As a Pakistani journalist, China has always been of great interest to me. In recent years, I have had the opportunity to explore the country twice. Each time one visits China, it looks different and more developed compared to the last time. Many parts of the country are still changing rapidly.
Pakistan’s most populous city, Lahore, is similar in that respect. In Lahore, in contrast to Pakistan’s other cities, there are roads, tunnels, buses, underpasses and other infrastructure, which look like they might have been designed in China’s capital, Beijing. It also seems that Pakistan wants to copy China at a broader level, following the investment – the largest in Pakistan’s history – in the multibillion dollar project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
While exchange between China and Pakistan has surged following the announcement of the CPEC, the bond in fact dates back to the formation of Communist China, which Pakistan acknowledged. At the time, Pakistan’s inclination was towards the West, and anti-communism. Nonetheless, explains Pakistan’s ambassador to China, Masood Khalid, “Our friendship with China is tradition. Our amicable ties with China have been developing over the years.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Officially, in China and Pakistan, there is much talk of this friendship, despite the absence of any significant shared culture, history, cuisine, customs, or traditions. The difference between Chinese and Pakistani lifestyles is stark. But the bilateral friendship does not revolve around such things. “My first home is Xinjiang; my second home is Beijing; and my third home is Pakistan,” claims Erkenjian Tulahong, a senior Communist Party official in Hubei province. “In 2005, I visited Pakistan as a young leader, where I was warmly welcomed. That is why I have special feelings for Pakistan.” Pakistani officials might go one step further, and call China their second home.
Interacting with Chinese government officials, professors, and students in various provinces in China, I encountered little knowledge of Pakistan and its people. Speak with ordinary Chinese, and they find it difficult to say anything about Pakistan beyond the fact that China and Pakistan are friends. More educated Chinese can cite three things related to Pakistan: China-Pakistan friendship, CPEC, and the Gwadar port project.
Yet interactions between the two countries have been on the rise over the past couple of years, with regular contact between officials on trade, economic ties, military cooperation, and other mutual interests. “China-Pakistan relations currently show extremely positive signs, which is why we are interacting with each other on a regular basis,” says Khalid. “In the near future, we are confident that ties between the two countries will develop further, which is in the great interests of the two countries.”
Still, there are very real gaps in the bilateral relationship, most notably people-to-people contact. As much as Chinese and Pakistani officials try to learn about each other, ordinary Chinese and Pakistani understand very little about each other. There is very little grass-roots involvement in the relationship, and little educative interaction.
The architect of Pakistan-China relations was Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the late 1950s. Later, the mantle was taken up by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was partial to wearing Chairman Mao-style caps.
Today, China has emerged as a major power in Asia with a dynamic economy. Its regional influence has expanded exponentially. In the meantime, the United States has been tilting ever closer to India, as U.S.-Pakistan ties become ever more frayed. This context has opened the door for stronger Pakistan-China relations. “Today, geo-strategically and geo-economically, our relations with China are remarkable,” asserts Khalid. “We have to be grateful to China for whatever help it is providing to Pakistan.”
My discussions with Chinese professors revealed concern about the growing ties between the United States and India, believing that it was part of Washington’s efforts to curtail Chinese influence in the region. For instance, they point to “Indo-Pacific,” a term currently in fashion after U.S. President Donald J. Trump used during his recent visit to China. “Instead of using the term ‘Asia-Pacific,” the U.S. deliberately prefers ‘Indo-Pacific” to antagonize China,” said a Chinese professor of South Asian studies.
Chinese academics are also curious about worsening U.S.-Pakistan relations under Trump. The U.S. president is increasingly taking a tougher line, with a new policy that appears to punish Pakistan for its perceived failures in Afghanistan. Asked one Chinese professor in Sichuan: “So, in these circumstances, what is Pakistan going to do? Are ties between the U.S. and Pakistan likely to worsen in the coming years? How can Pakistan amicably resolve and reverse Trump’s tougher line?”
Much about the China-Pakistan relationship remains unclear. Beyond the mantra of friendship, few dimensions to the relationship are obvious. There are several reasons for this, it seems. There is an official line with little scope for anything else, especially anything that might be perceived as critical. There are several reasons for this.
