Leave the Gun. Take the… Egg Rolls?

Photo by Flickr member julianrod

This week police raided Chinese money laundering operations across Italy, arresting 24 people (mostly Chinese) for laundering EUR 2.7 billion ($3.3 billion) of cash and wiring the money to China. Also seized: 73 companies, 181 pieces of real estate, 300 bank accounts and 161 luxury cars.

At the center of the probe is Prato, a Tuscan city that today produces a lot of the “fast fashion” that’s sold throughout Europe. A steady stream of immigrants from Wenzhou, a city a few hours’ drive from Shanghai, started settling in Prato in the 1990s, and today the city’s Chinese population is up to 45,000; a quarter of the town is now Chinese. (Didn’t know Italy had Chinese people? Check out this blog by an Italian-born Chinese.) The Chinese have helped revitalize the city’s economy. Many people work gruelling hours in textile factories, churning out copycat garments just days after fashion shows in Paris and Milan. (Speigel has a great series on the subject.)

prato, italy, sign, italian, chinese, chinatown

Parlate italiano? Photo by Flickr member Monica Arellano-Ongpin

It’s a classic immigrant story in many ways. Except for the whole mafia / sweatshop labor /human trafficking / prostitution / tax evasion thing. Which, by the way, is where all that laundered money — the $3.3 billion — came from.

Are Chinese immigrants becoming a little too Italian — and taking to mafioso ways? Tempting joke, but of course Italy doesn’t have a monopoly on organized crime. (The Chinese have their triads, and not too long ago, Chinese authorities cracked down on criminal networks in Chongqing, a city of 31 million in southern China that was basically run by the mob.)

In truth, the culture gap is huge. The Italians say that the newcomers don’t speak Italian, send their kids back to China for schooling, have a very non-Italian approach to work (What labor rights?), and socialize just with other Chinese. But it’s also no surprise that Italy, a country that hasn’t exactly embraced immigration, has struggled to integrate its new Chinese community. In 2007, conflict between Chinese vendors and Italian police sparked riots in Milan (video).

What does this crackdown mean for the Chinese in Prato? Will there be a backlash against the Chinese? Will legitimate Chinese-owned businesses benefit or suffer as a result? Will new crime rings simply step in to fill the gap?

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