Why are Chinese becoming increasingly unwelcome in Pakistan?

February 26, 2018 09:51
China's Gwadar Port deal in Pakistan has sparked criticism among the Pakistani people that Beijing is seeking unfair economic advantage. Photo: Reuters

Pakistan has remained one of China's most steadfast allies for decades, and it is also a key partner as Beijing now implements its "One Belt One Road" blueprint.

In the past few years the Chinese government invested tens of billions of dollars in major projects in Pakistan such as the "China-Pakistan Economic Corridor" and the Gwadar Port, in an apparent effort to set Pakistan as an example so as to attract more countries to join the Belt and Road program.

However, recently the Chinese embassy in Islamabad issued a rare warning of possible terrorist attacks against Chinese official organizations, enterprises and travellers on Pakistani soil, and urged Chinese citizens over there to stay vigilant and reduce outdoor activities.

In the meantime, the local tourism sector in Pakistan has also issued an internal guideline calling on Chinese travellers to be on full alert for any possible danger and to avoid going to rural or suburban areas.

As a matter of fact, the Chinese embassy wasn’t being paranoid in warning its citizens against terrorist attacks, given that the number of kidnapping, extortion and assault cases against Chinese nationals in Pakistan has been continually on the rise in recent years.

For example, earlier this month, two Chinese business executives of a transportation company were shot by gunmen in the southern city of Karachi, with one of them dead and the other injured. The Pakistani police later said the two of them were the specific targets of a terrorist attack.

And back in October last year, 26 Chinese workers were wounded as a result of a grenade attack on a workers’ dormitory at the Gwadar Port.

Nevertheless, it was a recent tip-off about a possible attempt to assassinate the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan that turned out to be the last straw and prompted the Chinese embassy to issue travel warning for the country. Luckily, the ambassador remains unharmed as of now.

As to the reason why Chinese nationals have suddenly become the target for terrorists in Pakistan, officialdom in Beijing has insisted that the attacks were perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalist and separatist groups such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement, the Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

Yet the western media have suggested otherwise. According to them, the main reason why Chinese people are becoming increasingly hated in Pakistan is because there is a prevailing view among the local population that China is aggressively milking their country for huge economic profits by imposing “unequal treaties” on their government.

They cited the Gwadar Port as an example, pointing out that under the existing 40-year lease concluded between Beijing and Islamabad, the Pakistani port authority would only get 10 percent of the total profits.

At first glance, both the Chinese officialdom and western media seem to have a point.

However, I believe unequal distribution of economic benefits alone isn’t enough to provoke anti-China sentiment in Pakistan. After all, China has remained the country’s powerful ally for decades, not to mention that pro-China propaganda still commands a huge audience there.

In my opinion, the single biggest contributing factor to the rising tide of hate crimes against Chinese people in Pakistan is Beijing’s escalating interference in the country’s domestic affairs in an attempt to protect its huge infrastructure projects and investment initiatives over there.

China’s policy change has not only violated its own long-standing diplomatic principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, but has also led to Beijing’s entanglement in the ethnic and religious conflicts in Pakistan.

For instance, according to a recent article published by the Financial Times, Beijing has bypassed Islamabad and directly reached out to the separatists in the province of Balochistan in order to seek guarantee of the safety of its huge investment initiatives along the "One Belt One Road", an act that could have upset quite a lot of Pakistanis.

Even though it appears the terrorists in Pakistan have shown some degree of restraint in their attacks against Chinese, probably because of Beijing’s behind-the-scenes influence, Chinese people are likely to become more and more susceptible to terror threats as China is getting increasingly involved in the country’s domestic conflict.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 20

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal