Is Pakistan and China’s friendship really that strong?

Published: May 3, 2015
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All the media in China is state-owned. So much so that journalists have to obtain a license by the government before they can start practicing. PHOTO: AFP

The rhetoric is sweeter than honey, even if the friendship isn’t. Lip service between China and Pakistan is higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the oceans, and the likes. It is also as absurd as it is untrue.

With our public space consumed by such meaningless analogies, especially in the backdrop of the ‘historic’ visit of the Chinese president, I can’t help but recall a recent trip to the country. Listening to the linguistic gymnastics of both governments, one can be forgiven for forgetting how different the two countries are and, more ominously, how little Pakistan fares in the overall Chinese plan for the 21st century.

The 10+3 Media Cooperation Forum was held in mid-December. And mind you, these 13 countries did not include Pakistan or India but represented South East Asian nations which mainly featured in Xi Jinping’s maritime Silk Route plan. Nevertheless, it was a memorable experience touring China and interacting with dozens of journalists from Asia.

Our host, People’s Daily, took us around four cities across the country as part of a media workshop during which we interacted with representatives of media organisations, various industries, businessmen, traders and IT professionals.

At every official forum, I asked about the Pak-China economic corridor’s significance. Much-touted as it may be in Pakistan, I got the same answer each time:

Pakistan and China are all-weather friends and we value this relationship.”

It felt like asking about the weather and being told the score of a cricket match in return.

From the two-week trip, I gathered that this route may be a ‘game-changer’ for Pakistan after all, but for China, it is one of many key projects that the country is undertaking. Their major focus is on the maritime Silk Road which connects South East Asia with Europe and the Middle East. Thus, their interest primarily lies in wooing ASEAN countries.

There’s something unnerving about China. At times, it felt like an Orwellian state where dissent is unheard of: a place where all do hail the king. It reminded me of the bizarre futures showcased in films such as Brazil. The fact that every website would crash and reload after five minutes, that Google, Facebook, and Twitter were non-existent, only added to my curiosity. A colleague from India said he was certain Whatsapp, too, was being monitored. As if the blue ticks weren’t enough to make you feel like you were being stalked.

There were CCTV cameras on every nook and corner of every city we visited. The Tianmen Square massacre of 1989 features nowhere in China’s visual history and national museum – conspicuous by its absence.

As a young journalist, I fell in love with the profession all over again. With all the hazards and pressures, the liberties we enjoy in Pakistan are real. All the media in China is state-owned. So much so that journalists have to obtain a license by the government before they can start practicing. At every major media group’s briefing, my counterparts from India and Bangladesh and I would argue about press freedom and funding; the papers had close to no advertisements.

Most of the queries would either elicit a vague reply or remain unanswered altogether. Throughout our stay, not a single story critical of the government or any official was published in the English papers. When we asked editors of the Shenzen Media Group if reporters were unearthing corruption stories now since the president’s anti-graft campaign is so popular, we were told that reporters cover court proceedings but do not investigate cases as “that is not their job”.

There is more. Almost all senior editors of different media houses and newspapers were also senior officials in the government or were enjoying ministerial perks!

Our guide from People’s Daily, China’s largest newspaper, was in the administration and dreamt of being a journalist. He was taken aback when I told him that journalists are supposed to critique the government and not be part of it. I forgot to mention to him that, sometimes, the job also entails using redundant idioms to explain relationships as clear as mud.

Bilal Abbas

Bilal Abbas

A sub-editor for the City Desk, Islamabad at The Express Tribune

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Akbar Mohamadzai

    There is such a thing as Media Freedom in Pakistan? Really?

    Not heard of Saleem Shahzad, and scores of others found brutally killed because they criticized the Deep State?

    Cretin.Recommend

  • Demril Shaikh

    And how much is India paying you for writing such columns? BS…Stop writing this and dont try to scare people…Atleast China is investing…nobody ever did…stop promoting Indian agenda… We need state controlled media and we would love to see CCTV cameras installed everywhere because 60% of our Awaam is illiterate and when you set them free they go out of control…robberies, killings, rapes and murders takes place..Pakistan is suffering from terrorism because our agencies had no control over our people we had set them totally free…freedom has been abused….please stop writing Recommend

  • xzoko

    interesting read i think most Pakistanis realize that there is no friendship among nations but mere interests had it mattered we would have been in love with our Indian counterparts
    China is our strategic ally if interests continue to align all will be good and wellRecommend

  • Biased

    The “young” journalist begins with exploring China-Pakistan relationship, quickly decides that the Corridor may be big news for Pakistan but not for his hosts. Had he asked an average American about Israel, he would have had been similarly disappointed. Had he bothered to discuss it with Chinese Ambassador Zhang, I suspect he would received a more enlightening reply. The fact that China will be investing this money in Pakistan instead of buying more US treasury bonds at approx. 2% return is telling. China has also not bothered to invest 46 Billions in a single ASEAN country.
    Then the author pivots abruptly to contrast freedoms in Pakistan and China. The question he should be asking himself is, “Do I want to live in a totally free but failing Pakistan OR in a properous Pakistan that is envy of the neighbors with some self-imposed restraints. Unfettered freedom cannot be guaranteed by a nation that is economically unviable and beholden to debtors!!!!!!Recommend

  • omkars

    Whatever press freedom we have in Pakistan,India and Bangladesh is courtesy British Raj.They gave us many liberal western values.Even well to do rich middle eastern nation do not have this kind of freedom.
    The well regarded Economist magazine describes China Pak friendship as Chinese way to keep India distracted from more pressing issues.
    Its our misfortune,that Pakistan and India keep pumping billions into arms race instead of improving the lives of impoverished millions.This insanity has been going on for 67 years and realistically there is no reason for hope in future.Recommend

  • Swaadhin

    “Is Pakistan and China’s friendship really that strong?”

    It is strong enough to put off Pakistan’s adversaries, the question is will Pakistan be able to leverage this relationship for improving its economy along with using it against its adversaries.

    Uncle Sam is very unpopular despite a longstanding relationship and generous aid packages over a very long period of time. Pakistanis have now turned to Uncle Xi, the question is with more commitment and funds at stake, would the Chinese assertions and demands take its toll on this relationship? The bottomline is no Pakistani ally can teach it to prosper, Pakistan has to learn itself.

    “how little Pakistan fares in the overall Chinese plan for the 21st century.”

    You are talking about the second most powerful country on this planet, it is obviously going to have a very long list of who its allies and enemies are, if Pakistan makes the cut of being a Chinese friend, that should be enough to avoid any apprehensions.

    Pakistanis have lost a great deal of credibility in the last one and half decade across the world and hence it should not come as a surprise if the Pakistani state exaggerates its relationship with its only dependable ally other than KSA, what is interesting is some of the Pakistani experts claiming Pakistan is more important to China than it is the other way around, it is the same notion Pakistan had in its relationship vis a vis US which has eventually left the Pakistanis find solace in its relationship with the Chinese.

    The only way Pakistan’s is not going to look for another Uncle in a decades time is if it decides to live in peace with itself and at peace with its neighbours.Recommend

  • Dr David

    stop your obsession with India, it is really derogatory when a pakistani try to take brownie point in the name of India and Indians.Recommend

  • siesmann

    Real Freedom is only meaningful and possible when there are checks on the abuses of it.When the administration is corrupt ,when media is suppressed,when the executive fails to apply laws,then freedom become chaos.Law of jungle only prevails among savages.Recommend

  • siesmann

    Unfettered freedom is as bad as unfettered religion.China is at least fettering both.Pakistan should learn from its friend.Recommend

  • Khorum Turab

    This column was a wastage of time. I dont know why do you have to write such oblivious, abnoxious and out of the blue articles ??
    Any country that can invest is welcome in Pakistan for sure , even if its India. Moreover, we do not need your articles to make us understand the realities and offcourse all relations are ACTUALLY based on mutual interests and understandings. Whereas, slogans are used to carry the emotions of general public. I think thats enough for you to understand.Recommend

  • forced2

    The Chinese think they are culturally and even intellectually superior to all peoples of South Asia. In fact, they really do not like or find any emotional attachment to that part of the world. But, as you say, when it comes to meeting one’s geopolitical and strategic interests, the Chinese are as astute as they come and know which buttons to press. On a personal level, though, I have found Chinese actually gravitating closer to Indians than Pakistanis, given their underlying abhorrence and perception of what Islam represents.Recommend

  • unbelievable

    Chinese don’t like Muslims. Despite sharing a common border few Pakistanis have ever visited China and few have any Chinese friends. You don’t have a common language and the only thing you sell China of any consequence is low margin yarn. The USA trade/investment dwarfs China and the USA has historically dominated you high tech weapons. Basic facts that rarely get mentioned in any Pakistan newspaper – go figure.Recommend

  • Maria

    I think you are mixing up the Chinese and the Japanese. The Chinese have every right to feel pride in their ancient civilization and as Pakistanis we also take pride in our civilization which dates back to 7000 BC. The author here is looking for an excuse to play down the Pakistan- China friendship but even common Pakistanis have the greatest respect for Chinese visitors we come across in Pakistan. The Chinese I have met in Lahore and Islamabad have reciprocated in the same way. The Chinese that I meet oversees are similarly aware and appreciative of the close the ties the two countries enjoy.Recommend

  • Humza

    Compared to most Muslim countries, Pakistan is heaven in terms of media freedom. Read any paper and you will see negative comments about any popular political figure from Nawaz Sharif to Zardari to Musharraf. Even articles that question question the countries very existence are fair game and published in this paper too:

    http://www.dhakatribune.com/long-form/2014/may/26/jinnah-made-mistake-and-i-am-ashamed-being-pakistani

    Imagine that happening in any Muslim state. So while there is random crime and violence, media is remarkably free to say and do as they please. That’s why there is more transparency and accountability in Pakistan compared to other Muslim states.Recommend

  • Humza

    Compared to most Muslim countries, Pakistan is heaven in terms of media freedom. Read any paper and you will see negative comments about any popular political figure from Nawaz Sharif to Zardari to Musharraf. Even articles that question question the countries very existence are fair game and published in this paper too:

    http://www.dhakatribune.com/long-form/2014/may/26/jinnah-made-mistake-and-i-am-ashamed-being-pakistani

    Imagine that happening in any Muslim state. So while there is random crime and violence, media is remarkably free to say and do as they please. That’s why there is more transparency and accountability in Pakistan compared to other Muslim states.Recommend

  • Coolbluez

    Definitely. I can say the same about Chinese in Australia.Recommend

  • forced2

    I agree with you on the Japanese. But you realize the Chinese are amongst the most racist people around and who you meet at, say, a function or other private gathering will disguise this fact. Recommend

  • Oats

    Wish thinking by Indians here doesn’t change the friendship that Pakistani and Chinese people have for each other. Read up on how Modi’s twitter account has been mocked on his upcoming visit to China. People in China are saying get your hands off Tibet and give back Kashmir to Pakistan!Recommend

  • Biased

    How very Orwellian of you! Pakistan should do what it pleases……Recommend

  • Biased

    Thanks for the “YOU” riff. US trade is now matched by EU and Chinese are on track to surpass them all. That is the point of the corridor? Pakistan buys overwhelmingly Chinese weapons except F16s and a few items. So your “facts” need a fact check…..Recommend

  • Biased

    Please ponder the fact that US, China, and now Russia are all willing to invest Billions in Pakistan’s future. Pakistan does want to live peacefully with its neighbors, an Afghanistan that does not claim half of Pakistan, an Independent Kashmir, Khalistan, Rajasthan, Iran, Tajikistan, and China……: PRecommend

  • Meshuga

    The favor is returned, I am sure.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    I am sure you are right about this. But is the freedom only restricted to the English-language press or to all others? Just wondering.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    We tend to use the same word – “friendship” – for personal relationships as we do for political or corporate ones. Most of the non-personal ones are simply transactional relationships and end when the need for transacting end. Some political relationships – like between Britain and US; or Australia and US – are deeper because of shared culture, language, and history.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    Disagree on both counts. In a totalitarian or fascist system there is no freedom, including that of religion – check out examples from USSR and Red China under Mao. Freedom of any kind is defined by the legal and political systems of individual nations. The US Bill of Rights (first ten amendments to the US Constitution) defines freedoms by creating a boundary around the powers of the Government. For example, (a) the Government cannot interfere in people’s right to a free press and freedom of speech; (b) Government cannot meddle in people’s right to exercise of religion or even define a state religion. So freedom is not a concept that means the same thing universally.The state can arbitrarily intervene, arrest, punish, and even end the freedom to live. China, the largest autocratic nation in the world, can learn from Pakistan about freedom and democracy and even modesty (however flawed they may be). Pakistan can learn something about discipline and rationality from the Chinese. It is a win-win! :-)Recommend

  • Swaadhin

    “Please ponder the fact that US, China, and now Russia are all willing to invest Billions in Pakistan’s future. ”

    Good for you. Hope more comes your way.

    “Pakistan does want to live peacefully with its neighbors, an Afghanistan that does not claim half of Pakistan, an Independent Kashmir, Khalistan, Rajasthan, Iran, Tajikistan, and China.”

    What’s your point? If you claim Alaska, will you get it or will it become disputed?Recommend

  • Biased

    It is staring you in your face by not being in the listed countries above……..there are other points you missed as well.Recommend

  • Prashant

    What could be those points?Recommend

  • Biased

    Once again it is all staring at YOU!! Have someone slowly read it to you………………….backwards :PRecommend

  • DNiwasi

    It isn’t just Economist, on an old blog, many Chinese commented to Indians that China is using Pakistan to keep India distracted…it is not that they do not like India, it is a their need to keep India behind and they have found a way in Pakistan.Recommend

  • DNiwasi

    Ypou say- ” China, the largest autocratic nation in the world, can learn from Pakistan about freedom and democracy and even modesty (however flawed they may be)”.

    The reality is that Pakistan has none of the three in real terms. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being high, if both India and Pakistan were to be measured, this would be approx scores:

    India
    Freedom: 8/10
    Democracy: 6/10
    Modesty: 5/10

    Pakistan
    Freedom: 2-3/10
    Democracy: 2-3/10
    Modesty: 1/10

    China
    Freedom: 1/10
    Democracy: 0/10
    Modesty: 8/10Recommend

  • DNiwasi

    You have talked to Chinese in Lahore and in Pakistan. Try finding out from those outside Pakistan whether they really respect Pakistanis. I agree when you say that Chinese anywhere in the world will be appreciative of the Sino-Pak ties.

    Which civilization you refer to that is 7000 BC old?Recommend

  • DNiwasi

    Will the freedom be assured against a made up blasphemy charge or will the media meet the same fate as that of punjab Governor, Saleem Shehzad, that TV host (Nadia or I don’t remmber her name) and more recently Mubashir Lucman and another Hamid Mir?Recommend

  • DNiwasi

    those are youngsters. Has Nawaz tried his luck on Wiabo?
    The gold test is India’ standing in Chinese eyes and Chines desire to strike deals with it. India is so different from Pakistan in its temperament, values and foreign policies, and a trackrecord that has been very consistent for decades that China does not measure its relationship with India on the same scale as Pakistan.Recommend

  • Rafasa Arandas

    The only real reason China and Pakistan are allies is because both nations share a common enemy — India. As most Chinese people say, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”Recommend

  • Bana Post

    both countries r India centric thats why its looks strong but in reality its notRecommend