On China's New Silk Road

ep03Old World, New Silk Road: Italy & Europe

Old World, New Silk Road: Italy & Europe

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Italian populists—skeptical of the value of EU membership—drove Italy to become the first G7 country to join China’s New Silk Road amid pushback from Europe and the US. Italians hoped this would boost their exports to China and increase Chinese investment in Italy. But not much happened. Then came the pandemic, and generous EU aid, leaving Italians to reassess who their real friends are, and how best to help their economy.

Episode Transcript

(Sound of church bells)

Venice is full of churches. Many of them were built by wealthy traders over the centuries, when Venice was a center of international trade. 

(Sound of water lapping)

Some of these churches were built during a wave of plagues that hit Venice and Europe over more than three centuries, starting in the 1300s. In fact, the idea of the quarantine started on islands in Venice. Because – all those ships, all that trading, brought not just goods, and ideas and innovations, but also disease. 

Now, as the world counts the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, each country has choices to make about how to recover, and where its future lies. And Italy’s may involve China.

(Music)

You’re On China’s New Silk Road. I’m Mary Kay Magistad, a former China correspondent for NPR and PRX’s The World. And I’m looking here, with the Global Reporting Centre, at how China’s global ambition is seen around the world, and at the impact Chinese trade and investment are having on the ground.

(Music fades into sound of loading containers at port)

In Venice, the modern port of Marghera is on the outskirts of the old city. Here, trains come and go to the German cities of Frankfurt and Duisburg; Duisburg is actually a terminal for the New Silk Road train that comes from China. Lots of steel and industrial parts come here, to the Port of Marghera, where automated cranes load containers onto trucks, and then onto ships.

(Sound of warning beep of equipment moving containers)

Many are headed east – ultimately to China. In fact, this port now promotes itself as “The Western terminal of the 21st Century Silk Road.” China is Europe’s second largest trading partner, only slightly behind the United States. Trade between China and Italy, specifically, has increased five-fold over the past two decades—though with Chinese imports to Italy still more than twice as high as Italian exports to China. Italy would like to change that. And on a hot summer’s day, months before COVID-19 struck, port spokesman Stefano Nava was bullish about this port’s future:

Stefano Nava: Expect continuous growth, constant growth. The bump is connected also to our capability to build up some new facilities for a container terminal, or some other agreements with China and so on. 

Because Venice has had plans to build an off-shore port to allow bigger ships to come in. But the local government never got around to dredging the lagoon to make that possible. So some Chinese shipping and investment has now shifted its focus to other northern Italian ports – Genoa, and Trieste. 

Investments in and around those two ports are part of what Italy and China agreed to when Italy, in March 2019, became the first G7 country to join China’s New Silk Road.

(Music)

The New Silk Road’s direct translation from Chinese is the Belt & Road – a Belt of land routes – roads, railways, pipelines, power stations, 5G telecommunications, and a Maritime Silk Road of ports and sea routes – built with Chinese financing, and usually by Chinese companies. Most of the world’s countries have signed on, or expressed interest. 

And the CEO of Venice’s port, Pino Musolino, says investments from China’s government, private companies and state-owned enterprises, or SOEs – are changing the world: 

Pino Musolino: We can see that the interest, it’s exponentially increasing, particularly for Europe and even more, the Mediterranean basin. Let’s not forget that on the upper side of the Mediterranean, there is Europe. On the southern side of the Mediterranean is Africa, which is the place where Chinese SOEs and private enterprises are investing probably the most in the whole planet. So it’s an area that is pivotal for their interest, and for the interests of global trade.

(Sound of ferry horn) 

And possibly, an opportunity for Italy – to get more of its goods to China. 

That matters even more now, with Italy’s economy hard-hit by COVID. But even before COVID, Italy was struggling with high debt, high unemployment, and stagnant wages. And back then, many Italians complained the European Union was not doing enough to help. China’s New Silk Road was seen as offering an alternative – but not one without risks. 

To understand better how Italians see those opportunities, and risks, I’ve come to Italy to travel with an old friend. And here in Venice, she knows her way around: 

Laura Daverio: So we are really in the middle of the crowd, now. We are just by Rialto Bridge. This is where most tourists get off the boat. We just got off the boat ourselves. 

