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70 Years of Chinese Communism: When Italy’s Nenni Opened to China

The historical leader of Italian socialists was in favor of China's recognition, also because it would have meant having a third pole in the international system

Mao Zedong (

When Nenni became Vice Prime Minister and Minister of the Italian Foreign Affairs, in December 1968, the People’s Republic of China was still not recognized by the huge majority of the allies of USA, and was not a member of UN. The decision of Nixon and Kissinger to open relations with Beijing was still a far one to come.

Excerpts from the speech given on October 13th, 2018 at Stony Brook University, at the conference “Italy and East Asia: Exchanges and Parallels”

During his long life, Pietro Nenni (1891-1980), the most important historical leader of the Italian socialist movement along with Filippo Turati, witnessed a special relation with Asia, in particular with China. Many were the roots of his instinctive attraction for Asia: his personal connection to peasants’ civilization and culture (Asia at the time was an immense countryside), the champions of revolutions Asia had produced in terms of anti-colonial and socialist fighting (Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tsedong), the personal relations he had established during the anti-fascist exile in Paris (with Ho and Zhou Enlai, for instance), his socialist anti-racist and humanitarian ideology which urged him to operate to empower this big slice of the world population to run its destiny and to become a leading actor of World politics and economics.

In that framework, China was undoubtedly the most populated and politically relevant nation. It was also a special case of how International Politics, during the Cold War era, was unable to overcome ideologies and Power interests, negating justice and rationality in not satisfying the needs of the nations.

When Nenni became Vice Prime Minister and Minister of the Italian Foreign Affairs, in December 1968, the People’s Republic of China was still not recognized by the huge majority of the allies of USA, and was not a member of UN. The decision of Nixon and Kissinger to open relations with Beijing was still a far one to come.

It must be noted that Beijing was not begging for recognition: haughty in its millenary nationalism, proud of its history, firmly ensconced in its revolutionary credo,  it refused any diplomatic compromise with the governments providing recognition to Taipei. The nations wishing official relations with the People’s Republic had to first cut all of the official links with Taiwan. Pragmatically, even though Rome officially still recognized Formosa, ICE, the Italian Istituto per il Commercio Estero, was present in PRC and a similar consular PRC office operated in Rome.

Pietro Nenni (Wikipedia).

Nenni had visited China in the autumn of 1955, meeting his old friend Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. The two leaders knew the influence he had on the Democratic Socialists governing many countries, and were confident that he could transmit to his colleagues the interest of PRC to be recognized as a partner for peace, ready for bilateral and multilateral “normalized” cultural and economic relations. On their side, the nations wishing good relation with Beijing, had to produce the due recognition of PRC as the unique and legitimate representative of China, being Taiwan a part of it.

Nenni was always in favor of this standpoint, not only because he thought that it was  the Chinese people’s right to be admitted to the family of nations as the legitimate representative of Chinese people, but because the recognition of PRC meant having a third pole in the international system, opening the World to a new era, less rigid and no more a victim of the control of the two military and political conflicting blocks. In admitting China as a Power in international affairs, the family of nations would have declared themselves ready for new scenarios, for the redefinition of the equilibriums fixed by the Cold War.

In November 1971,  when Nenni, as a champion of International Socialism and an authentic friend of China– and free of any role in the Italian Government and Socialist Party–accepted the invitation of Beijing to visit the city again, the PRC was on the immediate eve of recognition by the UN. This had not been the case in 1968 and 1969, when Nenni was the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Historians agree in recognizing that Nenni was both an idealist and a pragmatist. As a Socialist he was very clear on the path to follow to achieve social justice and international peace. As a politician he always showed his readiness to compromise and his realism. He also favored common sense suggested by common people and humble families whose destinies he had shared in his orphanage infantry. Nenni was known as the man of “la politique d’abord” (Politics, first!), against the excesses of ideology and of formalism.

In relation to the Chinese question, the above personal qualities allowed him to overcome the doubts coming from the Christian Democrats and from the most traditional fields of the Italian diplomacy which had on many occasions irritated Beijing with their total complacency with Washington’s position on Taiwan; the exception was Franco Malfatti di Monte Tretto, Ambassador to Paris, the true engine of Minister Nenni’s opening to China, in direct daily touch with his Chinese colleague in Paris, Ambassador Huang Chen.

He was convinced that if the number of Powers was not increased and if the Bipolar system was not going to come to an end, Italy would never have achieved the autonomy to fulfill its national interests while many nations would have continued to suffer the consequences of the bloc model. This was the case for the Central Eastern Europe Countries under the Soviets, and for the developing countries which were “used” by the two Powers in accordance with their territorial and security interests.

This was also the case of Italy: in ending the Bipolar system, its internal politics would have been freed from the structural interferences of the superpowers. Within internal politics, Christian Democrats and Communists would not have received the backing of the respective international protectors anymore. In international politics, Italy would have been free to choose the most interesting economic and trade opportunities: Arab oil and gas producing countries for instance, Russia, and China of course.

Moreover, in flirting with the Chinese Communist Party, Nenni checkmated the Italian Communist party, affiliated with the Communist Church of Moscow, cashing in an important dividend for the fortunes of the Socialist Party: in 1968 the alliance between the two forces of the Italian Left was out of the political agenda, and the Communists were opposing the Centre Left alliance and attacking the socialists as “social traitors”.

