When Lijian Zhao, China’s former No. 2 diplomat in Pakistan, tweeted in July to announce the completion of a 244-mile motorway from Punjab to Sindh province, he began with “Masha Allah,” or “God has willed it.” It was a striking use of language for an atheist Chinese official, especially to describe an infrastructure project.
The Chinese diplomat’s use of the everyday Arabic term mashallah was deliberately casual, aimed at endearing China to Pakistanis in a country where Beijing’s growing presence has often caused problems. Zhao, who left Pakistan in August for a position in the foreign ministry’s information department, was perhaps the most active Chinese diplomat in the country—inaugurating projects, speaking at ceremonies, and defending China’s policies. But his controversial tweets occasionally strained a relationship that may be one of the trickiest challenges for China in future decades.
In some ways, this is a problem of success. The Multan-to-Sukkur section of the Peshawar-Karachi motorway that Zhao announced represents another apparent triumph for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), seen as the flagship of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. CPEC is the first major economic venture in Pakistan and China’s “all-weather” friendship, which for decades was focused on defense and strategic ties.
Pakistan’s official narrative holds that the country’s friendship with China is “deeper than the ocean” and “higher than mountains.” But this narrative has recently been dented.
CPEC was projected to stimulate an 8 to 10 percent increase in Pakistan’s GDP by 2030, but some Pakistani experts fear a debt trap. Since it launched in 2015, the project’s total cost has increased from about $45 billion to $62 billion, with Pakistanis expecting new roads and railways, industrial zones, and local jobs. While there has been an increase in infrastructure jobs for Pakistani workers, most of the top-level technical jobs have gone to Chinese workers, with an estimated 10,000 Chinese working in Pakistan.
The new Pakistani government does not seem as enthusiastic about CPEC as its predecessor. “Chinese companies received tax breaks, many breaks and have an undue advantage in Pakistan; this is one of the things we’re looking at because it’s not fair that Pakistan companies should be disadvantaged,” Abdul Razak Dawood, Pakistan’s minister for commerce, industry, and investment, told the Financial Times last year. (Dawood later retracted the statement.)
Under Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was elected in 2018, CPEC projects have begun to stall. Official data released this week shows that foreign direct investment from China has plunged by 77 percent in the last fiscal year. The slowdown is in part due to Pakistan’s economic problems: In May, Pakistan accepted a $6 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund—its 13th IMF bailout package since the late 1980s.
On Tuesday, Khan met Xi in Beijing, sending a message that Pakistan is committed to reviving the stalled projects amid Chinese apprehension that progress is slowing. The visit was Khan’s third trip within a year to China, where he also met high-level business leaders.
The slowdown has come amid other threats to CPEC projects and to China’s public image in Pakistan, particularly in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province.
The development of the port of Gwadar—CPEC’s backbone—is underway in Balochistan, where a separatist insurgency operates. The Baloch nationalists accuse the Pakistani authorities of exploiting their natural resources, and they have a long history of launching attacks against outsiders—whether settlers or foreign investors. With the arrival of Chinese companies, the Baloch have now labeled the Chinese as exploiters, too.
Violent extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Afghan Taliban also operate in Balochistan. The Pakistani authorities have adopted a careful approach toward these groups, but they could threaten Chinese workers and companies—there have already been a small number of kidnappings reported in the Chinese media.
In the future, Pakistani jihadis may increasingly target Chinese interests in retaliation for China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang region, Siegfried O. Wolf notes in his book The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative. “Jihadists increasingly identify CPEC projects and other Chinese endeavors—especially other economic corridors under the [Belt and Road Initiative]—as targets,” Wolf writes.
Complaints of uneven distribution of CPEC investment within Pakistan have fueled tensions. For example, officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces have claimed that Punjab province has been favored for major projects. In November 2018, an unprecedented terrorist attack hit the Chinese consulate in Karachi, killing seven people. The separatist Balochistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility, describing China as an oppressor that wanted to “destroy the future of Balochistan.”
To address some of these grievances and make progress on the infrastructure projects in the region, China hosted a delegation of 10 Baloch political and tribal leaders last month. Pakistani media outlets reported that the leaders pledged to protect CPEC projects in Balochistan, but some were surprised to see reports of such pledges.
More often, ordinary Pakistanis are also coming into direct contact with Chinese people, and a few incidents have threatened to dull China’s public image and its soft power. In recent months, Chinese residents in Pakistan have been accused of sex trafficking, violating labor laws, and bank fraud, revealing the potential limits of the special relationship.
In May, China’s public image suffered a blow after reports about Chinese men duping poor Pakistani families into arranging sham marriages, with some of the women forced into sex work in China. At least two dozen Chinese people were arrested in Pakistan for arranging the fake marriages.
While the story quickly faded from local media, recent interviews with the women trafficked to China and the families left behind in Pakistan revealed feelings of resentment toward Chinese in Pakistan and their way of life. The women, who came primarily from minority Christian families, often believed they were marrying Christian men. They were promised a better life in China and better economic prospects.
Labor issues have also fostered resentment among Pakistani workers. Laborers working on infrastructure projects under Chinese supervisors and engineers have complained of 10-hour workdays and harsh treatment, in violation of Pakistani labor law.
In May, a Chinese engineer was arrested in Punjab province after he allegedly pushed a Pakistani worker into a furnace, causing him to suffer burns on 40 percent of his body. Local police arrested the engineer after other workers protested and threatened a strike. The workers claimed that Chinese managers at the factory engaged in bad labor practices.
Another complaint emerged in July when the religious scholar Mufti Tariq Masood learned that Chinese supervisors had forbidden some Pakistani workers from praying during working hours. “Tell them this is not the land of your fathers. Don’t be lenient if they stop you from offering prayer during duty hours,” he said.
Pakistani authorities have tried to keep some of these issues away from the public eye. The workers in Faisalabad, where the furnace incident took place, were reportedly asked by police to remain silent. But outspoken rights activists, religious scholars, and policy experts are already raising questions about China’s expanding role in Pakistan.
On a diplomatic level, China has managed to maintain its image as a credible friend to Pakistan despite cultural gaps. But that’s largely been because of a lack of real contact. As the number of Chinese managers and workers in Pakistan grows, future incidents could test the patience of Pakistanis and of the country’s religious leadership.
Soon, Pakistan’s special relationship may face a serious test.