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Blossoming China-Pakistan financial ties obscure extent of Chinese invasion, cultural ingress

Recently, even while Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif was preparing to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at Astana, for the meeting of heads of states at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit, the Islamic State (IS) claimed the killing of a Chinese couple in Quetta, Balochistan, in an attack that indicated a revived focus on China as an enemy. The Pakistan Army rushed into operations immediately, and Chinese nationals in the area were moved out of the area to Karachi, for their move back to China.

Given the billions of dollars that have been promised under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the sensitivities of the 'all-weather friend', the Pakistan government has been demonstrably proactive in plans to provide protection to Chinese nationals. But, it is likely to be a tricky job, that will only get more difficult going forward.

While India has been aggressively protesting CPEC as an infringement of its sovereignty, and worrying about the investment that it commits to Pakistan, a quiet revolution may already be in the making as an unprecedented number of Chinese nationals move into the country as part of it and other programs.

Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif with Chinese president Xi Jinping. AP

Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif with Chinese president Xi Jinping. AP

Chinese nationals have come under attack several times in Balochistan. Local resistance groups in the province resent the influx of foreigners, who are seen as exploiters. Chinese nationals have also faced a deteriorating law and order problem in major urban centres. Chinese businessmen have been robbed and sometimes assaulted.

The reaction of provincial police has been lackadaisical. A reverse problem is also apparent. Chinese nationals have been arrested for cyber crimes among others, though these reports are usually suppressed.

Given the vital importance of CPEC to the Pakistan Army – its large projects are after all being managed by its own business fronts – it has taken the protection of Chinese nationals into its own hands. The army launched a dedicated unit for this purpose, numbering a reported 15,000.

Provincial governments have also upped their security capabilities. Sindh is raising a protection force of about 2,600 to protect Chinese working on projects and businesses. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has been eyeing Chinese contracts worth several billions of dollars, is trying to locate and register all Chinese nationals working in the area and is creating its own police units for their protection.

These new units are being created on the lines of the Punjab Special Protection Unit, which was one of the first such efforts to protect foreigners. According to its website, it has 3,829 officers and jawans, along with 2,552 attached personnel from districts "to provide security to 7,567 Chinese working at four CPEC and 27 non-CPEC projects in the province.

They are also providing security to the Chinese residing at 70 residences and 24 camps in the province. Unsurprisingly, its senior positions are occupied by ex-Army officers. Apart from providing the Army with post-retirement benefits, it keeps the whole enterprise within the (khaki) family.

These enthusiastic efforts notwithstanding, the problem is multiplying. Chinese nationals are not only coming in larger numbers, they are flowing outwards to the suburban areas. Chinese nationals have long been active in most cities, involved in small trades like dentistry, parlours and shoe making in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. Others were involved somewhat 'unsavoury' activities like running "massage parlours" for a growing Chinese business community in the capital.

Following the announcement of the CPEC, however, this number has been increasing steadily. Today, according to one count, there are about 4,00,000 Chinese nationals across the country, including 25,000 in Islamabad alone. This is probably far lower than the actual numbers. For instance, no one is clear as to how many Chinese are present in Gilgit-Baltistan, where many had immigrated decades ago.

Chinese labourers and workers have long been involved in the building of the Karakorum Highway, together with contractors and staff. There is even a graveyard for Chinese workers who were killed in its construction in earlier times, but which has since become symbolic for the 'bilateral friendship' visits. Reports also indicate that Chinese nationals are involved in dubious land deals as well as setting up small "import-export" businesses that fleece locals. An unknown number reside in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as part of various road projects.

There are already some indicators of the social effects of the rising Chinese population. The country’s first Chinese-language weekly newspaper Huashang, claiming a readership of 60,000, has been operative for the last two years. Chinese language centres are multiplying, with Confucius centres in major universities and a plethora of "Institutes" offering language courses.

In characteristic South Asian fashion, political heads have gone overboard in spreading enthusiasm for everything Chinese. For instance, the Punjab Chief Minister announced scholarships for Pakistanis to study Chinese right from 'the dragon's mouth'. About 400 have already been trained in China. The Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority (TEVTA) plans to separately send 15,000 students to China. It is also offering local short courses for Pakistanis desirous of "doing business" related to CPEC. In 2013, Chinese Premier Li Keqian had promised “ a thousand Chinese teachers’ and certainly Beijing has more than kept its word, as teachers fan out to every province. The private sector is also waxing enthusiastic. A masala producer’s marketing video featuring a Chinese woman had about 2 million hits, while catchy stories of marriage between Chinese women and Pakistani men are doing the rounds.

In 2013, Keqian had promised, "a thousand Chinese teachers" and Beijing has more than kept its word, as teachers have fanned out to every province. The private sector is also waxing enthusiastic. A masala producer's marketing video featuring a Chinese woman had about two million hits, while catchy stories of marriage between Chinese women and Pakistani men have been doing the rounds.

All this, however, doesn't mean that Pakistanis are not worried. Cautious articles in English media appear to cheer the cultural wave but end up sounding alarmed.

The "leak" by Dawn of a CPEC master plan, that seeks to virtually make a colony out of the country, would certainly have set alarm bells ringing in sensible quarters.

Much of the "master plan"  itself is unsurprising since it virtually replicates what China has done in African countries. However, what is worrying is the backing of a fibre optic link (that began long before Gwadar was even thought of) which will, among other things, broadcast Chinese television and media to the hapless Pakistanis, who still 'sneak watch' Indian soaps.

The existing cultural ingress is bad enough, but the extent of the planned invasion is far worse. Islamabad may look for ways to stem this tide and diversify its investor list. Perhaps it may even look for Indian business, which in its basic operating principles are hardly different from Pakistan's. For India, a sinicised Pakistan is hardly something to be enthusiastic about. Certainly, there may be far fewer terrorists about as a result. China may quite simply buy the ground from under their feet.

The author is former director of the National Security Council Secretariat

Updated Date: Jun 13, 2017 14:18 PM

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