The close-knit community grew year by year until it numbered around 25,000 at the end of 2019, when there were about 6,000 Chinese businesses in the town of 200,000 people, making Prato one of Europe’s largest concentrations of Chinese-run industry. Then, in spring last year, the coronavirus hit. About 2,500 people, or 10% of the community, have since left.
For many Chinese in Prato, COVID was a tipping point, intensifying doubts over their future in Italy, Europe’s most sluggish economy. First, they suffered discrimination as alleged spreaders of the disease. Then, as the community emerged almost unscathed amid Italy’s growing death toll, they were held up as a model of how to fight it. Now many are giving up, worn down by the COVID-induced recession and lured back to China by its greater success in combating the pandemic and brighter economic prospects.
Italy has seen more than 124,000 COVID-19 deaths, while China has reported fewer than 5,000.
Huang Miaomiao, a journalist from Zhejiang who lives in Prato, estimated about 2,500 people, or 10% of the Chinese community, had gone back to China over the last year. Marco Wong, another town councillor, said the figure was “realistic”.
The Italian economy contracted by a steep 8.9% last year, and lost half a million jobs in the 12 months to March. While growing numbers of Chinese are leaving Prato, new arrivals have dried up, according to a town council manager, who cited school enrolment numbers.