Laura Daverio is an Italian journalist, who lived just down the street from me in Beijing, over a decade when we were both correspondents in China. We often took cappuccino breaks together, to kick around ideas. And my reporting was better for it. Laura grew up in Milan, then went to university here in Venice – with a focus on Chinese language and Far Eastern studies.

Laura: The first apartment, my shared apartment when I was a student here, was just by the bridge. So, I was very lucky to find a location like this

MKM: So taking the boat here, the water taxi, there was a fair number of Chinese on our boat. Probably one in every five people on our boat was Chinese. You decided to study Chinese years ago, when you were here. Were there many Chinese in Venice then?

Laura: There weren’t many Chinese. No, definitely there weren’t. And the ones who were around were mostly linked to the university, really in a way or another. There were tourist groups, but it was a very, very different scene. I mean, only the fact that the tourists that we’re seeing here are also very much individual tourists. We have seen, like, next to us, there were two families, with small children, right? After the mass tourism, that’s what you get. You get individual tourism. And this is already extremely visible. So clearly, this is, this is now the place that the Chinese very much feel comfortable to come to.

(Sound of crowds along Venice’s Grand Canal.)

Venice’s Grand Canal. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Some 300,000 Chinese now live in Italy. Millions more come as tourists each year – or did, before COVID. 

(Sound of Chinese tourists chatting)

They especially love to come to Venice, to see the canals, the old stone warehouses, and the domed churches and red-tiled villas that still echo Venice’s glory days as a world trading hub, when ships would sail right up to San Marco Square. It was from here that a 17-year-old kid named Marco Polo joined his dad and uncle in 1271 to travel to China on the old Silk Road. 

Laura: His home was here. It was a merchant family. They went to China. They came back after 24 years.

MKM: That’s a good chunk of your life to spend somewhere on a visit.

Laura: Well, if I think about it, I stayed 21. (Laughs)

(Sound of Italian music)

Laura and I decide to check out the place where Marco Polo lived, when he came back to Venice from China. We walk away from the Grand Canal, past a smaller canal with gondolas filled with tourists, down a stone path, past shops selling Italian souvenirs that – if you look – have ‘Made in China’ labels. 

And we end up in a quiet courtyard, gazing at a corner formed by two tall brick buildings with Turkish style windows. There’s a plaque saying, Marco Polo lived here. On the other side of the courtyard is an outdoor café, with a friendly Chinese staff, serving aperitifs and Prosecco – which is made in this region. 

In fact, millions of bottles of Prosecco ship from here to China. We find a table, and raise a glass to Marco Polo’s impact in bringing China alive in the Western imagination: 

Laura: Well yes, I mean, he did become a symbol. His memoir had a huge impact. But, I mean, through his memoir, there is a lot of knowledge. And definitely there is also a lot of fascination that he left for the generations to come. So it has become a cultural bridge between the two. Possibly it has become more. I mean, if you listen to the Chinese, the whole spaghetti thing, you know, was imported by Marco Polo. I’m not sure how much that’s true. But you know, merchants did bring knowledge from both sides of their deals. But of course his name became much bigger than that, and has become really a symbol of being a bridge between two cultures.

China’s New Silk Road aims to connect Italy and China more closely, too. But Laura’s not sure how much Italy is actually getting out of this. China has invested almost $20 billion in Italy over the past 20 years. But that investment peaked four or five years before Italy joined the New Silk Road. Italy’s biggest trading partners are Europe first, then the United States, with China taking less than 3 percent of Italy’s exports. So, Laura wanted to hear more about the thinking behind Italy joining the New Silk Road. She went to see Italian economist Michele Geraci, who spent a decade in China himself, and was Italy’s Undersecretary of Economic Development when Italy joined the Belt & Road. In fact, he was instrumental in making it happen. And he sees this as a natural partnership: 

Michele Geraci: And in truth, I do think that Italian, and maybe Southern Italian, even Mediterranean culture, is closer to Chinese culture, more than Mediterranean culture is closer to German or Northern European culture. And I think that’s what we need to explain, that Italy’s unique. It’s unique in the history. It’s one of the oldest civilizations. And probably the old Chinese empire and the Italian, the Roman empire are two of the examples of countries that really, went beyond their original natural borders to export certain civilization to the neighboring countries.

