Sometime later this year or early next, cinema audiences in China and Pakistan will get to see The Journey – a feature-length drama about an engineer’s dreams of upgrading the Karakorum Highway, one of the world’s highest-altitude roads.
It might not sound like a spectacular plot but the film’s producers are promising stunning scenery, a heart-warming story and a multinational cast.
It will also be propaganda on steroids.
Production of the film – known as Tian Lu in Chinese – was announced last year. The screenwriter Wang Haiping said shooting would begin in early 2019. “It faithfully records the historical process of Chinese enterprises response to the Belt and Road Initiative and building the Sino-Pakistani economic corridor,” Xinhua quoted him as saying.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, is a catch-all for most of the infrastructure projects being constructed under Chinese auspices in Pakistan. The aim is to connect the provinces of western China with the Arabian Sea on Pakistan’s southern coast, and to modernise Pakistan’s creaking economy.
All of this is being framed in the language of brotherly bonds, win-win solutions and all-weather friendships. In reality, things are far from rosy. On May 11 gunmen belonging to the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) stormed a hotel used by Chinese businessmen in the southwestern city of Gwadar. The gun battle that followed lasted for several hours, resulting in the death of four hotel staff and one Pakistani soldier, according to military officials.
The BLA claimed responsibility for the attack on the Zaver Pearl Continental hotel and vowed to inflict more damage on China and Pakistan.
Last month a collection of Baloch separatists, including the BLA, executed 14 members of the Pakistani military that had been protecting the construction efforts of CPEC projects. In March the same group launched another attack on a convoy transporting Chinese engineers around Karachi and last November the BLA laid siege to the Chinese consulate in the same city (see WiC434).
Baloch separatists accuse the governments of China and Pakistan of plundering their economic wealth and of relegating the Baloch people – a tribe of Iranian origin – to the status of second-class citizens.
Since the hotel attack, the Pakistani army has pledged to raise another division to protect CPEC projects and the 20,000 Chinese nationals working on them. It has already mustered about 9,000 soldiers and 6,000 paramilitaries for safeguarding CPEC construction.
Pakistan’s leader Imran Khan dismissed the attack on the Pearl Continental as an “effort to sabotage our economic projects and prosperity” and added that his government “will not allow these agendas to succeed”.
Yet the Baloch insurgency is not the only issue creating tensions between Islamabad and Beijing. Plenty of Pakistanis are worried that the cost of CPEC is more than they can afford – it comes with price tag of at least $62 billion, most of which is being financed with Chinese loans.
Then there is the issue of the Uighur camps in Xinjiang. Some 40 Pakistani men married to Uighur women have lost contact with their wives when they were sent to the re-education centres (see WiC442). Since leaving them some of the women have also had to disavow traditional Muslim practices such as regular praying and avoiding pork, a report from AFP has claimed.
Another unwelcome report is that Pakistani women have become a target for people traffickers from China. The women – often from the marginalised Christian community – believe they are marrying Chinese Christian converts who will give them a better life. But on arriving in China many discover that their new husbands aren’t Christians at all, and that they have been purchased by men who can’t find wives (for more on the consequences of China’s shortage of women see WiC427 and WiC294). In other cases the women say they have been ordered to work as prostitutes or told their buyers will kill them and sell their organs if they don’t comply.
On May 6 Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency said it had arrested eight Chinese and four Pakistanis suspected of trafficking women to China for prostitution.
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