Now that Italy has consummated its new long-term economic relationship with China, observers across the west are on the lookout for signs that China's "neocolonial project" won't focus simply on ports and other infrastructure projects - but might involve a bit of cultural imperialism as well.
In Italy, apprehensiveness about joining "One Belt, One Road" hasn't been limited to the political opposition - even Deputy PM Matteo Salvini has expressed some reservations. But nowhere has the opposition been as fierce as certain corners of the Italian media, particularly the conservative Il Foglio newspaper, which has a long record of Sino skepticism and distrust.
Still, readers were probably shocked to read a piece published over the weekend recounting a particularly inappropriate encounter between one of the paper's Asia correspondents, Giulia Pompili, and a spokesman for Beijing's embassy in Rome.
In an editorial titled "Non Siamo a Pechino" - "We're Not In Beijing" - the paper told the story of a brief but ominous encounter between Pompili and Chinese embassy spokesman Yang Han. Shortly before the beginning of Friday's ceremony with President Xi and Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Pompili had arrived with other members of the press corps at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, an official residence of the Italian president, where the press conference was to be held.
Before Xi/Mattarella address, press office chief at Rome's China embassy tells @ilfoglio_it journo @giuliapompili (twice) to "stop writing negatively about China"; refuses to shake her hand; ends allusively: "I know full well who you are". They'd never met https://t.co/PDX8liRRIi— Stefania Palma 普诗雅 (@stef_palma) March 23, 2019
After a member of the Quirinal's staff introduced Pompili, Yang approached her for an encounter that the paper described as "not exactly friendly." In front of other journalists, Yang demanded that Pompili stop writing critical pieces about China.
When Pompili, who said she had never met Yang before Friday, replied that it was her job to write critically about China, Yang offered a sinister response: "Anyway, I know who you are."
In the editorial, the paper acknowledged that it had a very clear position on China's operations in the west - one that is dramatically different from the position of the Italian government. And despite this latest threat, it has no plans to change its coverage, because "Italy isn't China...and The Quirinal isn't the Palace of the Forbidden City". The Italian press "has the full right to express ideas and criticisms."
Even before the deal was signed, Italy's leaders had been trying to reassure Washington and Brussels that Italy is "still an ally," per CNBC.
"We are maximizing all precautionary measures, and I want to tell the U.S., and I will tell them as well in next week’s visit, that they are our allies, and that we understand their concerns. But the contents of the MOU (memorandum of understanding) that we are signing tomorrow contains nothing for them to worry about, nothing relating to 5G or any agreement on strategic telecommunications," Di Maio told CNBC’s Joumanna Bercetche on Friday just before the signing.
And though this incident could be a one-off, one can't help but wonder how the Italian leadership will handle Beijing's widely acknowledged intolerance for dissent.