Laura: What have you seen in terms of, when, has Italy being successful and when has Italy failed? 

MG: It has been successful more as a random occurrence of individual successes. But the overall failure that Italy has had in dealing with China, has been Italy has not dealt as a system vis-a-vis China. The approach to China has been scattered, I think, from an economic point of view, from a trade strategy point of view, from a political point of view, from a business point of view. And so Italy, as a whole, in China, is known only for the success of the individual stories, in current times, and for the history that we carry on, and we actually live off, 500 years since the Renaissance – and fashion, football, lifestyle. The Italian lifestyle is a good basis on which individuals build their own success. But the Italian economic system so far has failed to fully capture this potential. And this is what we are trying to change now. 

Michele Geraci knows there’s been criticism about Italy opening its ports to Chinese investment. Some of Italy’s neighbors have even called it a Trojan horse for China to dominate Central Europe.

Calm down, he says. It’s just business – as with the many other European ports China already manages or owns, at least in part: 

Michele Geraci: We have Bilbao, Valencia, Antwerp in Belgium, Zeebrugge, Piraeus in Greece of course, Dunkirk, Le Havre, Marseilles, Nantes in France, Malta, Rotterdam in the Netherlands. So when we hear warnings that Chinese should not invest in the Italian ports, it’s too late. China has already invested in all major European ports, and almost manages 15 to 20 percent of European traffic. So Italy again has been left behind. And the purpose of this MOU is to try to bring Italy back as a terminal of the Silk Road. 

And so, it happened. China’s president Xi Jinping came to Rome to welcome Italy onto the New Silk Road. 

(Sound of music at ceremony) 

Italian soldiers in red accented capes and metal helmets sat astride white horses, who tossed their heads as the Chinese and Italian national anthems played, and their flags were hoisted. Through it all, President Xi stood in the sun with his signature hint of a smile, able to tick off another strategic goal. First G7 country to join the New Silk Road. Check. 

(Sound of Chinese national anthem)

That same month, March 2019, the European Union’s executive body called China a strategic competitor, and a systemic rival. 

(Sound of EU anthem, Beethoven’s 9th: Ode to Joy) 

It wasn’t just that the EU has its own infrastructure initiative to connect all EU member states with each other by 2050. Nor is it just that the EU has started its own infrastructure initiative to connect Europe and Asia, directly competing with China’s New Silk Road. There’s certainly concern that China is trying to split the EU, since 15 EU members have joined the New Silk Road, and China has formed its own grouping with 16 former East Bloc countries plus Greece. Those things matter. But it’s also a clash of values. 

The EU was founded on the values of democracy, human rights, rule of law. The Chinese government has called these pernicious. So when COVID-19 hit Europe, and China sent masks and medical equipment, this Deutsche Welle report from Germany, sounded a little skeptical: 

Richard Walker, in Deutsche Welle report: It’s late March in Serbia, and a plane has just landed at Belgrade airport. This is no ordinary flight. On board are medical teams and tons of equipment, to help fight the coronavirus. They’ve flown in from China, and they get a hero’s welcome. The president himself is here.

The video footage shows Chinese medical workers in identical crimson jumpsuits, black baseball caps and blue medical masks, walking down the stairs from their plane, and bumping elbows with their welcoming committee. Similar scenes played out in Italy, Hungary, Austria, Greece, Spain and elsewhere in Europe – which led this Deutsche Welle reporter, Richard Walker, to ask: 

Richard Walker, in Deutsche Welle report: So – What’s going on? Just a few weeks ago, China was the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, the place where the outbreak began. Has it suddenly gone from victim to saviour? 

One EU official called it “the politics of generosity,” with China using its aid to push the message that, unlike the United States, China is a reliable partner. Such skepticism led a Chinese state-run television host, Liu Xin, to ask in apparent exasperation: 

Anchor Liu Xin, on the air: China has been providing sorely needed medical supplies to countries around the world, but the aid hasn’t always been received with open arms. Is this China’s problem? Is there any way China can help without being criticized? 

To be fair, lots of countries thanked China for the help. Serbian leaders talked about building a monument in China’s honor. And the president of the EU Commission, Germany’s former defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, said it plainly: 

Ursula von der Leyen: We are grateful for support from China. 