In terms of western security, in those years, any operation into the international communist movement had an enormous strategic value. After the March 1969 clash between the Soviet and Chinese armies in Ussuri (Chinese Soviet border), and the following clashes along other points of the common frontier, the ideological and political conflict between the two main Realized Socialism erupted to the surface. SUCP’s XX Congress had been the starting point of a confrontation which was generating border tensions and bloody skirmishes. Beside ideological and political motivations, the USSR and the PRC were the champions of two different revolutions: the PRC claimed the autonomy of the vast planet’s peasantry against the pretensions of leading the World Socialist movement expressed by the “industrial town”, the USSR.

Moreover China, as well as Tito’s Yugoslavia, had no intention of being represented in international affairs by USSR, which, in Mao’s analysis, was too ready to compromise with Washington and not interested in the destiny of the poor nations of the world.

In order to satisfy its ambitions to be an alternative point of reference in the Communist international exchequer, PRC had to be recognized and Taiwan abandoned. Beijing had to enter UN and the Security Council, thus changing the international system as it was at the time.

Nenni was not especially impressed by the inflammatory slogans of the Chinese leadership which he considered to be essentially, propaganda. He was instead very attentive to the positive consequences the multipolar system could guarantee to the largest majority of the nations of the world. When Kissinger and Nixon, about five years after Nenni’s steps, would discover the virtues of opening up to China, they would speak of a trilateral World Game which was coming into effect, making the Planet more just and less dangerous. As a matter of fact, one of the results cashed by Washington’s new doctrine was the USSR becoming less powerful and more ready to negotiate not only with Washington, D.C., but also with Beijing, whose destiny was to rapidly become one of the poles of the international order.

One of the expected results of the opening of the international system to China was that other subjects, European Communities for instance, could then cultivate the ambition to become a pole of reference, economically integrated and politically autonomous from Moscow and Washington.

This doctrine would be explicitly recalled to Nenni by Zhou Enlai in 1971 and recorded by Nenni in his diary:

As for the Mediterranean and the problems related to the European unification, the Chinese position of principle is always the same: to refuse the tutelage of the great Powers. The Prime Minister was clearly referring to de Gaulle. The unity of Europe can be realized only on the base of independence and autonomy from the US and the USSR.

With all the above as a background, Minister Nenni forced the stalemate of his allies in government and on January 24th, 1969, announced the Italian intention of recognizing the PRC. On February 8th, the Chinese answer came: the two nations had to move from commercial to diplomatic relations, on the basis of the following principles:

  • The PRC’s government had to be recognized as the sole representative of the Chinese people,
  • Taiwan had to be recognized as a province being an  integral part of the PRC’s territory,
  • Consequently, no diplomatic relations would subsequently have been carried on between Rome and Taipei,
  • Italy would have supported the PRC’s U.N. membership.

Nenni knew the four conditions from the meeting with Mao and Zhou in 1955 and one of them was seen by him as inadmissible: in fact, the ruling on Taiwan was an internal matter of China which had nothing to do with the recognition of the PRC. The disagreement on that point did not allow Nenni to close the agreement before the expiration of his ministry.

Italy would recognize PRC in November 1970, when the reciprocal diplomatic relations would be established. One year after, at the U.N. General Assembly, the Italian delegation would vote to substitute Taiwan with the PRC in both the General Assembly and the Security Council.

Nenni was no longer the Foreign Affairs Minister of Italy, but Chinese leaders knew that the “compagno Nenni” had been the Italian politician who opened Italy and Europe to the PRC: they appreciated his deep consistency in conducting international affairs, together with his rejection of tactical maneuvering and zigzagging.

In the midst of the UN’s preparation of the November vote on the admission of the PRC, the Chinese ambassador in Rome, Shemp-ping and his wife, invites Nenni and his daughter Giuliana for a private dinner on September 23rd, 1971.  There, he announces the official invitation of president Mao to visit him in the second half of October.

Eight years later, on November 1979, only two months before Nenni’s death, the Prime Minister of the State Council of the PRC and President of the Chinese Communist Party, Hua Guofeng, is in Rome. He requests to meet the venerable Italian Socialist. Clearly, memory and gratitude are part of Chinese tradition! After their private meeting, on November 5th, Nenni wrote the following in his diary:

I took advantage from my meeting to recall to the Chinese leader the words of his predecessor Zhou Enlai related to an agreement of China with Europe as a necessary factor for the continental stability. In greeting me, Hua’s words underlined the same concept: China, he said– with an evident controversy with the USSR– wishes a powerful and united Europe as much as the Western Europeans wish a powerful and wealthy China.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would happen a few weeks later, on December 24th, confirming the worst intuitions of the two leaders.

Nenni and the Chinese leaders shared the project of  a Eur-Asia free from the Bipolar stringent and forceful jaws, ready to cooperate culturally, economically and politically, to build a huge area of peace and development which would not be constrained by the Powers’ logics and impositions. In a way, that model appears at the roots of the current President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, BRI. The implosion of the Soviet Union, together with the end of the Bipolar system, set the conditions for China’s growth and for the setting up of BRI.

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