Written by Loretta Baldassar et al.

In the introduction to the pioneering work on Chinese in Europe published in 1998, historian Frank Pieke comments on the relative invisibility of Chinese migrants.[i] A quarter of a century later, the notion of an ‘invisible’ Chinese migrant in Italy is hard to fathom. The presence of Chinese in certain parts of Europe has become not only highly visible but also increasingly contentious. Our new edited volume, Chinese Migration to Europe: Prato, Italy and beyond, focuses on one of the most extraordinary places in terms of Chinese migration in Europe: the city of Prato, just 20 km from Florence, in central Italy.

Prato is now home to one of the largest populations of Chinese residents in Europe, when measured as a proportion of the population. It is a phenomenon that is remarkable for its magnitude, and the speed at which it has developed: In 1990 there were just 500 Chinese in Prato, increasing around eight times up to the turn of the century. By 2010 there were almost 12,000 Chinese in Prato. And yet a recent European Union report refers to estimates that put the actual Chinese population in Prato at between 30,000 and 40,000,[ii] more than double the official figure.

In the past couple of decades, this group of mainly Chinese entrepreneurial migrants to Italy, mostly from the city of Wenzhou, has turned traditional economic, manufacturing and cultural relationships on their heads. The Pratesi in Italy had little say in becoming one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse provinces in Italy as their proud city has become a microcosm of wider transformations.

The introduction in Italy in 2009 of the so-called security package (Law 94) reflected the rise of ‘Fortress Europe politics’ and the increasing use of immigration issues as a means of political manoeuvring. The security package dictates that being in Italy without a ‘stay permit’ (permesso di soggiorno) is a criminal offence and that every public officer is obliged to report the infringement. Prior to the introduction of this law, stay permits were also required in order to have ‘legal’ status. However, not being in possession of one did not automatically make one a criminal. If indeed it ever existed, any substantive tolerance towards undocumented immigrants changed dramatically with this law.

For Prato, 2009 was also the year of a major change in local politics, with the election of a centre-right party, after over six decades of government by the centre-left. This political feat was achieved largely on an overtly anti-Chinese political commentary that fuelled a climate of growing concern for the performance of the local economy, propelling public opinion into ever deeper prejudiced and openly xenophobic rhetoric. After these elections, Prato was one of several cities in Italy which took up the national government’s offer of military personnel to patrol urban areas – increasing the visibility (and scrutiny) of the Chinese immigrant ‘problem’ both symbolically and tangibly. As already noted, this time period also coincides with a rapid increase in emigration from Wenzhou.

Not surprisingly, there is international interest in the Prato experience, and it has become a focus of many and varied international research and media analyses. In his international bestseller, China Shakes the World, journalist James Kynge uses Prato as a central case study for his analysis of the new China and its implications for the international community. In The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, economist Guy Standing defines Prato as “a symbol of globalisation and the dilemmas thrown up by the growth of the precariat”.

In addition to worldwide attention from journalists, the effects of Chinese migration have been studied intently by concerned professional service providers in Italy itself, and have aroused emotive political responses about how to manage the inexorable forces of global change that the cohort represents. The generally ad hoc approach to immigration policy shown by Italian authorities at all levels of government and administration has been unhelpful and was further compounded by the global financial crisis, starting in 2007. By this time Chinese migrants had begun to invest much personal and financial capital in the industrial district of Via Pistoiese in Prato. Families grew as Chinese women doubled the local birthrate. Second-generation children had to be integrated into the education system, with at least one public school recording a greater number of Chinese enrolments than Italian. The resultant language and cultural needs in the social service sector in particular has been overwhelming. Both Chinese (which refuses to grant dual citizenship) and Italian citizenship law (with its powerful rhetoric of blood ties) make integration and the fostering of notions of mixed identity highly contentious.

A telling symbolic act of the newly elected Prato municipal government in 2009 was to forbid the procession of the Chinese Dragon through the historic centre of the city, a route the community had been using for Chinese New Year celebrations for a number of years. To interpret this action as purely and simply xenophobic is to overlook the importance of deeply held concerns about the need to control and preserve the boundaries of belonging. In the recent New Year celebrations this year, the dragon once again returned to the inner city streets, evidencing the multiple, complex and contrapuntal processes of identity formation.

Chinese people have a long history of migration to Europe, but their current larger numbers, speed of growth, economic prowess, commercial vigour, and contentious presence in the current political climate make the recent arrivals different from their predecessors. Unsurprisingly, in the face of rapid social, economic and political change, rumours (misrepresentation and misinformation) are rife, and there is a pressing need for wide discussion about the causes of racial tension and economic confrontation to better understand underlying influences in Europe in the hope of recommending responses which are collaborative, equitable and lasting, and long-term mitigating strategies.

Loretta Baldassar is Professor and Discipline Chair of Anthropology and Sociology at UWA and an Adjunct Principal Research Fellow at Monash University, Australia. This article is co-authored with Graeme Johanson (Monash), Narelle McAuliffe (Monash) and Massimo Bressan (IRIS), all co-editors of Chinese Migration to Europe: Prato, Italy and beyond forthcoming this year with Palgrave.  Image credit: CC by Agnese Morganti/Flickr.


[i] Pieke, F. N. (1998). Introduction. In G. Benton & F. Pieke (Eds.), The Chinese in Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p.15.

[ii] Latham, K., & Wu, B. (2013). Chinese immigration into the EU: New trends, dynamics and implications. London: Europe China Research and Advice Network, p. 35.

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