Written by Guido Samarani.

In the 1950s and early 1960s the Italian Communist Party (ICP) was one of the main actors (together with the Italian Socialist Party, ISP) involved in what we can call as an ‘informal diplomacy’ between Italy and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries (Italy had at that time official relations with Taiwan), the presence in Italy of the largest Communist party in Western Europe undoubtedly acted as an important channel for Sino-Italian unofficial exchanges. The first bilateral exchange of delegations between the Italian Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took place in 1956: until then, contact had taken place mainly at the individual level, through the channels offered by a wide range of national organizations affiliated with, for instance, the World Federation of Democratic Youth, the International Union of Students, the World Federation of Trade Unions, the Women’s International Democratic Federation, and the World Peace Council. Besides conducting a pro-China action through the official party press and in the parliament, the ICP was particularly active in the promotion of various initiatives which involved personalities and institutions closely connected with the party.

The most prominent example is the case of the Center for the Development of Economic and Cultural Relations with People’s China (hereafter Centro Cina).

The Centro Cina was established in late 1953 in a period during which the situation both in the PRC and Italy was quite radically changing. In China, the emergency period which followed the establishment of the People’s Republic seemed to be quite over after the Chinese government’s announcement of its First Five-Year Plan and after the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement (July). In Italy, the 1953 general election was marked by a strong clash between moderate (led by the Democrazia Cristiana) and leftist (Italian Communist and Socialist parties) political forces, together with a strenghtening of Italian government’s alliance with the United States (which the Italian Communist Party contrasted), and Italy’s increasing effort to be accepted as a member of the United Nations (that will become true in late 1955).

The Centro Cina was created on the initiative of some dozens intellectuals and university professors (most of them leftists supporters and also members of the Italian Communist Party or the Italian Socialist Party) who were convinced that Italy should actively develop its economic and cultural relations with Beijing and, on this basis, open the path to future political and diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China. Thus, the main aim of the Centro Cina was to increase cultural and economic connections with People’s China and enhance knowledge of Chinese civilizazion within Italian public opinion. At the same time, however, since quite a few leading personalities of the Centro Cina were members of the Italian Parliament, cultural and political commitments were often strictly linked together.

Since the early Fifties the Centro Cina, together with the chambers of commerce and others associations and groups, also actively worked to make Italian authorities aware of the importance of improving relations with the PRC. Meetings, conferences and seminars were organized and economic an cultural delegations were sent to China. An important role was played by the Bollettino (News bullettin) and, from 1957, from the journal Cina oggi (Today’s China), both published by the Centro Cina. The bullettin and the journal included translations of documents, interviews with Chinese personalities, analysis and discussions of main topics related to Chinese history and economics, etc.

As a matter of fact, even though the two countries did not entertain official relations, a huge and growing number of Italian intellectuals, academics, economists and politicians showed their interest in China and were in favour of changes in Italy’s foreign policy. The activities of the Centro Cina suggests that during the Fifties and also the Sixties, within the larger framework of the Cold War period and the communist-anticommunist political and parliamentary struggle in Italy, the idea of a new, different approach to People’s China and of an Italian foreign policy more autonomous from the USA and the Western bloc was clearly considered by different actors, indicating that a change was possible.

As for ICP-CCP bilateral relations, they were deeply affected after the developments within the international communist movement which followed the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956. This notwithstanding, the awareness of emerging divergences over important themes such as “peaceful coexistence” did not prevent the ICP leadership to continue its political efforts to work for the objective of Italy’s diplomatic recognition of the PRC, thanks in particular to associations like the Centro Cina which continued their activities through the early Sixties.

Only in November 1970, however, formal recognition of the PRC by Italy became a reality, thanks to the efforts of the ICP, of the ISP and in particular of its leader, Pietro Nenni, and of important catholic groups and personalities deeply involved in the battle for a new world of peace and cooperation.

Guido Samarani is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Chinese History at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Image Credit: CC by Jacques Lebleu/Flickr.