But she also said, this was kind of returning a favor:

Ursula von der Leyen: When the virus hit China, the European Union responded swiftly. We coordinated and co-financed the delivery of over 56 tons of emergency medical supplies. China then reciprocated when Europe faced the pandemic. And we agreed on the need to continue this mutual solidarity. 

Italians were less thrilled that they had to deal with COVID at all. One prominent Italian, Sandro Bottega of Bottega prosecco, said in an open letter published in the newspaper La Stampa that China should pay Italy, and the world, for damage caused by COVID-19, since China didn’t do enough early on to stop it. Chinese reaction online was swift and furious, vowing to boycott all Bottega products. One big importer to China actually dropped the brand. Bottega himself ended up issuing a written and video apology. And to anyone else who thinks China should apologize, China’s state-run CGTN network, had a rather tart response:

CGTN video: When Columbus traveled to the New World, bringing smallpox and syphilis, which killed countless natives, were Europeans asked to apologize? 

Other frictions were developing between Italy and China over COVID-19 too. And a video that ran on China’s state-run television, falsely claimed that at the height of Italy’s outbreak, many Italians had been singing the Chinese National Anthem from their balconies, and shouting “Grazie China!”…

(Sound of someone nearby saying ‘Grazie China’) 

….”Thank you, China,” for all the masks and other protective equipment. Actually, Italians under lockdown during the pandemic shouted thanks to their own medical workers, and sang their own national anthem: 

(Sound of Italians singing their own national anthem)

And then there was one other thing. After a virtual EU-China summit in June, the EU Commission’s President, Ursula von der Leyen, said she’d told China’s leaders during the summit that the European Union has traced how Chinese were busy in a different way, during the worst of Italy’s pandemic: 

Ursula von der Leyen: We have seen cyberattacks on hospitals and dedicated computing centers. Likewise, we’ve seen a rise in online disinformation. And we pointed out clearly that this cannot be tolerated.

Overall, she said:

Ursula von der Leyen: It is not possible to shape the world of tomorrow without a strong EU-China relationship.

But to have a strong relationship she said, China’s got to act more responsibly and fairly – no more cyberattacks, more transparency, a more level playing field for EU-China trade, where both sides follow the same rules. She said China’s a negotiating partner for the EU, sure, but it’s also an economic competitor and a systemic rival, and that combination: 

Ursula von der Leyen: Shows the relationship that is not an easy one, but one we’re working on.

The EU is also working on rebuilding confidence among Europeans who feel that neither the EU nor the EU’s alliance with the United States does enough for them. 

In the midst of Italy’s worst COVID stretch, in April, a survey asked Italians, ‘to whom should Italy turn for alliances outside of Europe?’ And for the first time, more Italians said China, than the United States. A similar survey in Germany found similar results. 

Weeks later, the European Union announced a massive aid package for EU members – almost $900 billion worth, with almost a quarter of it earmarked for Italy. This suggested the EU had learned a lesson, from what happened when the EU was less than supportive in a time of crisis before – during the 2008 financial crisis. When Greece was struggling and the EU was demanding austerity, China came in to fill the vacuum. It started investing in Greece’s most storied port, Piraeus: 

Xinhua reporter: Piraeus Port is holding a key role in the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st Century, and is being transformed into a most significant transit hub for the rapidly growing trade between Asia and Europe.

This is from a report on China’s state-run Xinhua television network, on how the Chinese shipping company COSCO transformed Piraeus. COSCO now manages and owns a majority stake of the port. And Piraeus is now the busiest port in the Mediterranean, and one of the fastest-growing in the world. 

And that’s one way global power shifts. It might be gradual. It needn’t be binary. Countries simply adjust. They have their own interests, their own goals. They look to see who can help them meet those goals. And on that count, says the head of Venice’s Port, Pino Musolino, the United States needs to wake up.

Pino Musolino: US have understood a little bit too little, and a little bit too late, with all the due respect, what was going on with the Belt & Road. And still, they haven’t understood properly what’s going on and what’s happening. I have had, recently, very good talks with high rankings officials from the US. And I, in a friendly but provocative manner, I asked, ‘where are you guys? What are you proposing as an alternative?’ Because countries are naturally oriented into trying to grow and develop a strong economy. And, and of course, the United States is the number one economy of the planet. But China is the second one, and it’s growing fast.

