See earlier post here (from 2005!).
NYTimes: ... Chinese laborers, first a few immigrants, then tens of thousands, began settling in Prato in the late 1980s. They transformed the textile hub into a low-end garment manufacturing capital — enriching many, stoking resentment and prompting recent crackdowns that in turn have brought cries of bigotry and hypocrisy.
The city is now home to the largest concentration of Chinese in Europe — some legal, many more not. Here in the heart of Tuscany, Chinese laborers work round the clock in some 3,200 businesses making low-end clothes, shoes and accessories, often with materials imported from China, for sale at midprice and low-end retailers worldwide.
It is a “Made in Italy” problem: Enabled by Italy’s weak institutions and high tolerance for rule-bending, the Chinese have blurred the line between “Made in China” and “Made in Italy,” undermining Italy’s cachet and ability to market its goods exclusively as high end.
Part of the resentment is cultural: The city’s classic Italian feel is giving way to that of a Chinatown, with signs in Italian and Chinese, and groceries that sell food imported from China.
But what seems to gall some Italians most is that the Chinese are beating them at their own game — tax evasion and brilliant ways of navigating Italy’s notoriously complex bureaucracy — and have created a thriving, if largely underground, new sector while many Prato businesses have gone under. The result is a toxic combination of residual fears about immigration and the economy.
... The rest of Italy is watching closely. “Lots of businesses from Emilia Romagna, Puglia and the Veneto say, ‘We don’t want to wind up like Prato,’ ” said Silvia Pieraccini, the author of “The Chinese Siege,” a book about the rise of the “pronto moda” or “fast fashion” economy.
Tensions have been running high since the Italian authorities stepped up raids this spring on workshops that use illegal labor, and grew even more when Italian prosecutors arrested 24 people and investigated 100 businesses in the Prato area in late June. The charges included money laundering, prostitution, counterfeiting and classifying foreign-made products as “Made in Italy.”
Yet many Chinese in Prato are offended at the idea that they have ruined the city. Instead, some argue, they have helped rescue Prato from total economic irrelevance, another way of saying that if the Italian state fails to innovate and modernize the economy, somebody else just might.
“If the Chinese hadn’t gone to Prato, would there be pronto moda?” asked Matteo Wong, 30, who was born in China and raised in Prato and runs a consulting office for Chinese immigrants. “Did the Chinese take jobs away from Italians? If anything, they brought lots of jobs to Italians.”
... Resentment runs high. “You take someone from Prato with two unemployed kids and when a Chinese person drives by in a Porsche Cayenne or a Mercedes bought with money earned from illegally exploiting immigrant workers, and this climate is risky,” said Domenico Savi, Prato’s chief of police until June.
According to the Prato mayor’s office, there are 11,500 legal Chinese immigrants, out of Prato’s total population of 187,000. But the office estimates the city has an additional 25,000 illegal immigrants, a majority of them Chinese.
With its bureaucracy, protectionist policies and organized crime, Italy is arguably Western Europe’s least business-friendly country. Yet in Prato, the Chinese have managed to create an entirely new economy from scratch in a matter of years.
A common technique used, often with the aid of knowledgeable Italian tax consultants and lawyers, is to open a business, close it before the tax police can catch up, then reopen the same workspace with a new tax code number.
“The Chinese are very clever. They’re not like other immigrants, who can be pretty thick,” said Riccardo Marini, a textile manufacturer and the head of the Prato branch of Confindustria, the Italian industrialists’ organization.
“The difficulty,” he added ruefully, “is in finding a shared understanding of the rules of the game.”
Prato’s streets have slowly become more and more Chinese, as the Chinese have bought out Italian-owned shops and apartments, often paying in cash. Public schools are increasingly filled with Chinese pupils.
Hypocrisy abounds. “The people in Prato are ostriches,” said Patrizia Bardazzi, who with her husband has run a high-end clothing shop in downtown Prato for 40 years. “I know people who rent space to the Chinese and then say, ‘I don’t come into the center because there are too many Chinese.’ They rent out the space and take the money and go to Forte dei Marmi,” she added, referring to the Tuscan resort town. ...