First, the press in China is tightly controlled. Chinese newspapers reflect the policies of the state of China. English-language dailies offer very little insight into China, its society, or its diplomacy for non-Chinese readers. Everything you read is what the state of China wants you to read.
Thankfully, the press in Pakistan is somewhat more open. A wide range of topics can be discussed and debated, including relations with China.
In fact, China Radio International it has a full-fledged set up in Pakistan, with a program in Pakistan’s official Urdu language. But while that furthers China culturally, politically and economically in Pakistan, it does little to present Pakistan’s point of view inside China. In general, the media of both countries have done little to inform ordinary Chinese and Pakistanis about the relationship.
I was visiting China with a delegation of Pakistan’s Balochistan government. Chinese officials showed considerable interest in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by landmass. Because CPEC is also based in Balochistan, China is set to increase its engagement in the province at all levels. For this reason, delegations from Balochistan are regularly invited to visit China. For their part, government delegates from Balochistan view CPEC as a game changer, and a very real opportunity to develop the province. “Through CPEC, we hope to further improve our ties with China,” saids Passand Khan Buledi, a senior government official from Balochistan. “In this regard, students from Balochistan should also be encouraged to study in Chinese universities.”
The heart of CPEC is Gwadar, which is situated in Balochistan. It looks set to boom on the strength of Chinese investment. “There is considerable potential in Balochistan that needs to be unearthed and harnessed,” according to Buledi. Yet there is also a deep sense of deprivation among the general population in Balochistan, who also seem largely uninterested in the unfolding development. The apathy can be explained by the conviction the locals will see little benefit from Chinese money.
Chinese already have a presence in a few districts of Balochistan, where they are working on a number of projects. To date, the projects have done little to improve local living standards. Take Gwadar, where there is no drinking water, and locals must depend on water tankers. Instead of addressing basic issues like this to win the hearts and minds of the Baloch people, they are further being disillusioned and alienated.
China: A New Magnet for Pakistani Students?
China is an increasingly popular destination for Pakistani students. In the past, students would only look to China for medical and engineering studies. Things are different now. Around 22,000 Pakistani students are studying at Chinese universities, pursuing not only medicine and engineering fields but also the social and natural sciences. One university I visited had 60 students from Pakistan, with 30 doing doctorates.
These numbers are expected to grow. With full scholarships frequently on offer, China is becoming a more accessible destination for Pakistanis than the West. For the Pakistan government, this is not an unwelcome trend. For one thing, when Pakistani students go to Europe and America for their studies, they often do not return. Those who go to China do tend to come back home, and contribute to Pakistan’s development. For the bilateral relationship, the growing student numbers can obviously deepen engagement over the long term.
One concern is that most of the Pakistani students in China are from the major cities in Pakistan, with relatively few from the lesser developed areas. For instance, China might be developing a port of Gwadar, in Balochistan, but it is hard to find people from that region studying in China. Giving opportunities for people from poorer parts of Pakistan to study in China might be able to bring back the skills that could help these regions benefit from Chinese projects. The onus is on the Pakistani government to provide financial support to give students from places like Balochistan the opportunity to study in China.
Relations Under Xi Jinping
China-Pakistan relations under the tenure of Chinese President Xi Jinping are widely seen as having strengthened considerably. Numerous bilateral agreements have been concluded during his presidency, most notably CPEC, announced during his visit to Pakistan.
In recent years, China has also bolstered its military relations with Pakistan. There is regular exchange among military officials. And at the highest levels, when India invited former U.S. President Barack Obama to attend India’s Republic Day in 2015, Pakistan extended its own invitation to Xi.
More than politics, Xi’s concerns seem focused on trade and development. China and India fought a war in 1962, and were more recently embroiled in the Doklam standoff, yet they enjoy robust economic ties. Indeed, China does more trade with India than it does with Pakistan. This level of practicality is a hallmark of foreign policy under Xi.
During my trip, a Chinese told me, “You know, we are businessmen. So, we visit Pakistan for the same purpose. But unfortunately, when we are in Pakistan, we have to visit places under stringent security.
He goes on to ask, “Why do we have to have all the security? We want freedom of movement in order to meet people, not security. That is our main concern. Because we are businessmen.”
