What the government’s not saying about CPEC


We, the people, deserve to have all the cards on the table

Let’s be clear: CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) is not ‘colonialism’. The Chinese are not taking over. The left must resist being swept up by hysteria.

However, liberals and conservatives alike must refuse to be placated by government’s promises of ‘development’ alone. There is much that the government isn’t telling us, and it is impossible to make a democratic decision on this regard until we know exactly what we’re giving away, and in exchange for how much.

An exclusive report appeared in Dawn recently, exposing previously unknown details of the CPEC master plan. Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Reforms – Ahsan Iqbal – promptly slammed the article as being dishonest, and based on old, unapproved drafts of the CPEC plan. But if that’s true then whose job is it to inform the public what CPEC is, if not the government?

PML-N leaders have been vague to a fault about what CPEC entails. The public is expected to be satisfied and silenced by a collection of positive-sounding terms like, “investment”, “development”, “prosperity”, and “Pak-China friendship” being thrown at us by government officials. What these officials have consistently failed to mention, is that China is not an NGO coming to distribute jobs and aid packages; nor is it a wealthy aunt visiting us from abroad, bringing presents without demanding anything substantial in exchange.

Many journalists and activists, particularly those on the left, have been reasonably suspicious of CPEC or the One Belt One Road project, precisely because so little is known about the terms of this trade. And this is no ordinary trade either. This is not incremental economic change. This is an unprecedented move with major consequences for all parties involved.

Government officials have repeatedly suggested we ought not to talk too loudly against CPEC, lest we jinx this game-changing project. After all, the magnanimity of our benevolent Northern neighbour is not unlimited, and we should be grateful enough that they are not being dissuaded by Pakistan’s dire security situation. Of course, a less optimistic analyst could be excused for wondering how badly this deal is tilted in China’s favour, to help the Chinese disregard these security risks and carry on with the project. The Chinese, of course, are not ignorant to the regular series of terrorist attacks plaguing our country, including a recent attack in Gawadar that killed at least 10 labourers.

‘Disregard’ might be the wrong word to use. The Chinese are actively assisting with safe city projects, particularly the one in Peshawar, as a way of ensuring the economic corridor does not get hounded by militants. Once again, one must be forgiven for asking what Pakistan is willing to offer (or surrender) to the Chinese in return, to make this multi-billion dollar investment worthwhile for the other party.

According to the ‘master plan’ published by Dawn, in spite of the government’s protest, Pakistan will lease thousands of acres of agricultural land to the Chinese to set up “demonstration projects”. Special economic zones will be set up, with various industries dotting the corridor from Kashgar to Gawadar. Greater access will be provided to Chinese mining companies. Meaningful steps will be taken for the dissemination of Chinese culture.

The government’s claim of CPEC opening up new jobs for Pakistanis may be true, but is certainly not worth much excitement. Consider the market presence established by the Chinese companies presently existing in Pakistan. Much of the labour, particularly the high-paid skilled labour, comes from China itself. Additionally, the well-oiled Chinese corporations tend to harm humbler Pakistani businesses, who are unable to compete with the foreign giants in an open market. At times, it almost appears that we’re actively facilitating foreign corporations in the task of undermining home-grown industrial and commercial start-ups.

CPEC, it seems, is a project designed specifically for the benefit of the Chinese – with any benefit enjoyed by Pakistan being entirely accidental. China intends to carve out an elongated economic enclave within Pakistan, run mostly by the Chinese for the Chinese. Pakistan benefits mostly by leasing out (I’m tempted to use the words “selling out”) its natural assets – prying them out of the hands of the Pakistani people, and handing them over the Chinese corporations; not unlike the Sindh government attempting to handover Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim to Bahria Town.

No, this isn’t colonialism. But this is a shockingly invasive economic project, which will greatly diminish Pakistan’s authority over its own land and resources, and allow Chinese nearly unrestrained access to our ports and other assets. This may lead to an impressive infusion of capital into Pakistan, but in the long run – if the master plan is implemented as it is – the Chinese may well be siphoning a lot more capital out of this country than they’re willing to bring into it.

I’m willing to reserve full judgment on CPEC and what it means for the future of this country. The government might not be wrong, and just because the project benefits China more, may not necessarily mean that it won’t benefit us.

All we know, is that decision of this nature cannot be made by the government without fully explaining to the Pakistani people what they are being subjected to; what is being achieved, and at what cost. Repeatedly saying something along the lines of “Trust us, it’s good for the economy!” is not enough.