Written by Gaoheng Zhang.

Historically, Italian industry in Prato focused on textile production, a famed “Made in Italy” trademark with a pan-European clientele. Following their arrival in the city during the 1980s, Chinese migrants gradually developed the niche market of ready-to-wear fashion. By the late 2000s, Chinese businesses in the city ranged from fabric dyers, fabric tailors, and fashion designers to garment manufacturers and wholesaler distributors of finished products – although fabric production and design remained limited. In the late 2000s, the Chinese operated between 4,000 and 5,000 firms in the city, and one out of four companies in the city was Chinese owned. By then, the Chinese were the dominant migrant community in Prato, officially constituting about 50 percent of the city’s foreigners during the 2000s. Although in 2010 Prato had the second largest Chinese community in Italy on official records (11,900), scholars and police reports estimated that illegal migrants constituted between 20-43 percent of Chinese migrant workers. Chinese migrants had transformed a relatively small provincial town into the largest concentration of their enterprises and factories in Europe. Prato in effect became the foremost European exporter of low and middle-end “Made in Italy” fashion made by Chinese migrants.

In late 2000s, Prato’s local government forcibly intervened in Chinese migrant entrepreneurship. The municipal elections in 2009 made Roberto Cenni, supported by PDL (The People of Freedom) and Lega Nord (Northern League), the first conservative mayor in the city since WWII. Once in office, Cenni implemented policy that worked on the level of both Chinese-Italian conflicts – Italian legality vs. Chinese illegality – and cooperation – promoting the use of Italian fabrics for Chinese ready-to-wear fashion manufacturing.

In late 2009, Cenni endorsed frequent police raids on Chinese factories in Prato, particularly those in the industrial district of Macrolotto, provoking acute social tension. Police raids climaxed on January 19, 2010. Aided by a helicopter, 120 Italian agents from various institutions entered “in a grand style,” into Via Rossini, the heart of Chinatown just outside the city’s medieval walls. This raid was called the “largest anti-clandestine operation ever carried out in Tuscany” by the local newspaper La Nazione and, “the most imposing [raid] that the city has ever witnessed in the war against illegality during these years” by Italy’s national business daily Il Sole 24 Ore.

Meanwhile, Cenni proposed the concept of an Italian-Chinese collaboration that could attract large fashion brands such as Zara and H&M to Prato. Cenni’s vision would ostensibly create a win-win situation; Italians in Prato would sell their fabrics to Chinese migrants who would then manufacture authentic “Made in Italy” fashion for a secured distribution among these global companies.

To my mind, Cenni’s strategy was an incarnation of the “carrot and stick” policy that combines business pragmatism with institutional repression, a strategy carefully calculated to win a wide spectrum of media endorsement. In order for this strategy to work among Italian and Chinese migrant workers and entrepreneurs, and potential international employers and customers, Prato’s local specificity and its pan-European impact must be cogently argued and conveyed in the media.

Insofar as his “stick” policy was framed as a way to curb local illegal Chinese and Italian factories, it appealed to their legal counterparts through creating a common platform from which cooperation might be facilitated. Cenni astutely realised that Prato could not, and should not, shun Chinese migrants who were now major players in its economy and international reputation. Therefore, raids on illegality would mitigate the ire of Italian industrialists in the city without alienating legal Chinese migrant elites, who controlled the bulk of investment capital and backed up much of the Chinese migrant media.

While the “stick” policy based on raids was locally oriented, the “carrot” policy addressing the meaning of “Made in Italy” – with which the other policy must work in tandem – elucidated the global significance of the Prato case. Cenni’s “carrot” policy was a newsworthy item for Italian, other European, and American media outlets, which were eager to know how Prato could globalise its native Italian industry by keeping it local and thereby preserving its unique geographical and cultural identity.

The Chinese migrant press generally viewed police raids as an arrogant show of an economically weakened and yet politically dominant local government that exerted executive power over the economically-powerful but politically insignificant Chinese community. Calling the raids “carpet-style inspections,” Xinhua Lianhe Shibao employed a Chinese approximation of the Italian “rastrellamento” to highlight (unlike the focus on illegal migrants in La Nazione) legal migrants who were treated unfairly. During one raid, one man was made to stand in the courtyard, “shivering from winter cold” for hours while Italian agents conducted the investigation. “In the end, seeing that we had permits to stay, the agent shook his shoulders and sent us away without a word of apology.” Many legal migrants also had no place to sleep because the warehouses that contained the sweatshops and living quarters were cordoned off. Indeed, according to Cina in Italia, Italian authorities tended to “hurt the feelings of Chinese migrants” during these raids, despite its justifiable aims (No. 63, March 2010).

Appearing in late 2010 and in 2011, matured responses to Cenni’s “carrot” policy in the Rome-based Chinese migrant newspaper Xinhua Lianhe Shibao/La Nuova Cina suggested two ways of redefining the “Made in Italy” label by Chinese migrants that went beyond his prescriptions. The first suggestion concerned the need for the community to form a legal, coordinated, and complete production and distribution chain among themselves in order to effectively minimise business risks. The second suggestion proposed in this newspaper recommended that Chinese migrant factories refocus from low-end and counterfeit garments to high-end fashion. This switch, it was argued, could avoid the damage caused by frequent raids that specifically looked for mislabeled “Made in Italy” products. It could further present Chinese entrepreneurs with an opportunity to grow their businesses in a high-profit market.

As the only Chinese entrepreneur member of the Confindustria (The General Confederation of Italian Industry) in 2010 when he entered in 2004, Xu Qiu Lin became the most well-quoted example of an accomplished Chinese entrepreneur in Prato in Italian and other European media. For The Guardian, while most Chinese migrants used fabrics from mainland China for their “Made in Italy” fashion, thereby running counter to Cenni’s urge to migrants to purchase fabrics from local Italians, Xu’s company was an exception, and as such, a harbinger of future developments. A BBC News video service jettisoned the cliché of poor-quality merchandise made by the Chinese, stating that among the five thousand or so Chinese factories in Prato, many produced garments that matched “Italian quality” and beat “Italian prices.” This service opened and ended with images of Xu in conversation with his Italian designers in his factory. Xu was again singled out as the “symbol of a future reconciliation between the two worlds” by Le Monde. For Der Spiegel, Xu Qiu Lin represented the future of globalisation, in which Chinese entrepreneurs in Italy were beginning to “go back to producing their goods inexpensively in China”.

As Xu owned his self-created fashion brand “Giupel,” founded in 2000, the use of his story in the media countered the provincialism of Cenni’s “carrot” policy that attempted to keep the Chinese confined to manufacturing for Italian and other European brands. On the other hand, without the international media enthusiasm of the Prato case, which was crucially fueled by Cenni’s policy and explicitly favoured by Cenni – the shrewd businessman-mayor, it was unimaginable that Xu’s international profile could be built.

Gaoheng Zhang is Assistant Professor of Italian Cinema for the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Toronto. His upcoming book is “Italian-Chinese Cultural Encounters: Chinese Migrants and Globalization in Italy, 1992-2012”. Image Credit: CC by Edwin Lee/Flickr.