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Chinese Immigration, European Crisis And A Visit To Wenzhou's Little Italy

Chinese have set out en masse in recent years to find their fortune as immigrants in Europe. Lately, though, more than usual are returning home in the face of Europe's economic crisis and opportunities in their booming native land. In Wenzhou, th

Ordering Italian in China (Harald Graven)
Ordering Italian in China (Harald Graven)
Ilaria Maria Sala

WENZHOU - Looking at the data, more than 90% of the Chinese who have immigrated to Italy in recent years came from in and around Wenzhou. Around 2.5 million people live in this southern Chinese city in the region of Zhejiang, and some 9 million people live in its county. In some places, such as the town of Qingtian, more than 60% of the population has emigrated to different parts of Europe.

But the most recent numbers show a new trend: due to the crisis hitting the euro zone, many Chinese immigrants have decided to go back home, bringing along a piece of Europe.

That, of course, means a whiff of Italy is settling in China as well. For some it is just a matter of better clothes, but many former immigrants clearly miss other aspects of Europe. Newly opened stores in Wenzhou have European-sounding names such as Genio La Mode, or La Féta.

Italian bars and restaurants in Wenzhou are different from those you find in other Chinese cities. They don't look like the posh clubs packed with foreigners in Beijing and Shanghai. They are not fashionable, and might actually fit in on a typical street back in an average Italian town. Caffè Ally sells Illy coffee products. The owners of the restaurant 0039, named after the Italian international area code, learned everything about Italian cooking from Wang, who works as a cook in Ostia, a seaside town near Rome. He came back to China to help launch the restaurant, but he will return to Italy soon.

Wang came out with the name for the restaurant because, he says, "my wife is in Italy with our child who was born in Ostia and has no affinity for China. To call them, I have to dial the area code 0039, which is the number closest to my heart right now."

The restaurant serves typical Italian dishes, with the pasta cooked "al dente," and as tasty as if an Italian chef had cooked them. Wang wears a white uniform with a little ribbon with an Italian flag. The same Italian flag waves outside of 0039, which is managed by Chinese people. Customers of 0039 and of Napoli, another Italian restaurant in town, are all Chinese too. They eat Italian food in the Chinese manner, placing all the plates at the center of the table and sharing them. There are plenty of pizzerias, and even a Piazza Rome, which is at the heart of the Europe City mall.

Wenzhou is a typically chaotic Chinese city, with stores that open and close nonstop, and dozens of Catholic and Protestant churches, due to the historically large Christian presence here.

Italian is "easier" than French

Along the main street that leads to the train station, Chezhan Dadao, there are several wine shops that sell Champagne and Cognac, imported by the returning immigrants from France. Song Xiaohu, the owner of Barolo, a store that organizes Italian wine tastings , says that "for many Chinese, everything about Italy is more accessible and genuine. Italian cooking, for example, does not require long and difficult preparations, so it is more approachable than French cooking. It is the same with the wine. French wines are good, but Italian wines are easier. Now, at weddings or birthdays, every Chinese who wants to make a good impression serves wine to his guests."

Song wears a necklace with a golden cross, says "Oh, Madonna!" and moves his hands when he speaks, like a real Italian. He has lived at different times in Rome, Milan, Trieste, Udine, and Brunico, where he opened the Tay Yan restaurant -- that serves Chinese, of course.

After 27 years in Italy, he saved enough money to go back to Wenzhou. "But at the beginning, I was illegal," he proudly says of his early days in Italy. He did all kinds of spare jobs.

"I see myself as half-Italian," he says. "There, the food is better, the air is cleaner, and the cities are more beautiful. Sometimes, people would tell me, "go back to China." But I didn't give a damn," Song adds laughing.

Still, in the end, he says that for him in China, "the moon will always be rounder, and the water sweeter."

Song is drinking a cappuccino at the bar called The Dainty with his son Song Bing, and his wife Giovanna, who works in a fashion store. They all decided to come back to China for good. "The Italian economy got a cold," he quips. "But you will get better soon, because this is painful for everyone."

Everyone in the Song family works in commerce. Today they deal in clothes and wine but previously traded cars, shoes, and anything else possible. The family keeps drinking cappuccino until late at night, with they cellphone ringing all the time, working on different businesses.

Some of the people who went back to China now hold an Italian passport, despite the complications it can cause when they want to obtain Chinese visas. It is obvious that people like Wang the cook or Cao Danti, whose son still lives in Italy, miss the bel paese.

Cao recently founded a new social club called Chiacchiere Aperte (Open Chatting), with other lovers of Italy who gather once a month to talk about their common experiences, and of course, to share an authentic plate of pasta.

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

Photo - Harald Graven

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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