By Manzoor Ahmed
While Pakistani and Chinese leaders are leaving no stone unturned to project the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a panacea for all ills, especially for Pakistan, there is a growing murmur of dissent and cynicism about the project within the country.
Despite all the statistics and projections bandied about by the Pakistani leadership, no one is really sure how the project will benefit the ordinary citizens. Many are inclined to believe that at the end of it all, Pakistanis would fix punctures and run dhabas (eating shacks) for the Chinese. This disbelief and insecurity is aggravated by the government’s refusal to come clean on the details of the project, especially on the debt payment and the unwritten benefits promised to the Chinese investors and businessmen. There is, on top of it, an unquiet silence on the damage the project would do to environment and social fabric.
Although the Pakistani leadership is at pains to explain that the Chinese were not like East India Company, the argument put forward by Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal that “China seeks partnership“ is quite similar to what the `English Bahadur`said to the gullible rulers and chieftains before becoming the emperor themselves. A Pakistani newspaper summed up the debate thus: “There can be many arguments made against CPEC’s comparison with the East India Company, but to dismiss it as propaganda doesn’t help address the concerns raised by many against the project. Of course, when you take a jibe against the critics for ‘not reading history’ and then in the very next sentence dub CPEC a partnership – which is precisely what the East India Company had sought initially – it doesn’t bode well for your claims either….Regardless of how dismissive the government is, dissent against the Chinese involvement in Pakistan is gradually increasing.“
Two critical issues have dogged ever since the project was announced. One was the real benefits to Pakistani businessmen and citizens from the project and second was the potential debt trap the project could become for Pakistan. With the government refusing to make a full disclosure on the details of the project, there is no clear settlement or assurance on these issues, especially when there is growing evidence that Chinese aims and objectives were quite divergent from that of Pakistan.
But, what is beginning to cause widespread consternation among the people is not the `mysterious` silence over the real benefits but the social fallout of the Chinese presence in a highly conservative Islamic society. Three recent incidents add to the foreboding feeling among the people. One was about how some Chinese engineers and workers beat up the local police in Khanewal, Punjab, over some minor dispute and then one of them stood on top of the police vehicle and goading his colleagues to beat up the cops. The video went viral, raising the spectre of the Chinese hegemony. This was not the first such incident to be widely reported. Earlier, in 2016, a similar clash had taken place between Chinese workers and police and it was reported in the media that the Chinese workers weretrained in martial arts and had the backing of People’s Liberation Army.
Another recent incident which has not attracted much media attention but is no less serious is the `disappearance` of Uighur wives of Pakistani men. Pakistani men, mostly businessmen from Gilgit-Baltistan region, have been marrying Uighur women ever since the border between the two countriesopened to facilitate trade and travel. During the winter months, before the passes closed, the Uighur women returned to their homes. But when the passes opened with the onset of spring, the men found to their horror the phones of their spouses switched off. They could not find them at their homes either. It was later discovered that the Chinese authorities had sent all of them to “correction“ centres for “re-education“.
The latest incident (May 2018 ) is the trader’s strike at Khunjerab Pass, one of the entry points of the CPEC project. The traders have refused to clear their consignments through newly introduced Web-Based One Customs (WeBOC ) system at Sust Dry Port. The traders are not happy with the online system because of connectivity issues and lack of training to handle the processes. Over three dozen trucks were stranded at the border post in the first week of May despite several rounds of negotiations.
Are these incidents harbingers of future trouble? In all probability yes. Pakistan is already stated to be a tinderbox of social and religious tensions. The Chinese dictatorial attitudes and their prosecution of Muslims could trigger a wave of anger and violence in the days and months ahead. The continuous prosecution of Muslims in Uighur is not hidden from Pakistanis. If the Pakistani state were to remain silent over this prosecution of Muslims, there would be serious backlash within the country. The army, which has survived on stoking the fire of religious extremism in the name of defending Islam, can find itself in a bind if it refused to heed the growing people’s anger against the treatment of Muslims in China.
Apart from this religious factor, the project has already created even more deeper divisions and dissent between the two centres of power-the military and the civilian establishment. The army wants to usurp full control of the project, and therefore reap all its fruits, the civilians are not willing to let go of the cake easily. They too want their share of the pie. Since the Chinese have shown an inclination to trust and work with the military, the civilians might find themselves holding the baby while the Generals enjoy the perks. This is bound to add to the suspicion and distrust between the two, leaving the people in distress.
The project is making its impact on other fronts also. There is already a provincial war for the riches, with Punjab doing utmost to corner all the fruits, leaving Sindh and Balochistan to bear the consequences of large scale concrete projects which are causing displacement, resource crisis and hopelessness among the people of these provinces. The differences or divisions are not limited to administrative or economic matters; these have spilled over as ethnic conflicts. Pakhtuns, Sindhis and Baloch have for long blamed Punjabis for usurping their share of national resources. With the Punjabis set to corner the CPEC pie in toto, with no inclination to share even a morsel, the other ethnic communities are beginning to raise their voice. The Baloch have for long been fighting with the Punjabi establishment for decades, so has been the Sindhis. The Pakhtuns are the new ones to take on the Punjabis. They view the CPEC project as yet another attempt by the Punjabi clique to steal their share of their national resources.
There are too many things which are rotten in the project which the Prime Minister of Pakistan hails as a `project of the century`.
(The author is geo-political analyst and the contents of the article are his views and not necessarily be agreed by the newspaper. Editor)