Undoubtedly, Chinese are concerned about the security situation in Pakistan. China has only recently warned its citizens about possible threats in Pakistan. This is alarming for Pakistan, which is aware of its obligation to provide safe environment for all foreign visitors, including Chinese nationals, and understands that security is a prerequisite for development and investment.
Although security forces in Pakistan claim to have disrupted the network of militants groups in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, the militancy has yet to end. In Balochistan, Chinese nationals have been killed by militants. In Sindh, a Chinese engineer was targeted in a roadside bomb in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh province, while on his way to Port Qasim, but fortunately escaped unhurt. In this context, China’s recent warning to its citizens about possible threats is unsurprising. The militants are still active, and Pakistan must do much more to make sure Chinese and other nationals can visit in safety.
Thankfully, the environment for Chinese and foreign nationals in Pakistan’s most populous and developed Punjab province is safe. They can roam freely, as well as can interact with people with ease. For these reasons, Chinese investment is mostly directed toward Punjab.
As we have noted, people-to-people contact between Pakistan and China is extremely limited. At the grass roots level, their people know little or nothing about each other. Explained a Chinese professor at Sichuan University, “This is all because of one reason: security. Chinese cannot openly and freely interact with their Pakistani friends for that reason. So there is no substantial engagement between them, which is why they are not fully aware of each other. If there were no security issue, then the people of the two countries could better understand and intermingle with each other.”
Pakistani officials are well aware that security is essential for all foreign nationals, including Chinese. That is why security forces have been pushing back on militants, including Uighurs in North Waziristan. For this reason, Chinese complaints about Uighur militants have dwindled in recent years.
Since the attack on the Army Public School in 2014, in which 132 children were slaughtered by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP), Pakistan’s security establishment has stepped up its fight against militant groups nationwide. As a result, peace is being restored in some parts of the country that were once no-go areas. But is the peace temporary or permanent?
Clearly, a peaceful Pakistan will have positive repercussions both domestically and abroad, helping to attract investment and development for mutual benefit. As for China, Pakistan’s ambassador Masood Khalid is confident on the question of the security of Chinese nationals in Pakistan. “The state of Pakistan is providing security to Chinese nationals, and they (Chinese) are satisfied with that.”
The ambassador may be right about the claim of providing security to Chinese nationals in Pakistan. However, that is not the question. The question is: When can Chinese move around Pakistan without security?
Muhammad Akbar Notezai works with Pakistan’s daily Dawn.
–Photo illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com
When I was a kid in the 1970s, I remember Pakistan’s state-owned TV channel, PTV, used to keep playing a catchy song about Pak-China friendship.
It went something like this: ‘Pak-Cheen dosti wang woye, wang woye, wang woye, wang woye, Pak-Cheen dosti zindabad, zindabad, zindabad, zindaabaaad.’
The words ‘wang woye’ were in Chinese and were the Chinese equivalent of the Urdu word ‘zindabad’ (long live).
What amazing days they were. And what’s more, a bowl of chicken corn soup at Chinese restaurants was not only cheaper but tastier as well.
Some say that was because the Chinese restaurants used pieces from alsi/desi Pakistani murghis (chickens) and not from the ones cloned in those inhuman (and inchicken) poultry farms that sprang up across Pakistan in the late 1970s.
Meat from desi chickens being used by expert Chinese cooks was one of the true reflections of Pak-Cheen dosti (Pak-China friendship). It is the unique chicken corn soup that you can still get from Chinese restaurants in Pakistan that has made the Pak-China friendship so great, legendary, and, well, unique.
Recognizing this, the United States tried its utmost to stick a spammer in the relationship between Pakistan and China. It tried to do this by introducing the evil science of chicken cloning in Pakistan. Chicken cloning really became popular among the country’s naïve poultry farmers because it was cheaper to maintain, compared to raising healthy desi chicks.
The US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger (also known as Ace Fernley), first visited Pakistan in 1972 right after the country lost a war against Bengali terrorists in former East Pakistan – a war, one must remember, in which the US did not help Pakistan during and which India claimed it won.
Only China came to our rescue. As the US imposed an arms embargo on Pakistan and while the Bengali terrorists were being armed by India that was being armed by the Soviet Union that was being armed by the communist wing of the elusive Elders of Zion; China sent in an army of 77,000 chefs to Pakistan who prepared zabardast, delicious giant bowls of chicken corn soup for our troops.
