The Chinese Roots of Italy’s Far-Right Rage
PRATO, Italy — Like everyone in her family and most of the people in the factories where she labored in this town nurtured by the textile trade, Roberta Travaglini counted herself an unwavering supporter of the political left.
During her childhood, her father brought her to boisterous Communist Party rallies full of music, dancing and fiery speeches championing workers. When she turned 18, she took a job at a textile mill and voted for the party herself.
But that was before everything changed — before China emerged as a textile powerhouse, undercutting local businesses; before she and her co-workers lost their jobs; before she found herself, a mother of two grown boys, living off her retired parents; before Chinese immigrants arrived in Prato, leasing shuttered textile mills and stitching up clothing during all hours of the night.
In last year’s national elections, Ms. Travaglini, 61, cast her vote for the League, an extreme right-wing party whose bombastic leader, Matteo Salvini, offered a rudimentary solution to Italy’s travails: Close the gates.
Denigrating Islam, and warning of an “invasion” that threatened Italians with “ethnic cleansing,” he vowed to bar boats bringing migrants from North Africa. He presented himself as an unapologetic nationalist who would rescue the dispossessed from what had become of the Italian left, long since metamorphosed into a distant elite.
To Ms. Travaglini’s ear, Mr. Salvini was speaking to people like her, and offering a coherent explanation for what had happened to their lives: Shadowy global forces and morally reprobate immigrants had stolen their Italian birthright — the promise of a comfortable life. Artisans and hardworking laborers had rescued Italy from the wreckage of World War II, constructing a prosperous nation, before wicked elements plundered the bounty.
“We are in the hands of the world elites that want to keep us poorer and poorer,” Ms. Travaglini says. “When I was young, it was the Communist Party that was protecting the workers, that was protecting our social class. Now, it’s the League that is protecting the people.”
The rise of the League — now exiled from the government, yet poised to lead whenever national elections are next held — is typically explained by public rage over immigration. This is clearly a major factor. But the foundations of the shift were laid decades ago, as textile towns like Prato found themselves upended by global economic forces, and especially by competition from a rapidly evolving China.
It is a story with parallels to the American industrial Midwest. As China rapidly ascended as an export power, joblessness and despair grew in the manufacturing heartland of the United States. Anger over decades of trade liberalization played a key role in putting Donald J. Trump in the White House.
Italy has proved especially vulnerable to competition from China, given that many of its artisanal trades — textiles, leather, shoemaking — have long been dominated by small, family-run operations lacking the scale to compete with factories in a nation of 1.4 billion people. Four Italian regions — Tuscany, Umbria, Marche and Emilia-Romagna — that were as late as the 1980s electing Communists, and then reliably supporting center-left candidates, have in recent years swung sharply toward the extreme right.
Many working-class people say that delineation is backward: The left had already abandoned them.
“So many Italian families are struggling,” says Federica Castricini, a 40-year-old mother of two who works at a shoemaker in Marche, and who has dumped the left for the League. “The left doesn’t even see the problems of Italian families right now.”
Despite its Marxist trappings and solidarity with the Soviet Union, the Italian Communist Party was never devoted to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. It was left wing in the same way as Nordic countries like Sweden, its leaders intent on equitably distributing the gains of economic growth.
“The left has always been able to govern during expansionary moments, during the construction of the economy after World War II,” says Nadia Urbinati, an Italian political theorist at Columbia University in New York. “They could govern by promising good salaries, a pension system and health care. When there was an expansive economy, the left was strong, because the left offers you jobs.
“But when there are no jobs,” Ms. Urbinati continues, “the left doesn’t have an alternative to the capitalist system. The right has an effective emotional short-term response, showing that it has the ability to use the state apparatus to impose law and order.”
Italy’s official unemployment rate has exceeded 10 percent for most of the last decade. High public debt combined with European rules limiting deficits have prevented the government from spending to promote growth. Banks choked with bad loans have held back lending. The population is aging, tax evasion is rampant, the economy is stagnant, and talented young people are leaving.
People in cities like Prato, next to Florence in the heart of Tuscany, have come to see the left as a tribe of effete technocrats, prescribing globalization as the solution to every problem.
“In the past, all the left-wing governments were saying there are no simple answers to complex problems,” says Riccardo Cammelli, an author of books about history and politics in Prato. “What Salvini is saying now is that there are simple answers to complex problems.”
The China shock
By the time World War II ended, Civitanova Marche was shattered. The town alongside the Adriatic Sea had attracted relentless allied bombing aimed at taking out bridges.
“The city was on its knees,” recalls Cesare Catini, 81. The oldest of three boys, Mr. Catini had to work to help support his family. At 12, he left school and started making shoes with his uncle, beginning a career that would trace the arc of Italy’s national progression.
In 1961, when Mr. Catini was only 22, he started his own business, making women’s shoes in his garage. His two younger brothers joined him. They bought leather from tanneries in Naples and Milan and made 50 pairs of shoes a day, selling their stock at street markets.
