An Italian newspaper that is typically critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping's overseas infrastructure plan has said that a Chinese embassy official tried to intimidate one of its reporters.
Giulia Pompili ran across Yang Han, a Rome-based press officer for the Chinese embassy, during Xi's state visit to Rome this week, the Italian newspaper Il Foglio reported.
"A presidential official was accompanying the journalist in charge of Asia for our newspaper to the hall, and asked her for her name," the paper said of the March 23 encounter at Rome's Chirinale Palace, an official residence of the Italian president.
"She replied, and Yang looked at her saying, 'You have to stop saying bad things about China.'"
Pompili smiled at him, but Yang repeated the comment, refusing to shake her proffered hand, ordered her to put away her cell phone and hardened his tone towards the journalist, the paper said.
He told her: "I know very well who you are, anyway," it said.
"Il Foglio has a very clear position on China, the Belt and Road Initiative and on Chinese operations in the West in general," the paper said, adding that it holds a position on collaboration with the ruling Chinese Communist Party that is "very different" from that of the Italian government.
"We believe there are significant strategic and cultural objectives over which our control would be minimal, if not non-existent," it said of the Belt and Road initiative.
"Since Italy is not China ... we have the full right to express ideas and criticisms," the paper said.
"If the spokesman of the Chinese embassy doesn't understand that, then it will probably be necessary to ask a few more questions about these new friends of ours," it said in a commentary titled "We are not in Beijing."
Comments spark outcry
Yang's reported comments sparked an outcry among some politicians and media professionals.
Mariastella Gelmini, parliamentary leader for the center-right movement Forza Italia, said it was "intolerable" that a high-ranking official would use "verbal violence" against a journalist who was simply doing her job.
"Some countries may be evolved economically and attractive commercially, but respect for freedom and guarantees of those freedoms are achievements still very far from their grasp," she was quoted as saying in a separate article in Il Foglio.
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said he had a similar experience when he worked as a journalist.
"When we worked in mainland China, we often ran across State Council and foreign ministry officials who treated us quite rudely, and who wouldn't allow us to ask certain questions," Lui told RFA.
"Journalists who asked embarrassing questions of leaders wouldn't be allowed back in afterwards."
"If you persisted, they would threaten to revoke your press credentials," he said.
He said Chinese officials typically insist on controlling all aspects of their interactions with the media.
"China needs to realize that they don't control the rest of the world too," Lui said. "They should act according to international norms and universal values, and play by the rules of the game, not try to impose their values on others."
But Wu Qiang, former politics lecturer at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, said Yang's approach is fundamental to the whole Belt and Road strategy.
"The aggressive and tough behavior coming out the Chinese diplomatic service is actually the result of the Belt and Road strategy proposed six years ago, calling on them to redefine the norms of international relations," Wu said. "It largely rewrote the code of conduct for Chinese diplomats."
"[They are] trying to establish an authoritarian world order that is subject to China, and which doesn't allow any criticism or opposing voices, neither at home or internationally," he said.
Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with China on Saturday supporting Beijing's "Belt and Road" initiative, making it the first member of the Group of Seven major economies to do so.
While the Italian government hopes to boost exports to China as a fillip to Italy's troubled economy, critics warn that the deals could come with a hefty political and financial price tag for Beijing's partners.
Chinese officials say that Belt and Road is a solely economic initiative with no political motives.
Journalists 'serve the state'
According to the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Beijing employs "blackmail, intimidation and harassment on a massive scale" to enforce its official views far beyond its own borders.
"In the spirit of the Beijing regime, journalists are not intended to be a counter-power but rather to serve the propaganda of states,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement with the launch of a new report.
"If democracies do not resist, Beijing will impose [its] view and [its] propaganda, which is a threat for journalism and democracy," Deloire said.
According to the RSF report, Beijing has managed to convince tens of thousands of journalists in emerging countries to go on all-expense-paid trips to Beijing to "train their critical mind" in exchange for favorable press coverage.
"Beijing is also exporting its censorship and surveillance tools, including the Baidu search engine and WeChat instant messaging platform, and encouraging authoritarian states to copy its repressive regulations, a particularly effective strategy in Southeast Asia," RSF said.
"Beijing calls for intimidation and violence to silence dissidents, even in democratic nations," it said. "From freelance reporters to major media outlets, from publishing houses to social media platforms, no link in the news production chain is immune to the 'invisible hand' of Beijing."
It said embassy officials all the way up to ambassadors are now openly critical of media that dare to question the official Communist Party line, "often in rather undiplomatic ways."
"Democracies are struggling to react in the face of these threats," the group warned.
China has been going to great lengths for the last decade to establish a “new world media order” under its control, with the aim of deterring and preventing any criticism of itself, according to the report.
"This project poses a threat to press freedom throughout the world," it said.
China ranked 176th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index, with dozens of journalists and bloggers currently behind bars for collecting or circulating information censored by the Chinese Communist Party.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.