THE ORIGINS OF COVID-19 in Wuhan and early missteps by authorities in containing the outbreak caused many people around the world to blame the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the global pandemic.1 As soon as the outbreak was stabilised at home, Beijing began a strategic effort to shift the global narrative and restore its image by sending shipments of medical equipment and personnel, combined with a vigorous public diplomacy campaign.2 This campaign popularised the concept of ‘mask diplomacy’ — a term originally employed to describe shipments of masks sent by Japan to China in the earliest days of the outbreak.3

Tonnes of medical supplies were flown into Italy as part of China’s efforts to help Italy contain the coronavirus outbreak
Source: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Flickr

The strategic campaign enjoyed varied degrees of success, including within single countries over time. The case of Italy illustrates how domestic political factors played a key role in determining how well Beijing was able to rehabilitate its image.

From the outset of the Italian outbreak (Europe’s first) in late February, it was evident the country was short of medical supplies. With Italy’s European neighbours freezing exports of medical equipment to maintain their own emergency stocks, China seized the opportunity to ship masks and respirators, and even send doctors to Italy, along with children’s drawings and messages of solidarity.4

These donations came from private companies, state-owned enterprises, and charitable entities like the Jack Ma 马云 and Alibaba foundations. Local governments in China with twin-city agreements also provided medical equipment to their Italian counterparts. Italian Chinese communities donated and distributed masks within their cities, offering their help to the local police.

Mask diplomacy also involved efforts to shape public discourse about China’s pandemic efforts at home and abroad. Even before the virus arrived in Europe, the social media accounts of China’s diplomatic missions were actively lauding the success of Chinese authorities in fighting COVID-19, and refuting rumours regarding its origin and accusations that China had failed to contain it.

Once the virus arrived in Italy, the message shifted to one of friendship, solidarity, and multilateral co-operation to fight the pandemic.5 Beijing sought to promote its COVID-19 narrative in local Italian media. Many articles were published promoting the friendship and solidarity of the Chinese people with Italians.6 China’s ambassador also gave interviews to the country’s most important newspapers.7 On 5 April, he said: ‘There is no geopolitics of masks, the aid from China to Italy is based on two considerations: the importance of a life, and our friendship.’8

In the early months of the pandemic, China’s mask diplomacy enjoyed a major success in Italy. On 12 March, a Chinese Red Cross plane full of masks and medical equipment landed in Rome. Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi di Maio livestreamed the flight’s arrival, giving it the title: ‘We are not alone.’9 This act reflected strongly positive popular sentiment towards China within Italy from politicians, the media, and
the public.10

The reasons were twofold. First, Rome was arguably the Western European capital with the closest ties to Beijing, being the first G7 country to sign a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), in March 2019.11 In the pandemic’s early weeks, di Maio attributed China’s solidarity to the friendship strengthened through the BRI.12 Second, in Italy, an increasingly Eurosceptic country, Beijing was able to play ‘good cop’ to the ‘bad cop’ of the European Union (EU), which had been missing in action at the very beginning of the pandemic’s spread in Italy. Di Maio praised China’s help while condemning the EU’s lack of solidarity. This rhetoric may well have been an attempt to get more bargaining power at the European table, where a battle of ‘north versus south’ was taking place over the pandemic support mechanisms for member states, especially financial backing. While this strategy did not yield the desired Eurobonds, the head of the European Commission formally apologised to Italy in early April.13

China’s positive image in Italy did not last, however. The tipping point came in mid-April, when Alessandro Di Battista, a former parliamentarian from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), the largest party in the ruling coalition, wrote an article in the left-wing, populist newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano arguing that China would win World War III without firing a single shot. He stated that Rome should use the Sino-Italian relationship as leverage in negotiations with the EU.14

The effusiveness of the article created a political opportunity for the Italian opposition to pressure the coalition government, which was struggling to contain the outbreak. The leading opposition figure, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing Lega (League) party, sharply escalated his criticism of China and of the Italian Government’s close ties with Beijing. Salvini and his party had long positioned themselves as China sceptics, including through their criticism of the BRI MoU.15 But in the early weeks of the pandemic they had been muted in the interests of national solidarity at such a challenging time. Di Battista’s article created the opportunity for the Lega party to revive and strengthen its hawkish China policy, while simultaneously criticising the government’s pandemic management.

