Why are police officers from China standing watch in front of Milan cathedral? Confused tourists, billions of euros, the pope and organized crime are just a few possible reasons.
It's a strange sight in the eternal city: Chinese police patrolling in front of the Colosseum and St. Peter's Square. Through May 13, officers from China will walk the streets in Rome and Milan alongside their Italian counterparts.
"This agreement is the first of its kind between China and a European Union country," Giovanni Battista Scali, deputy chief for the state police in Rome, told DW.
"We've already carried out similar projects with other European police and the United States during the Jubilee," he said, referring to the pope's decision to call for a special holy year - often used by Italian institutions to drum up more international visitors.
The aim of the project, Scali said, is to assist Chinese tourists and Italy's growing Chinese community in communicating with the authorities on every level, from asking directions to reporting crimes.
Another important factor is overcoming the language barrier in cities where police officers often only speak Italian.
As the standard of living at home has risen and more people travel abroad, about 3 million Chinese tourists now visit Italy every year, particularly attracted to such hubs of culture and shopping as Rome and Milan. There are broad worries about terrorism in the wake of attacks in Paris and Brussels - "Islamic State" has threatened Pope Francis and the Italian capital specifically - and Italian officials are invested in protecting the 189 billion euros ($215 billion) in revenue that the country receives from tourists annually.
Concerns about a drop in tourism, essential to the Italian economy, are not misplaced. Federalberghi, a national hotel association, reported last December that tourist numbers had already dropped 5 percent in comparison to the same month the year before - and that the downward trend looked likely to continue.
"In the climate of fear triggered by the string of terrorist attacks that hit Europe recently, the tourism industry in Rome has suffered," said Ilaria Lanzoni, a 31-year-old transplant to the capital who works at an NGO. "Despite this being a Jubilee year, the expected number of tourists hasn't materialized."
In front of Duomo, in Milan, the Chinese officers wear their regular uniforms to be more easily recognizable
The daily "Corriere della Sera" reported that one aim of the initiative is to encourage immigrants who witness crimes to report them to authorities and not keep such issues within their communities. Chinese gangs and Italian Mafia syndicates are suspected of cooperating in illegal sweatshop production as well as the manufacture and distribution of counterfeit goods, particularly in the south of Italy, where organized crime has traditionally flourished.
Though he did not specifically mention syndicates, National Chief Alessandro Pansa announced the project as part of a new policy of "proximity policing ... close to citizens' needs" - as opposed to intimidation tactics. He also hinted at further cooperation between police in the two countries, saying he hoped this project would open the door to resource-sharing that would better help both governments fight criminal organizations.
"Presumably our policemen will be in China in October and November, in Beijing and/or Shanghai," Scali, of the Rome state police, told DW.
Given the program's potential for controversy - such as the appearance of an intrusion on national sovereignty or concerns over China's domestic human rights violations - there has been little public dissent so far.
"The project has been received with great enthusiasm by the public and by the Chinese tourists right from the start," Scali said.
Lanzoni also had a positive impression of the program. "International tourism is an important resource for our country, and I think Italy is showing that it wants to go the extra mile to make Chinese tourists feel safe and welcome," she said. "Plus, it's always reassuring to be able to speak your own language when you are far away from home - especially when you are lost or in trouble!"