China’s new Silk Road: Boom or dust for Pak­istan?

Lo­cals re­main skep­tic as mas­sive con­struc­tion un­der­way

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

SOST, Pak­istan: A glossy high­way and hun­dreds of lor­ries trans­port­ing Chi­nese work­ers by the thou­sands: the new Silk Road is un­der con­struc­tion in north­ern Pak­istan, but lo­cals liv­ing on the border are yet to be con­vinced they will re­ceive more from it than dust. The town of Sost is gate­way to mil­lions in cus­toms du­ties, with its rick­ety stalls of cor­ru­gated iron en­graved in Man­darin and Urdu, its cross­bor­der se­cret agents and its dusty petrol sta­tion’s abrupt ser­vice.

It is the first stop along a new $46 bil­lion “eco­nomic cor­ri­dor”de­signed by China in Pak­istan.

Driv­ers from China ar­rive through the Khun­jerab Pass, the world’s high­est paved border cross­ing at 4,600 me­tres (15,000 feet) above sea level, and un­load their goods en­cir­cled by the mag­nif­i­cent Karako­ram moun­tains, swirled with snow.

From there, Pak­istani col­leagues pick up the goods and trans­port them the length of the coun­try-cur­rently to Karachi, some 2,000 kilo­me­tres (1,200 miles) away on the Ara­bian Sea, but in the fu­ture to Gwadar, where Beijing has been given man­age­ment of the port in a grand project al­low­ing China greater ac­cess to the Mid­dle East, Africa and Europe.

But, un­til re­cently, the high­way was cut off just south of Sost, blocked for five years by a land­slide that dammed the Hunza river and birthed the 10 kilo­me­tre long lake of At­tabad, with its ice-blue glacier wa­ter. Un­able to drive around the moun­tain, China sim­ply tun­nelled through it, send­ing thou­sands of work­ers in a ti­tanic ef­fort that took more than three years and cost at least $275 mil­lion.

“We have suf­fered be­cause of the lake,” joked Am­jad Ali, a round-faced trader who sells cloth­ing in the Sost bazaar, where the new Chi­nese high­way has re­placed the old Silk Road-a tor­tu­ous dirt track trav­elled for cen­turies by trade car­a­vans.

Be­fore the tun­nel, res­i­dents of Sost had to cross the lake by boat in a jour­ney that took at least an hour. Traf­fic in win­ter was mea­gre. “With the tun­nel, we hope busi­ness will take off and tourists flock here,” said Ali. “We are once again con­nected by road to the rest of Pak­istan,” re­joiced an­other res­i­dent, Mo­hammed Is­rar.

But their op­ti­mism is tem­pered by fear that the trucks will sim­ply drive on by, leav­ing Sost to re­ceive, as Ali put it, “noth­ing but dust”.

“The Chi­nese care only for their own eco­nomic in­ter­est,” said Noor-e-din, an­other trader with a rus­set mous­tache. “We risk spend­ing our days count­ing trucks as they drive past.”

Is­lam­abad, he pre­dicted, is set to col­lect mil­lions in cus­toms duty from Sost while do­ing lit­tle or noth­ing for the town. Is­rar, for his part, evoked a land grab by wealthy Chi­nese and Pak­ista­nis “from be­low” (the south). The lat­ter have al­ready ap­proached farm­ers in the re­gion in a bid to snap up their fields.

‘My land, not China’s’

Sit­ting on the border of his potato field un­der the shade of an ap­ple tree, Ali Qur­ban fears los­ing his beloved re­gion in Is­lam­abad’s grand dance with Beijing. “This is my land of Gil­git-Baltistan-not that of Pak­istan or China,” the lo­cal ac­tivist and oc­ca­sional poet cries.

A land of peaks and glaciers, of ver­dant val­leys and azure lakes, Gil­git-Baltistan was long a col­lec­tion of small king­doms be­fore be­ing at­tached to Pak­istan in the 1970s.

It does not have provin­cial sta­tus and its in­hab­i­tants do not have the right to vote in na­tional elec­tions, hence the feel­ing of alien­ation from Is­lam­abad and the lack of a voice on the eco­nomic cor­ri­dor. But for the head of lo­cal gov­ern­ment, Hafiz Hafeez ur-Rehman, the project is a “gamechanger” for a re­gion that should be the “prime ben­e­fi­ciary” as it is lo­cated on the thresh­old of China.

The gov­ern­ment plans to in­stall com­mer­cial ar­eas and in­vest in hy­dro­elec­tric dam projects along the fu­ture su­per-high­way to the south, he told AFP.

The Uighur ques­tion

Other, more shad­owy po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity fac­tors also con­trib­ute to the sense of alien­ation in Gil­git: such as Beijing and Is­lam­abad’s ap­par­ent ef­forts to clamp down on the restive re­gions that sur­round the cor­ri­dor. In Gil­git-Baltistan, the most fa­mous lo­cal labour ac­tivist, Baba Jan, has been im­pris­oned for “ter­ror­ism” since 2011 for or­gan­is­ing an anti-gov­ern­ment demonstration.

In the neigh­bour­ing Chi­nese re­gion of Xin­jiang, Beijing is closely mon­i­tor­ing Mus­lim Uighurs, say­ing that ex­trem­ists from the mi­nor­ity are in hid­ing in Pak­istan-a claim that has been sup­ported by lo­cal se­cu­rity sources.

For lo­cals, it all adds up to a lack of agency. The gov­ern­ment and the mil­i­tary have “paral­ysed the peo­ple here”, the ac­tivist Qur­ban said, adding they are sup­pressed “as Uighurs are sup­pressed by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment in Xin­jiang”. “The de­ci­sion­mak­ers will de­cide for them­selves what the ben­e­fit of the eco­nomic cor­ri­dor is,” he says.

Muham­mad Qasim, a Uighur now liv­ing in Gil­git whose an­gu­lar face is wo­ven with wrin­kles, re­mem­bers leav­ing Xin­jiang as a child to seek refuge in Pak­istan af­ter China’s com­mu­nist revo­lu­tion.

He trav­elled, he said, by the an­cient Silk Road. “At the time it was just a nar­row path-no roads, no ve­hi­cles. Our only means of trans­port was a don­key.”—AFP

A Chi­nese woman (left) poses for a pho­to­graph with a Pak­istani man at the Pak­istan-China Khun­jerab Pass, the world’s high­est paved border cross­ing at 4,600 me­ters above sea level. —AFP

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