China’s Maritime Silk Road has been part of China’s plan to keep that growth going. Some US and European military experts are focused on where all this might lead militarily. But Pino Mussolino says it’s not just Chinese military actions that Europeans should worry about: 

Pino Musolino: I mean, the Belt & Road is not just about infrastructures. It’s a huge design aimed at controlling trade flows, and controlling the main global value chains. If you control those, you don’t need to control any army anymore. You are controlling the very specific wealth of any country along those economical corridors. Chinese are very much aware of this, and they are doing a very good job on this, honestly. And they are also very straight forward on this, I have to say, I don’t see them particularly scheming on this. They are just working on that. And they have a clear goal. And they are pursuing their goal quite clearly. 

He says, that doesn’t mean don’t do business with China. Just know what your interests are, and protect them. 

When Italy joined the New Silk Road in March 2019, France’s president Emmanuel Macron said Europeans had to stop being naïve about China. By that point, Chinese companies had bought up many key European companies: Italy’s tiremaker Pirelli, Switzerland’s seed and agribusiness company Syngenta, Germany’s robotics company Kuka, and more than 100 other German companies. China was integrating the technologies of all of these companies into its own capabilities. Its goal is to become a leading global competitor in cutting edge technologies by 2025. 

This directly competes with the EU’s own goals in innovation and infrastructure. But before the pandemic, China was moving faster. And many pragmatic countries and regions and companies went where the action was, and where the money was. 

When Italy joined the New Silk Road, some of that money was meant to come to northern Italy’s ports of Trieste and Genoa.

 Laura and I are interested in how that’s playing out – so we hop a train. 

(Sound of conductor asking for tickets on train)

Laura: Yes, we’re on our way to Trieste. Well, Trieste has a port, and is the port that is seen as the most potential with the Belt & Road. It’s a port that has been already expanding in the last few years. So I think it makes sense to go and talk to people there, and try to understand where we stand now, and if a stronger presence of China might make a big difference. 

As the train rolls along, through Italian countryside, vineyards and villages, we talk about what this political moment means for Europe in general, and Italy in particular – this moment of Euro-skeptic populism, when China was making enticing offers, and the EU and the United States were slow to offer something better: 

Laura: It’s a very complicated historic moment. I mean, you definitely have the rise of this new power. And at the same time, it’s a moment of deep crisis for the European Union. This move on the Belt & Road from Italy, so far hasn’t really brought that much of a difference. But again, you have an agreement that, you know, is not within the frame of the European Union, from a country who is much weaker without it. And yet, it’s moving forward. So, you know, we have to see what happens. But certainly, this is a very weak moment for the European Union, which works at many levels, but the rise of right-wing parties within Europe is also the rise of anti-EU movements, at a crucial time. So I think we’re really at a moment where you make it or break it. 

(Sound of announcement: “We are now arriving in Trieste,” then out on the streets of Trieste)

Trieste is a picturesque city, with villas on a hill, and grand Hapsburg-era squares and white marble buildings. It was a port in the Roman empire, and in the center of town is an ancient Roman amphitheater. It’s now on a busy street, but a couple thousand years ago, it was on the water’s edge. Theatre-goers could look directly out to the sea as they viewed the performance.

An ancient Roman amphitheater in the center of Trieste. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Laura: Yes, yes, the direction was towards the sea, which wasn’t really far from here. 

From time to time, they still do some performances here. They still have audience, here at the theatre. But it’s just really in the middle of the road. You just drive here, and here’s the theatre.

Laura knows Trieste well. Her mom grew up here. And Laura used to come here in the summers, to visit her relatives. Trieste’s population has gradually been shrinking and aging. There are about 200,000 people here now. But Trieste still has a couple of strong selling points to bring in new investment. It’s a gateway to Central and Eastern Europe, where Europe’s fastest growth is now. And it’s a free port, as it has been for 300 years. So the port is now trying out new ways to draw in new business, including investment from China. 

(Sound of walking into the Port’s reception area)

Laura and I are at the port to meet its president, Zeno D’Agostino. While we wait in the reception area, a half dozen Italian men come by in sharp suits, accompanying Chinese visitors. They shoot us a stern, sideways glance.

