salvini and Trump have both criticized the decision and the slightly less xenophobic “European” Union EU is split over the prospect. Characteristically, Salvini and La Lega are vehemently opposed to the “Chinese colonizing Italy.” On the other hand, Cingue Stelle is in favor, as is Giovanni Tria, the Minister of  the Economy and Finance, who is overseeing the MOU.  It was signed by Italy’s “nonpartisan” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Along with the agreement, Italy also signed onto additional deals with China on port management, energy, steel, and gas worth more than 20 billion Euros. It is reported the Chinese BRI will spend 1-8 Trillion Euros worldwide.

DISCLAIMER: Posts published in i-Italy are intended to stimulate a debate in the Italian and Italian-American Community and sometimes deal with controversial issues. The Editors are not responsible for, nor necessarily in agreement with the views presented by individual contributors.
This work may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission.
Questo lavoro non può essere riprodotto, in tutto o in parte, senza permesso scritto.