They invested their profits into adding machinery and workers. By the 1980s, they had hired a designer from Milan, and their factory employed 70 people, selling its shoes in the United States and West Germany. His two children completed high school. He and his wife, who handled the factory’s books, bought a brick house on a hilltop looking out on the glittering sea.
But by the 1990s, danger was brewing. At trade fairs in Milan and Bologna, where he displayed his wares to foreign buyers, Mr. Catini noticed visitors from China taking photos of his designs. “Why are they coming to fairs and not buying anything?” he wondered.
The following decade revealed the answer. German customers were canceling orders, suddenly able to buy increasingly high-quality shoes at cut-rate prices from Chinese suppliers.
In 2001, China secured entry to the World Trade Organization, gaining easy access to markets around the globe. In subsequent years, exports by Italian footwear manufacturers plummeted by more than 40 percent.
In a desperate bid to survive, Mr. Catini reluctantly struck a deal to make shoes for a trendy Italian fashion brand. He borrowed about 300,000 euros ($331,000) and used the money to establish a factory in Romania to make the uppers for the new shoes at a fraction of his costs in Italy.
Soon, the Italian brand pressed him to lower his prices, asserting that it could buy the same shoes for half the cost in China. But the reduced price would not have covered his expenses.
One morning in early 2008, Mr. Catini gathered his employees on the factory floor. He had known many of them for decades. He had attended their weddings, their children’s christenings, funerals for their relatives. He had advanced them pay to allow them to buy homes. Now, he told them that they were all losing their jobs.
“I dream of this every night,” he says, his ruddy cheeks contorting in pain. “The workers were part of the family, from the first to the last.” He crushes his brown twill cap in his hands, prompting his wife to reach over and gently take it away.
In the nearby hilltop town of Montegranaro, some 600 footwear companies have dwindled to about 150, prompting locals to embrace the League and its harsh words about immigrants.
“When people do not feel secure economically, they cannot stand the fact that guarantees are given to people who come from abroad,” says Mauro Lucentini, a League member who holds a seat on Montegranaro’s council.
His burly frame is clad in a blue sweater embroidered with an American flag. “Because I love America!” he says. “I love Trump!” He waves a blue and white scarf with the letters “Italians First,” along with the logo for the League — a warrior wielding a sword and shield.
Mr. Lucentini makes his living as a real estate agent. Over the past decade, housing prices have dropped by half, he says. Between 1996 and 2008, he sold about 100 apartments a year, he says. This year, he has sold 10.
As he wanders the village on a recent morning, navigating streets looking out on autumn-tinged pastures dotted with cypress trees, Mr. Lucentini indicates the landmarks of decline. His mother’s furniture store has been devastated by Ikea, which draws heavily on low-cost suppliers in Asia. Sheets of cardboard cover the glass doors of a failed retailer that sold shoelaces and other footwear accessories. A shop that sold tools and machinery is empty. A three-story factory that once employed 120 people sits abandoned, its paint peeling.
Mr. Lucentini greets an elderly woman, kissing her on both cheeks. The perfume shop she has operated for more than half a century is barely hanging on. He tickles the face of a newborn baby in a stroller.
“That’s very unusual,” he says later. “This is not a place where people are inclined to have children.”
The town’s population has dropped from about 14,000 two decades ago to 13,000, with about 1,000 new immigrants — Albanians, Africans and Chinese. He uses racist language to describe the recent arrivals, claiming that dark-skinned foreigners have degraded his community.
“When immigration was at its peak, there were many cases of violence,” he says. “Especially the Nigerians, who are very wild, very savage.”
This sort of talk has become increasingly common. Five years ago, in elections for the European Parliament, the League captured only 3 percent of the vote in Marche. This year, it garnered 38 percent. The center-left Democratic Party saw its support plunge from 45 percent to 22 percent.
The reasons for his community’s troubles are many, Mr. Lucentini concedes. The global financial crisis of 2008 was especially brutal in Italy. Existential worries about the euro currency lifted borrowing rates, tightening credit. Russians used to arrive in town with wads of cash to buy shoes, but American and European sanctions have stopped that.
Still, he maintains, the League is correct to focus on halting immigration as a solution to economic troubles, along with lowering taxes. Many migrants are not really fleeing war and poverty, he contends, contradicting reality, yet in a way widely shared by League supporters.
“We can’t help the last person in Africa and not help our neighbor,” he says.
‘Nobody was afraid of the future’
As long ago as the 12th century, people were making fabric in Prato, exploiting the availability of water via canals erected by the Romans.
The modern boom came after World War II, as people poured into the city to work in the mills. By the 1980s, Italy’s premier fashion houses were sending designers to Prato, as local producers yielded material for Armani, Versace, and Dolce & Gabbana. Textile operations stayed small and specialized, using workshops tucked into homes, enabling them to pivot quickly to satisfy changing fashion tastes. Local entrepreneurs watched runway models wearing their creations on catwalks in Paris and Milan and felt indomitable.