Most Pakistanis had tears in their eyes. Cynics said it was just the chilly sauce in the soup that made so many people become teary eyed, but the truth was, it was this beautiful gesture by the Chinese during the bloody war that made us so emotional. After all, it was a war in which so many Sunni Muslim Pakistanis of West Pakistan were brutally slaughtered by East Pakistani terrorists.
Impressed with the way West Pakistan so successfully got rid of the troublesome and useless East Pakistan, Henry Kissinger arrived for a secret meeting with Pakistan’s new premier, Zulfikar Ali Babutto. After congratulating Premier Babutto on the conduct of the Pakistan army and its people in their war against Bengali terrorists, Kissinger unravelled the real purpose of his visit: China.
Conscious of the growing relationship between Pakistan and China – and jealous of the fact that Chinese food at US Chinese restaurants pretty much sucked – Kissinger asked Babutto to help US start a dialogue with the communist Chinese regime to neutralize the global communist threat being faced by the world from the Soviet Union.
Babutto agreed and his government helped kick-start talks between Chinese premier, Zhou Ajinomoto, the Chinese Communist Party Chairman, Mao Something-Tung, and Henry Kissinger. The secret talks took place in a comfy little corner of the Great Wall of China and both parties (the third party, Pakistan, was sent on a sight-seeing tour), agreed to tackle the Soviet menace together.
It was also decided that the Chinese will share its Pakistani recipe of chicken corn soup with the Americans in exchange for 15,000 Levis bellbottoms for the members of the Chinese Communist Party.
Kissinger thanked Premier Bubutto for arranging the historic first contact between US and China, saying this has also strengthened relations between Pakistan and the US. Premier Ajinomoto of China too, thanked Bubutto saying, ‘the soup can now only get tastier.’
But relations between the US and Pakistan began to strain when in 1974 India managed to construct a nuclear device. It was a nuclear powered toothbrush. It was proudly exhibited on the Indian media by the Indian premier, Prem Chopra.
Prime Minister Bubutto promised the Pakistani armed forces that he will do anything in (and out) of his power to make sure Pakistan too has a nuclear powered toothbrush. For this he assembled a team of top Pakistani dentists, one of which was a young man called Dr. No.
Concerned about the concern of its friend Pakistan, the Chinese government sent 60,000 Chinese dentists to Pakistan. Though none of them really helped Pakistan build a nuclear powered toothbrush, they did end up putting a lot of Pakistani dentists out of work. This made Dr. No very angry and he began calling Bubutto an atheist and someone who preferred fried frogs over fried chicken. Dr. No decided to leave Pakistan and travel to Holland (after performing Hajj in Saudi Arabia).
Meanwhile, the US, through its moles and squirrels in Prime Minister Bubutto’s garden, got to find out about Bubutto’s plan of constructing the nuclear powered toothbrush. Kissinger asked China to caution Bubutto. The Chinese government did caution Bubutto – but only in Chinese.
So, obviously, Bubutto had no idea what the Chinese were talking about, and replied, ‘Yes, yes, thank you. We love you too.’ Not understanding what Bubutto was talking about, the Chinese once more sent him a caution – again in Chinese.
Kissinger was livid. He sent a message to the Chinese: ‘Why are you cautioning them in Chinese??’ Not understanding the message, the Chinese replied (this time in English): ‘Yes, yes, thank you. We love you too.’
Frustrated, Kissinger is said to have directly called Prime Minister Bubutto, warning him that the US would make a horrible example of him if he didn’t stop his programme to build a nuclear-powered toothbrush.
‘Why?’ Asked Bubutto. ‘We have teeth too.’ ‘I will break those teeth if you don’t stop,’ said Kissinger. ‘Good,’ replied Bubutto. ‘Then we’ll make nuclear teeth as well.’
Only months after the conversation, a movement against Bubutto led by Pakistan’s religious parties erupted. Bubutto accused the Americans for funding the movement. The religious parties denied this and said they’d had enough of a leader who preferred frogs over chicken. They also accused Bubutto of putting thousands of Pakistani dentists out of work.