(Sound of door squeaking as it opens, then slamming shut.) 

We learn later that these visitors were from the Chinese shipping company, COSCO. Zeno’s going to be busy for a little while. So we get a drive-around tour of Trieste’s modern port facilities. 

They’re just across the bay from the gloriously dilapidated wooden warehouses of the old 18th Century Hapsburg era port – now abandoned.

18th century warehouses in Trieste. (Mary Kay Magistad)

(Sound of cast iron being loaded into a truck)

In Trieste’s modern port, a lot of metal passes through. So does oil. The TransAlpine Pipeline takes it from here to Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. But Zeno D’Agostino, the port president, wants to do much, much more. 

Zeno D’Agostino: Now it is a great opportunity. We must try to use this opportunity, which is the vision to be a node in the world logistics. Adriatic now has a new dignity. Adriatic is an important sea now, or it will be, in the future, an important sea. Because the economy of Europe now is in the Eastern Europe. It’s no more in the Western. And so Adriatic is a central channel, sea channel that goes directly into the heart of a productive Europe. 

In the past five years, he says, Trieste’s port has doubled the number of cargo trains coming here, and going into Europe. Trieste’s Port System Authority now owns a couple of dry ports, and a free trade zone. So shippers can keep their goods in warehouses, duty-free. They only pay duty when they need to take goods out of it. There’s even an industrial zone here at the port, where companies can make the products that go into the warehouses, with some, perhaps, on their way to China. Zeno is also working to build a logistics platform for Italian imports, on China’s east coast.

Trieste’s port. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Zeno D’Agostino: So what we are trying to do with the Chinese, and I can say that we’re succeeding in this, is that we see what they can do here, but we are seeing also what we can do in China. 

MKM: You want reciprocity.

ZD: Yeah. But we wrote, and we agreed about reciprocity. You know, the difference is that you are not in Djibouti or in Pakistan. 

Let me repeat that. We’re not in Pakistan, or Djibouti – two places where China has bought its way into strategic ports. In Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, China has its first foreign naval base, not far from a US naval base. But Zeno’s a little impatient with news reports he’s read, about how Trieste’s port has been sold off to China, that China’s just trying to get a strategic foothold here, and not only for trade. 

Zeno D’Agostino: I don’t need the money of the Chinese. I can tell you, without problem. So if we do what we agreed, we are both satisfied. If they do what they want, it is something different from what they agreed, we cannot do. The port is growing without the Chinese, so we have no problems. 

And anyway, he says, no one in Italy can sell a port, or any strategic asset, to a foreign entity. It’s the law. Chinese companies are welcome, like anyone, to bid for a concession – but not to buy. 

Still, he acknowledges, Italy, and Europe need to be both pragmatic and alert, in this world in which great powers are contending: 

Zeno D’Agostino: If you have two cocks, and the two cocks they are fighting, you’ll see who gets the chicken. So now we have two cocks. And the problem everywhere, it is not what the Chinese do. The Chinese are doing their interests. The problem is that Europe is sleeping. So – 

MKM: Europe is sleeping?

ZD: Yeah! What is it doing, Europe? You know, in 2013 in China, in Beijing, they decided that it was useful for the interest of the economy of China to create the Belt & Road Initiative. And they did it. And they are doing it. What I cannot accept is that in my continent, in the European Union, the only idea is to follow the Chinese ideas. 

Months later, Laura checked back in with Zeno to see how Chinese investment in Trieste is shaping up. Zeno said, not much was happening yet. But the Chinese shipping company COSCO had been making noises about shifting some of its focus from the port of Genoa to Trieste. Beyond that, he said, an unexpected bonus of getting all that publicity when Italy joined the New Silk Road was – it pulled in all kinds of new investment from Europeans. Maybe Europe has woken up. 

America, on the other hand, he says, could give Italians more credit than it does, for knowing how to deal with China, in trade, investments, and in managing security risks: 

Zeno D’Agostino: You know, I think that they should also think that there are brains, also, outside the United States. 

MKM: There are?

ZD: Brains also outside the United States, not only there. And I think you, you could also trust a little bit also the other nations. 

