By Umar Karim
The Pakistan-China bilateral relationship has become increasingly significant since the former’s entry into China’s Belt and Road Initiative under the banner of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC.) This has meant that the bilateral relationship has had implications on not only regional politics and security but on the patterns of great power competition and alignments in South Asia. Western audiences increasingly skeptical about Chinese BRI projects have been curiously observing this new trend in the bilateral ties of the two countries while highlighting possible points of diffraction. This was evident when US deputy secretary of state for South Asia, Alice Wells, expressed skepticism about CPEC’s impact on Pakistan and how it could worsen Pakistan’s debt issues.
Some of the news stories do tend to follow a deliberate pattern that raises questions about the Pak-China partnership. But if this bilateral relationship is approached purely in subjective terms relating to the respective interests of Pakistan and China, there emerge certain issues in the political, economic and social domains that both governments need to address swiftly and through proper legal edifice.
One particular case in this backdrop has been the sale of more than 600 Pakistani girls as brides to Chinese men and then the alleged abuse meted on these girls in terms of physical violence, forced fertility treatment, and forced prostitution. It is beyond a doubt that an organized criminal racket with operatives in both countries is behind this enterprise.
Within this episode there remain political, legal and social variables that pose significant questions not only to the authorities at the helm of affairs in both Pakistan and China but also for Pakistani society at large.
In Pakistan, it is a common specter across all societal strata that the family of a prospective bride is heavily burdened and often manipulated by the groom’s family through demands of a “sizeable” dowry. Despite media and social awareness campaigns, this menace still exists. With the entry of the Chinese groom ready to give a sizeable amount of money to the bride’s family (often under different pretenses,) the equation significantly changes for many families living close to or under the poverty line.
Since the societal structural in Pakistan remains heavily patriarchal, a prospective bride has very little say in terms of deciding who her life partner will be. The matchmakers or, more specifically, the local agents of this mafia sell out the proposal as a chance for the family to get some relief in their lives of abject poverty. This further limits the options of the bride and gives us a glimpse of the structural abyss that continues to engulf the lives of so many young Pakistani women.
Another unfortunate aspect of this story which further exposes injustice and exclusion within society at large is the fact that most of these young women belong not only to extremely poor, but also minority Christian families. This essentially means that these cases, even when highlighted within mainstream media outlets, have failed to create any significant uproar in public discourse.
In Pakistan, where public backlash and mobilization are often required to force the hand of the law to take appropriate action, nearly a miracle would be required to generate a public momentum against this enormous scandal — one that ignores societal, economic and religious divides.
The third facet of this infamy is political. Initially, it was reported that governments in both countries decided to take stringent action against those involved in these actions as they were functionaries of a ring of human traffickers. This resulted in the arrests of about 52 Chinese citizens and 20 of their Pakistani associates.
But most recent reports suggest that all the Chinese citizens apprehended in connection with the matter have been acquitted despite the fact that their Pakistani associates are still being kept in jail. This also warrants a question for the leadership in both countries: why are they allowing mafias abrogating the law to roam free? The Pak-China relationship is bigger and stronger than the whims of such felons.
In the end, those trying to highlight the plight of these women must not project this episode as a by-product of CPEC, as the very structural elements that have led to this horror are of our own society’s making and need to be accepted.
(Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89)