Amid security threat, Chinese move to Pakistan in hope for opportunities in new silk route
Reporters work at the office of Hushang, a Mandarin language weekly newspaper, in Islamabad, Pakistan Photograph: (Reuters)
Chinese businessman Zhang Yang is on a risky mission and is looking for partners through online forums. He is scouting Pakistan to explore opportunities in Pakistan's Himalayan region, where Beijing will expend $57 billion on infrastructure as part of its "Belt and Road" initiative.
48-year-old Zhang, who hails from Chongqing in southwest China is taking this move even though there are major security concerns in the region.
This is the second round of thousands of Chinese departing to the region in hope for utilising the opportunity of a new market catering to 208 million. With the commencement of the Belt and Road projects, Chinese entrepreneurs are looking into a range of businesses--from restaurants, language schools to products that have the potential for mass production and exportation.
"A lot of industries are already saturated in China," Zhang told Reuters. He has worked in property, electrical appliances, and household goods industries in China and is now eager to explore the potential for setting up factories or importing Chinese goods.
"Pakistan's development is behind China, so it will hold better opportunities compared to home," he adds.
But the new Chinese arrivals face the potential threat, increasing tensions for Pakistan's security officials.
In June 2017, Islamic State killed two Chinese natives in the restless Baluchistan province. This incident concludes that the militants visualise them as easy targets in their war with the authorities.
Beijing has also expressed deep concerns about Pakistani Islamist fighters' ties with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). According to Pakistani officials, Beijing accuses ETIM of aiming to split off western region of Xinjiang.
Islamabad does not share official immigration data but Reuters' source in the foreign ministry claims that roughly 71,000 Chinese nationals visited the area in 2016. A senior immigration official added that the number of visas to Chinese in 2017 increased by 41 per cent on the number in 2015, with roughly 27,596 visa extensions. The data concludes that more are extending their stay in the country.
For multiple reasons, it is imperative for Pakistan to keep the Chinese nationals safe.
Beijing's move is beneficial for reviving Pakistan's feeble economy.
Moreover, a stronger relationship with China would mean that Pakistan would be a notable component in China's plan to build the modern-day "Silk Road" of land and sea trade routes linking Asia with African and European components.
Pakistan leg of the new silk road is called China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The first phase of CPEC emphasizes on infrastructure projects. The second phase is likely to concentrate on setting up of Special Economic Zones and eventually integrating Chinese firms into the local economy to aid Pakistan develop its industries such as from agriculture and mining.
China also became the biggest foreign investor for Pakistan, exceeding the $1 billion in 2016/17. This is in a time where other Western ventures are skeptical about Pakistan because of security concerns and corruption.
"Pakistan really needs foreign investment and we are not going to miss out on this because of some idiots with a gun," Miftah Ismail told Reuters, a special adviser to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. "We won't let them mess with the Chinese."
Chinese media covers Pakistan in a friendly voice and regularly broadcasts CCTV's programmes on the Belt and Road initiative, which include promotions of the project and interview segments of Chinese workers staying in Pakistan.
However, all this has not pacified Zhang and other Chinese businessmen and women in the matters of security.
"It's a big lesson for us," said Derek Wang, referring to the killings in Baluchistan.
Pakistan is actively taking measures. Guards and policemen with arms are employed in Chinese-staffed offices and language schools. Moreover, officials claim that plainclothes police form an invisible, yet additional layer of security at sites of Chinese inhabitation.
The engineers and labourers, employed for the project, reside in the area with tight security forces while the businessmen arrive on their own and spread out across the company. Few inform the authorities about their whereabouts.
"This is the biggest challenge right now," said Muhammad Faisal Rana, who heads an 8,000-strong Special Protection Unit set up by Punjab province in 2014 to guard foreigners. Ninety percent of those it protects are Chinese, he said.
Rana explains that Chinese entrepreneurs show up with tourist visas.
Most come with the intention of conducting market research, while others launch their products and then move back to China.
"All these elements are sometimes out of our radar, and we have no idea from which flight they are coming in and where they are heading towards," he said.
SPU officials are connecting with guesthouses that cater to Chinese and set up liaison desks at airports to register the Chinese entrepreneurs before they disappear, while governments in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces are speeding plans to start special protection units similar to the one in Punjab.
There is a notable increase in the number of Chinese visitors in the city of Islamabad. They have outnumbered foreigners of all other countries. The dominance of Chinese nationality is so much that Pakistan's first-ever Chinese-language newspaper, Huashang, has been launched.
Visitors are greeted at the airport with flyers in Mandarin language, advertising a Chinese courier service, and in the city shop signs in the Chinese language are increasingly common.
Chinese restaurants are mushrooming quickly to cater for new arrivals, who do not have a palate for Pakistani cuisine.
The presence of Chinese in the country has motivated Pakistani natives to study Chinese language in schools.
The booming business has urged Ami Quin, a Chinese restaurateur, and owner of a guesthouse for employees of Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE, to open a spa and another guesthouse.
"More and more people are very interested to come to Pakistan after CPEC," she said. "They are looking for partners all the time."
In one of Quin's restaurants in Islamabad, civil engineer Pan Denghao was at the receiving end of oppressive Pakistani heat but admitted that the money and jobs on offer exceeded what young people like him could expect back home.
"Every year in China you have so many graduates from colleges and universities, but the opportunities and chances for jobs are limited," said Pan, 25, whose company is building Islamabad's new airport.
Chinese businessmen who arrived before CPEC was launched in 2014, had the early bird's advantage and monetised their experience by launching consultancies, advising newcomers how to circumnavigate the country's notorious bureaucracy or match them with Pakistani partners.
Another Chinese businessman who spoke on the condition of anonymity to Reuters, said he and other Chinese executives often pay bribes to fasten import processes or obtain government permits. This was a routine for Chinese businessmen before President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive of the past few years.
"This is one of the reasons why us Chinese are comfortable here. We know how to deal with this," he said.
At times, Chinese habits may conflict with conservative local customs of a Muslim nation. For instance, some Chinese restaurants turn a blind eye to customers drinking smuggled alcohol. Alcohol is prohibitted in Islamic religion--yet, few locals harshlty protest against the new culture.
Since China is one of the very few nations keen to maintain relationship with Pakistan, Chinese visitors are usually favoured by authorities. Visitors narrate incidents of being let off for driving without a license where the officials make comments such as "you are our friends".
Officials claim the Islamic State killings in Baluchistan as a one-time incident, justifying by saying that the two victims were targeted because they were Christian missionaries masquerading as business people.
But at least one Chinese business delegation cancelled the trip to Pakistan as a consequence of the attack.
Ever since, Pakistan has implied stricter business visa rules for Chinese nationals and promised improved, tighter security.
At a CPEC site guarded by the Punjab SPU in Lahore, policemen clad in bullet-proof vests exhibited how armed officers sitting on the back of pick-up trucks shield Chinese executives when transporting them in convoys.
One Chinese executive said police provided her with an armed convoy for a four-hour trip from the disputed Kashmir region to her office in Islamabad. "It was quite touching," she said.
But security officials admit that not everyone can be given 24x7 protection, and several businessmen do not wish for their freedom to get curbed.
Still, China-based recruiters such as Ms. Yang, of Zaozhuang Xincai Services, say the Islamic State killings have not much impacted the plethora applicants seeking work in Pakistan, courtesy of pay that is possible to be more than quadruple what they would earn at home.
"First concerns are about how high or low the salary is when it will be paid," she said. "And then safety."