“We thought we were the best in the world,” says Edoardo Nesi, who spent his days running the textile factory started by his grandfather, and his nights penning novels. “Everybody was making money.”
The Communist Party controlled the town, using their power to deliver public works — a contemporary art museum, a library inside an abandoned mill, a textile museum.
Mr. Nesi’s father was a lover of Beethoven, literature and timely payment. He bestowed to his son a lucrative arrangement: He sent wool to overcoat manufacturers in West Germany, and they unfailingly sent back money 10 days later. His father assured him that this was a formula for enduring success. Be honest, produce quality fabric, “and you will be as happy as I am.”
“We lived in a place where everything had been good for 40 years,” Mr. Nesi says. “Nobody was afraid of the future.”
In retrospect, they should have been. By the 1990s, the Germans were purchasing cheaper fabrics woven in Bulgaria and Romania. Then, they shifted their sights to China. The German customers felt pressure to find savings because enormous new retailers were carving into their businesses — brands like Zara and H&M, tapping low-wage factories in Asia.
Chinese factories were buying the same German-made machinery used by the mills in Prato. They were hiring Italian consultants who were instructing them on the modern arts of the trade.
Some companies adapted by elevating their quality. One local mill, Marini, followed the American clothing brands that were its customers as they gravitated to China, shipping its fabric there. But this was clearly the exception. From 2001 to 2011, Prato’s 6,000 textile companies became 3,000, as those employed in the industry dropped to 19,000 from 40,000, according to Confindustria, an Italian trade association.
Mr. Nesi tried making clothes for Zara, which constantly demanded lower prices. “You started to work on how to pervert your own quality in order to sell it to Zara,” he says. “They wanted the best look. It had to be something that looks like your quality without actually being it. That’s more or less a description of what they wanted our life to become. Something that looks like your life but is of lesser quality.”
Eventually, he sold the business to spare his father from “an old age full of shame.”
‘Made in Italy’ (by Chinese immigrants)
As Prato’s factories went dark, people began arriving from China to exploit an opportunity.
Most were from Wenzhou, a coastal city famed for its entrepreneurial spirit. They took over failed workshops and built new factories. They imported fabric from China, sewing it into clothing. They cannily imitated the styles of Italian fashion brands, while affixing a valuable label to their creations — “Made in Italy.”
Today, more than a tenth of the city’s 200,000 inhabitants are Chinese immigrants here legally, plus, by varying estimates, perhaps 15,000 who lack proper documents.
Chinese groceries and restaurants have emerged to serve the local population. On the outskirts of the city, Chinese-owned warehouses overflow with racks of clothing destined for street markets in Florence and Paris.
Among Italian textile workers who have veered to the right, the arrival of the Chinese tends to get lumped together with African migration as an indignity that has turned Prato into a city they no longer recognize.
“I don’t think it’s fair that they come to take jobs away from Italians,” says Ms. Travaglini, the laid-off textile worker. She claims that Chinese companies don’t pay taxes and violate wage laws, reducing pay for everyone.
Since losing her job at a textile factory nearly three years ago, Ms. Travaglini has survived by fixing clothes for people in her neighborhood. “There are no jobs, not even for young people,” she says.
Chinese-owned factories have jobs, she acknowledges, but she will not apply. “That’s all Chinese people,” she says, with evident distaste. “I don’t feel at ease.”
The concept of multiculturalism is anathema to her. She insists that Italy is for Italians — a term that can never be extended to Chinese people, not even to Italian-born, Italian-educated, Italian-speaking Chinese people.
“They are Italianized,” she says, “but they are still not Italian.”
Within the Chinese community, people protest that their contributions to the local economy are typically dismissed in a haze of racist accusations.
“These warehouses were empty before Chinese people came,” says Marco Weng, 20, whose parents arrived from China three decades ago. “Chinese people didn’t take jobs. We have created jobs.” He is about to open a chain of Korean fried chicken restaurants with a partner.
Marco Hong, 23, a second-generation Chinese Italian, oversees production at the clothing company started by his parents. Operating under the Distretto 12 brand, the company buys fabric from Prato mills, sewing sleek, modern clothes that land on shelves in Spain and Germany. Some 35 people work at the factory, roughly half of them Italians.
“People who know the sector know that work has increased since the Chinese arrived,” he says.
What Ms. Travaglini knows is downward mobility. She buys groceries with cash from her parents. Her younger son is about to move to Dubai to look for work, seeing no future in Prato.
Her older son used to consider himself a Communist, worshiping Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Now, he is active with the League.
She can no longer afford to shop at the clothing boutiques in the medieval city center. On a recent afternoon, she goes to a Chinese-run outlet and surveys the inventory, much of it made in Prato by Chinese companies — fake fur winter coats, leather jackets, lacy bras.
“They are pretty things,” she says, “and they are not too expensive.”