This time around the quest is for capital investment and entrepreneurial inspiration rather than the silks and spices brought home by Venice’s celebrated merchant explorer.
But the objective and the context have much in common: mutual prosperity at a time of global economic flux.
Rather than Italians heading for China, as in Polo’s day, today’s pioneers are Chinese entrepreneurs making their way to Italy looking to do deals in a country in search of a holistic remedy for its economic ailments.
When Milan succeeds Shanghai as host of the Universal Exposition next year, an estimated seven million Chinese are expected to visit the city.
Organisers expect half of them will be business figures looking for an opportunity in a country where company bankruptcies are running at 16,000 per year.
– Open for business –
Already this year, Chinese companies have splashed out several billion euros (dollars) acquiring stakes in or control of Italian companies ranging from a venerable old fashion house to some of its biggest energy companies as well as to the producer of a well-known olive oil brands.
That has vindicated Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s decision to send an “open-for-business” signal to Beijing after he came to power in February.
“Renzi had the intelligence to make China the first country that he visited, that was the signal they were waiting for,” said Antonio Cianci, the organiser of a series of recent business-to-business gatherings including the China Italy Financial Summit and the China Italy Technology Forum.
“The Chinese were knocking on our door, but we were incapable of opening it,” he said. “We were too busy navel-gazing.”
Renzi, 39, is attempting to implement reforms designed to make the country more attractive to investors.
“We have to become more open,” he said. In Rome last week he declared: “We must bring more China to Italy and take more Italy to China.”
At the heart of Renzi’s reform drive lies a shake up of the labour market, which should make it easier for employers to hire and fire, and an overhaul of the snail-paced legal system to ensure contracts can be enforced within a reasonable timeframe.
Renzi’s visit to Beijing in June was reciprocated this month by his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang, who signed some eight billion euros ($10 billion) worth of trade and financial cooperation agreements in Rome.
China’s central bank has this year acquired stakes in Fiat, Telecom Italia, insurer Generali, energy giant Eni and utility Enel.
Shortly after Renzi’s Beijing visit, Italy sold a stake in energy grids holding company CDP Reti to State Grid Corp of China for 2.1 billion euros.
These deals have made few waves and even the transfer of more emblematic assets to Chinese owners have not unleashed much negative reaction among a recession-weary public.
– Fashion and olive oil –
Krizia, the fashion house founded by one of the grand dames of Italian fashion, Mariuccia Mandelli, was bought by Zhu Chongyun earlier this year and the Chinese entrepreneur-designer has been warmly welcomed into the Milan fashion family.
Likewise, there were few murmurings of discontent when state-owned Bright Food acquired a majority stake in Salvo, an Italian group whose range includes Filippo Berio, an olive oil brand that is a market leader in Britain and the United States and now looks set for an onslaught on the Chinese market.
Among those with direct experience of Chinese-Italian business collaboration is Li Ning, the European boss of BGI, a bio-tech company that emerged from China’s involvement in the human genome project.
Li was in Milan this month to sign contracts for the development of a genetic test for pregnant women, the latest in a series of partnership agreements with Italian specialists in the field.
“If you want your friends to treat you well, first treat them well,” he said.
“I always tell my team to never complain about the local environment — it does no good.”
Inevitably there will be some who fret about Italy being ‘sold to the Chinese’ but Cianci said it is up to Italy’s own entrepreneurs to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.
“What China brings is financial strength, not, I hope, to colonise Europe but to build relationships that allow us to do business together,” he said.
“So it is up to us: if we put our heads up to be cut off, we will only have ourselves to blame.”-AFP