‘Look!’ said a leader of a religious party at a press conference while showing his cavity-stricken teeth. ‘Look! I can’t find a decent Muslim Pakistani dentist anymore. How can a pious Muslim like me go to a Chinese dentist? They don’t believe in God. And eat frog!’
As the movement against him gained momentum, Bubutto turned towards the Chinese for help, only to find that they were still speaking to him in Chinese. Alas, in July 1977, Bubutto’s government was toppled by General Nasim Hijazi.
But this didn’t impact Pak-Cheen dosti. In fact, not only did the Pak-China friendship remain intact, a new chapter of co-operation and friendship began between Pakistan and the US.
This was the time when the US introduced chicken cloning technology in Pakistan. General Hijazi and his partners in the religious parties at once endorsed the technology, calling it ‘perfectly in accordance with the moral and dietary dictates of Islam.’ Bubutto was hanged in 1979, but the Chinese got to know about his demise in 1988 when his daughter Benazir was elected prime minister of Pakistan.
‘Really? He’s dead? Like, gone? Wasn’t he in Libya?’ The Chinese delegation had asked Benazir. ‘He died ten years ago, gentlemen,’ Benazir had replied. ‘Where have you been?’
The Chinese delegates were surprised by the question: ‘Madam, we were helping out friend Pakistan defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. You can still see the giant bowls of chicken corn soup that we sent on the battle fields.’
That they did. They also kept a stable relationship with the US, especially with US President, Ronald Claude Van Damme, who was also a huge chicken corn soup fan.
President Van Damme’s remarkable passion for defeating the Godless Soviets through Pakistan and Afghan mujahideen made him purposefully ignore Pakistan’s ongoing plans to build a nuclear powered toothbrush. He knew that his comrade in arms, General Hijazi, had continued the programme and also the fact that Gen. Hijazi and his supporters in religious parties were now calling it the ‘Islamic Brush.’
Dr. No too had returned to the fold, smuggling sensitive blueprints from various dental clinics in Holland and leading the group of Pakistani dentists to build a nuclear powered toothbrush.
China knew about the programme and as a friend asked all right-handed Chinese dentists in Pakistan to become left-handed and left-handed dentists to become right-handed so that the Pakistani dentists would start looking better than their Chinese counterparts. It was a great sacrifice. The Chinese also offered to introduce gold fish soup in Pakistani restaurants but the offer was politely refused by Hijazi’s government.
China again came to the rescue when after the Godless Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan, the US suddenly abandoned Pakistan and became concerned again by Pakistan’s plans to build a nuclear powered toothbrush.
US placed economic and aid sanctions on Pakistan and also stopped the sale of halal toothpaste in the United States, leaving many Pakistani Muslims living in the US using halal goat blubber to brush their teeth with. It was a great injustice. This made the Pakistan armed forces and intelligence agencies very angry and they pressurized the government to quicken the process of building the nuclear powered toothbrush. Dr. No said that the brush should now be used against Western, Zionist and US dentists as well as, of course, against the cow worshippers of India.
During the economic and political crises that Pakistan went through in 1990s – mainly due to US sanctions and, of course, due to the corrupt, unpatriotic and useless civilian leadership – China jumped in to help. In its hour of need, China sent about 10 million gold fish bowls to Pakistan. Feeling upbeat by the arrival of the gold fish bowls, Pakistan finally announced that it had made the nuclear-powered toothbrush.
The toothbrush made Pakistan a proud nation of strong, shining white teeth. Dr. No is now hailed as the father of the brush and in a noble exhibition of his love for faith, he even tried to spread Islam in North Korea by sending them certain parts with which the North Korans too could build a nuclear powered toothbrush; and brush the US and Europe off the face of the earth, yea baby!
Also, though Pakistan’s religious political parties, military, Dr. No and your neighbor still don’t like the fact that the Chinese eat frogs, they see it being Pakistan’s only true and greatest friend. Only recently this friendship was once again displayed during the terrible floods that Pakistan faced in 2010.
European countries and US might have been the first ones to send aid to Pakistan during the floods, but it was our dear friend China who actually put a smile on our faces during the ordeal by sending 10 million stuffed pandas with strings which when pulled made the pandas sing, ‘Pak-Cheen dosti wang woye, wang woye, wang woye, wang woye …’
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.