From mid-April onwards, the bilateral relationship with China became highly politicised, distinctly partisan and inextricably linked to the pandemic. Even as the pandemic’s first wave was brought under control, China-related issues — not just about COVID-19’s origins but also about Hong Kong, human rights, and the security trade-offs of Italy’s deepening ties with China — remained constantly in the news.16 The politicisation of these issues put the government on the defensive, and the need to neutralise the opposition’s critique was arguably a factor in subsequent policy positions less favourable to Beijing. These included di Maio himself saying that preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy was indispensable (having previously refused to comment on the issue), a tougher stance on the involvement of Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE in Italy’s 5G network, and the Minister for European Affairs, Vincenzo Amendola, declaring that the BRI MoU with China was a mistake.17

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio
Source: Giffoni_ Experience, Flickr

While di Maio’s complaints about the lack of EU solidarity and his praise of China were not excessively criticised in the beginning, a strongly positive discourse surrounding China became increasingly difficult to defend. In addition to the partisan critiques, domestic and international media reported on a pro-China disinformation campaign conducted through Twitter, alerting the public to the more ominous aspects of closer ties with China. Moreover, the public became more aware of publishing channels created under bilateral agreements signed at the same time as the BRI MoU, which provided a vehicle for Chinese state media to publish on Italian platforms — a seemingly benign act at the time that appeared more problematic with the benefit of hindsight.18

Italy’s closer relationship with China may have made it more amenable, at least at first, to China’s mask diplomacy than most other EU states. However, this channel of influence came at a price, because a relationship that was prominent in the public mind was also exposed to the risk of politicisation.

The Italian case, therefore, offers an interesting insight into the dynamics of China’s growing influence. Beijing’s objective was to shift the public narrative around COVID-19. It leveraged an existing relationship to achieve this: mask diplomacy built on existing goodwill to shape Italian public opinion. Surveys conducted in June and July still showed Italians saw China in a comparatively more positive light than citizens of other
European countries.19

However, the very prominence of the bilateral relationship with China, especially M5S’s centrality to the MoU, also left it open to politicisation as a partisan issue. As 2020 progressed, domestic political dynamics, including internal pressure on M5S from within the ruling coalition and opposition criticism, as well as external pressure to express more solidarity with the EU as the collective pandemic response gathered momentum, saw the Italian Government create a little distance from Beijing. These political dynamics could remain a firm constraint on Beijing’s future efforts to influence Italy. Mask diplomacy may represent a relatively novel form of humanitarian assistance, but Italy’s experience suggests that it cannot simply smooth over all political frictions and is just as vulnerable as other forms of diplomacy to the vagaries of domestic politics.



‘New China virus: Warning against cover-up as number of cases jumps’, BBC News, 21 January 2020, online at:; Tom Hancock and Sarah Neville, ‘Scientists warn over China virus outbreak’, Financial Times, 19 January 2020, online at:


Brian Wong, ‘China’s mask diplomacy’, The Diplomat, 25 March 2020, online at:; Darren J. Lim, ‘Mask diplomacy: A novel form of statecraft?’, China Story Blog, 1 May 2020, online at:


Yoichi Funabashi, ‘Will American populism damage Japan?’, Project Syndicate, 4 March 2020, online at:


European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC), COVID-19 and Europe–China relations: A country-level analysis, Special Report, Paris: French Institute of International Relations, 29 April 2020, pp.35–39, online at: For some of the children’s drawings, see ‘From China to Sicily, 80,000 masks as a gift with a surprise: The drawings of Chinese children dedicated to Italy’ [Dalla Cina alla Sicilia 80.000 mascherine in dono con una sorpresa: i disegni dei bambini cinesi dedicati all’Italia], La Sicilia, 17 April 2020, online at:


ETNC, COVID-19 and Europe–China relations.


Gabriele Carrer, ‘It’s written Rai, it’s read BeijingTV: On whether the public broadcasting speaks (too much?) Chinese’ [Si Scrive Rai, Si Legge Telepechino. Se Il Servizio Pubblico Parla Cinese (Troppo?)], Formiche, 8 April 2020, online at:


Filippo Santelli, ‘China’s ambassador to Italy: “About us only slander. Beijing is ready to do its part to improve globalization” ’ [L’ambasciatore cinese in Italia: ‘Su di noi solo calunnie. Pechino è pronta a fare la sua parte per migliorare la globalizzazione’], La Repubblica, 14 April 2020, online at:; ETNC, COVID-19 and Europe–China relations, pp. 61–67.


Maria Grazia Napolitano, ‘Chinese Ambassador: “The aid? We are friends, we want to save lives” ’ [Ambasciatore Cinese: ‘Gi aiuti? Siamo amici, vogliamo salvare vite’], Adnkronos, 5 April 2020, online at:


‘Coronavirus, Di Maio and the video about Chinese aid: “We are not alone” ’ [Coronavirus, Di Maio e il video sugli aiuti cinesi: ‘Non siamo soli’], Adnkronos, 13 March 2020, online at:


‘Piepoli survey, trust in the government and in the premier Conte increase’ [Sondaggio Piepoli, cresce la fiducia nel governo e nel premier Conte], ANSA, 7 April 2020, online at:; Francesco Bechis, ‘Whether Italians prefer China to the US (and to the EU)’ [Se gli italiani preferiscono la Cina agli USA (e alla Ue)], Formiche, 21 April 2020, online at:


European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC), Europe in the Face of US–China Rivalry, Paris: French Institute of International Relations, 23 January 2020, pp.99–105.


Giulia Pompili, ‘Di Maio holds on to the Belt and Road to remain relevant’ [Di Maio si aggrappa ancora alla Via della Seta per non sparire], Il Foglio, 26 March 2020, online at:


Christian Balmer, ‘EU Commission apologises to Italy over coronavirus response, deaths push higher’, Reuters, 2 April 2020, online at:


Alessandro Di Battista, ‘Alessandro Di Battista: “Italy must say no to the ESM. Without us, the EU melts” ’ [Alessandro Di Battista: ‘L’Italia deve dire no al Mes. Senza di noi la Ue si scioglie’], Il Fatto Quotidiano, 19 April 2020, online at:


It must be acknowledged that the BRI MoU was signed when Salvini’s Lega party was part of a coalition government, and its biggest defender was Michele Geraci, who was personally appointed Under-secretary of State for Economic Development by Salvini. Nevertheless, when Lega left government in August 2019, Salvini soon started raising China-related security concerns.


Lorenzo Lamperti, ‘Coronavirus, Lombardy, China and Trump: Italy in the propaganda war’ [Coronavirus, Lombardia, Cina e Trump. Italia nella guerra di propaganda], Affari Italiani, 30 April 2020, online at:


Otto Lanzavecchia, ‘Italy stands up for Hong Kong, Foreign Minister di Maio tells China’, Formiche, 25 August 2020, online at:; Francesco Bechis and Otto Lanzavecchia, ‘Italy: New 5G security measures impair Huawei and ZTE’, Formiche, 15 July 2020, online at:; Lorenzo Lamperti, ‘Go East: Second waves and refluxes’ [Go East: Seconde ondate e riflussi], China Files, 21 October 2020, online at:


Carrer, ‘It’s written Rai, it’s read BeijingTV’; Valbona Zeneli and Federica Santoro, ‘China’s disinformation campaign in Italy’, The Diplomat, 9 June 2020, online at:; Miles Johnson and Yuan Yang, ‘Allegations of doctored films fuel concerns about Beijing propaganda’, Financial Times, 3 May 2020, online at:; Lucrezia Poggetti, Cristopher Walker and Shanthi Kalathil, ‘Beijing’s mask diplomacy and power plays in Europe: A conversation with Lucrezia Poggetti’, [Podcast], Power 3.0, 19 May 2020, [11:20 mins], online at:


Laura Silver, Kat Devlin, and Christine Huang, Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries, Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 6 October 2020, pp.4–9, online at: