On November 6, fifty years ago, the Italian Republic recognized the government of the People’s Republic of China as the “sole legitimate entity representing the Chinese nation”. After three weeks, on November 28, 1970, with a further telegram the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the establishment of diplomatic relations between Italy and the People’s Republic of China:

“The world needs China’s participation in building a lasting and just peace; China, in turn, needs the world to develop those principles of collaboration and those broad contacts that alone can lead to the well-being of the people, who, like all peoples of the earth, wish to improve their standard of living in social security and international. “[1]

Telegram dated 11/28/1970

As can be glimpsed from the telegram, this result was achieved thanks to the intense work of the Italian and Chinese diplomats who, as early as February 1969, began to meet in Paris, whose government, by the will of General De Gaulle, already had recognized popular China in 1964.

The defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang in 1949 at the hands of Mao’s Communists left the De Gasperi government out in the cold on the Chinese dossier. In April of the same year, the Italian government and that of nationalist China signed a Treaty of friendship, the second step taken by the two parties after the Paris Peace Treaty of 10 February 1947 in which Italy renounced all its rights in China. and, in particular, the little-mentioned Italian concession of Tianjin.

The 1950s are characterized by fluctuating exchanges between Italy and mainland China: if in fact already in a telegram the socialist foreign minister Carlo Sforza expressed to the Chinese counterpart, in the figure of Zhou Enlai, the intent of the Italian government to recognizing Beijing as the only legitimate entity in the wake of what was done by the British Labor government of Clement Attlee, on the other hand, Italy found itself in the difficult situation of a defeated country and a member of the Atlantic Alliance.

The two Chinas problem carried very strong political-ideological implications in an era – the one of the Cold War – marked by geo-political polarization: if in fact the popular China was linked to the USSR in those years, the China which took refuge in Taiwan was defended by Truman’s United States after the outbreak of the Korean War: the sending of the Seventh Fleet to guard the Taiwan Strait[2] neutralized any possible attempt by the Communist to complete the victory over Chiang Kai-shek .

In this context, Italy was left to watch various Western nations (France, Great Britain, West Germany, Belgium, Japan, Chile) concluding trade treaties with the People’s Republic of China. The interest of countries firmly inserted in the capitalist bloc clashed with Washington, which was more likely to obstruct any further recognition. The great Chinese continent soon ended up under the lens of various sectors not only political but also economic of the Italian Republic: Enrico Mattei at the helm of ENI visited the Empire of the Center in ’58, bringing back the interest of the Chinese for the “Italian industrialists”[3].

Together with Mattei but in the socialist field, the work done by Dino Gentili, an anti-fascist businessman from Milan and very close to the PSI, should be remembered. Mr. Dino [4], as he will be affectionately nicknamed in China, was the de facto intermediary between Italy and China through economic relations with the CCPIT, a Chinese company founded by Zhou Enlai to promote foreign trade.

The friendship that bound Dino Gentili to Pietro Nenni, general secretary of the Italian Socialist Party and twice foreign minister in republican history, was fundamental to push Italy to weave those relationships that in the space of fifteen years will lead to the recognition of the emerging China from the communist revolution and the disavowal of the entity that, from Formosa (now more commonly know as Taiwan), claimed sovereignty over the entire Chinese territory, which from then on would become the mainland of China.

In fact, as early as ’55, the partisan and socialist leader accepted an invitation from the Zhōngnánhǎi [5] and had personal talks with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.

French recognition in the mid-1960s rekindled a lively hope for those in Italy who were working towards the same goal. The tear consumed by France, a member of the UN Security Council, generated what at the time was called a “diplomatic nuclear explosion” [6], in a strategy of independence from the US for France and a rupture of the imperialist camp for China, at that moment also struggling with the fight against Soviet revisionism. In February of that same year, the Italian Foreign Minister Giuseppe Saragat pronounced in the Senate that “we do not need to ask ourselves if our government should reach an agreement with the Beijing government for the recognition of its legitimacy and representativeness of China, but when it will be better to do it in the interest of Italy and the free world in the West.”

The break with the USSR with the Sino-Soviet crisis opened the way for more extended relations between China and some Western countries. Meanwhile, in Italy the Christian Democrat Mariano Rumor put Piero Nenni at the helm of the Farnesina again. Nenni wanted to proceed quickly towards the recognition of the People’s Republic of China, meeting the hesitations of Italian diplomacy and the open hostility of the US government, already engaged in Paris in peace negotiations with Vietnam. In fact, we learn from a dispatch that Italy’s favorable position on China “would make this problem even more difficult for us [the United States] […] before a peace agreement on Vietnam is reached …” [7]

The risk of spitting in the eyes of Americans [8] feared a few years earlier by Prime Minister Aldo Moro found substantial disinterest in the Rumor government. On January 23, 1969, Nenni informed the American ambassador of his desire to proceed to negotiations with Communist China and the next day he explained to the Chamber his intention to recognize China.

At the start of negotiations between Italy and China in Paris, the Chinese officer immediately set the three conditions to which Italy adhered: recognition of the People’s Republic as the only legal government; recognition of the Taiwan province as an integral part of the Chinese territory; support for the UN motion to replace the “Chiang Kai-Shek clique” with the government of the People’s Republic.

The crisis of the Rumor government produced a reshuffle that, in addition to slowing down diplomatic negotiations, saw the change of guard at the Farnesina, which passed to Aldo Moro. Moro was careful to slow down the Chinese dossier as much as possible and to listen to the wishes that came from the US embassy in Italy, so much so as to bring the negotiations to the point of a rupture.

The further government crisis that brought the Lucan Emilio Colombo to Palazzo Chigi and the massacre of Piazza Fontana in December ’69 contributed to the umpteenth slowdowns.

In fact, the turning point came after the meeting between the Italian ambassador in Washington and the Undersecretary of State Johnson, who judged the Italian position favorable, provided that Italy did not contribute to the expulsion of the Republic of China from the United Nations. The change in the US was dictated by the beginning of the first secret contacts between the PRC and the US that would lead them, just the following year, to mutual recognition.

The signing of the joint documents between Italy and China took place on November 5: Italy had succumbed to the Chinese position on Taiwan and therefore agreed to recognize the sole China” thesis, as originally formulated by Nenni, but voting in favor of the proposal US to keep nationalist China in the UN, from which it will be expelled not even a year later.

Thus it was that on November 6, 1970 the Moro government officially recognized the government of the People’s Republic of China as “the only legitimate entity representing the Chinese nation”.

[1] Ministero degli Affari Esteri, Stabilimento delle relazioni diplomatiche fra la Repubblica Italiana e la Repubblica Popolare Cinese, in https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116477 

[2] The Seventh Fleet, film realizzato nel 1957 dall’U.S. Navy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y13Gc0sRDqY  

[3] Carla Meneguzzi Rostagni, Italia e Cina un secolo di relazioni, in Italogramma, vol. 2 (2012), pp. 47-48

[4] https://www.china-files.com/sinologie-quando-il-sig-dino-colmava-il-vuoto-diplomatico/ 

[5] Con Zhōngnánhǎi (中南海) si indica per metonimia il governo centrale della Repubblica Popolare Cinese. Esso è infatti un complesso di edifici adiacenti alla Città Proibita di Pechino in cui hanno sede tanto gli uffici centrali del Partito comunista cinese che il governo della Repubblica.

[6] Garret K. Martin, A “Diplomatic Nuclear Explosion?” Sino-French Relations in the 1960s, in https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/diplomatic-nuclear-explosion-sino-french-relations-the-1960s 

[7] Meloy to Department of State, January 23, 1969, NA, NSC, 694. Allegato con indicazione archivistica Rome 366

[8] Enrico Fardella, The Normalization of Relations between Italy and the People’s Republic of China, in Italy’s encounters with modern China, edited by Maurizio Marinelli & Giovanni Andornino, Palgrave MacMillan, DOI 10.1057/9781137290939, p. 133