Don’t get me wrong, he says. I like Americans.

Zeno D’Agostino: My father was a great boogie-woogie dancer. So I think that only for this. (Laughs) You know, if you look at my iPhone, there are only Frank Sinatra [songs]. So, you know, only about the culture, I think that Italy, especially, has a great relation with the United States. And there is a great debt that Italy – me, my father, my grandfather – they had with the United States. The problem is that if you tell me not to do something with the Chinese – ok, give me another option. 

Which is almost exactly what the Venice Port CEO Pino Musolino said. Hey, Americans. Step up. Offer us something better. We remember how you helped us before. 

(Sound of kids playing around Trieste castle) 

On a hill above Trieste, overlooking the Adriatic Sea, sits Miramare Castle. It’s a favorite stop for visitors, including these kids, playing in the grass near an imposing stone fountain. The castle was built by an Archduke in the 1850s. And it became headquarters for US troops after World War II. US forces had bombed Trieste during the war as part of the Allied effort to drive out the Nazis. After the war, American troops were part of an Allied coalition based in Trieste for seven years, protecting it as a free territory and a free port, independent of Italy: 

Laura: The American soldiers were living inside the castle. So it looks like they’re looking for a nice place. They certainly found the best place.

Miramare Castle, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. (Mary Kay Magistad)

MKM: Did it feel a little imperial to Italians, post-war?

Laura: Well, the feeling was, I mean, it was right after the war, and certainly, the Allied forces were very welcome. That ended the war.

MKM: And the fascist reign of Mussolini.

Laura: Absolutely. And this was a destroyed city. And there was zero economy going on. And the population was very poor. And my mother was seven years old when the Allied forces entered the city. And she was very poor, just like everybody else. And she – I talked to her about this. And I asked her what her memories are. 

Anna Maria Lostuzzi (Laura’s mother): What I remember clearly is we welcomed the Allies. People were closer to Americans, because they were more communicative. Me and my friends, all childrens, asked to the soldiers, ‘please, give us chocolate,’ and they gave them to us. 

Laura’s mom, Anna Maria Lostuzzi, remembers other things, too. 

Anna Maria Lostuzzi: We started watching American movies, like musicals or comedies. I remember movies with Esther Williams, music with Harry James and Glenn Miller. There was a desire to see beautiful things, cheerful things. The war had been very harsh, and painful, and we all wanted to start over. (Sound of music and dancing in Trieste square)

And so, at night, people went out – to hear music and dance – some to American boogie-woogie, some to old Italian favorites, as with this group of dancers Laura and I bumped into after our day at the port and at the castle. The war had been ugly, and peace was an exhilarating relief. The Americans were here, with the Marshall Plan, to help Italy get back on its feet. The goodwill and gratitude that created is still felt, 75 years later. 

Now, Italy is rebuilding again, this time from the damage done by a virus rather than by bombs. This time, the European Union has stepped up to help, and China’s still very much interested in investing. That leaves the United States with a question about its old ally, that echoes elsewhere along the New Silk Road too: What will Italians who are kids now remember when they’re old, about who helped and who didn’t, and how that shaped their lives? 

(Sound of traditional Italian dance music)

Thanks to partner reporter Laura Daverio. Our editor is Dave Rummel. Our sound designer is Tina Tobey. Our executive producer is Christine Brandt. 

On China’s New Silk Road is a production of the Global Reporting Centre, a nonprofit group that teaches, practices and promotes innovation in global journalism. Peter Klein is the GRC’s founder. Philippe Le Billon, a GRC partner and geography professor at the University of British Columbia, provided valuable input to this series. 

On China’s New Silk Road was made possible by generous funding from Humanity United, and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. You can find photos, transcripts and more at globalreportingcentre.org. While you’re there, check out other great journalism from the Global Reporting Centre. 

Next up: China’s a top trading partner to Southeast Asia, but China’s Maritime Silk Road investments are also shoring up China’s claims in the South China Sea, in a way that’s making some Southeast Asians uneasy: 

Voice from Southeast Asia Episode: The Belt & Road initiative is the linchpin for the Chinese expansionist policies. Great caution has to be exercised when you are dealing with China. 

Rough Waters in Southeast Asia, next on China’s New Silk Road. 

(Music ends)

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