China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has an undeniable economic and strategic importance for the two countries. Besides, the project is expected to be a cultural corridor between China and Pakistan. Chinese investors, workers, technicians, project managers etc. are coming from China to Pakistan and bringing their culture with them. Similarly, student exchange programs and other joint cultural activities have been introduced as a result of the project. Governments from both sides have encouraged people to people contacts and arranged setups for people to have a better understanding and develop cultural ties.
However, scholars, commentators, and critics shied away from dissecting the cultural aspects of the project. In a rare attempt, Muhammad Amir Rana, a prominent security analyst, wrote an interesting article titled CPEC and multiculturalism on February 7 in daily Dawn.
Rana argues that the religious extremism induced by religious clergy in Pakistani culture makes the society resistant towards foreigners or anyone outside their religion. He is of the view that religious extremism is a reason people are unable to accept diversity. After identifying the problem, he concluded that “So far, CPEC has failed to create any kind of sociocultural fusion in society.”
This essay attempts to highlight two main points: first, the clergy is not responsible for resisting interaction with the Chinese. On the contrary, it is the Western and Indian media running disinformation campaigns to seriously damage the relations between two neighbors: two, the impacts of the CPEC on our society and culture cannot be measured in four or five years. Social change is a slow process and takes time to be institutionalized.
— Saleha Anwar (@anwar_saleha) December 17, 2020
The claim that the religious clergy has an unshakable political capacity to generate and instill a particular public discourse is sometimes misleading (let’s not bring in blasphemy cases here). Amir Rana’s assertions about Pakistani society and its character seem to be based upon journalistic impressions.
In my humble view, there should be a serious academic inquiry to determine the scope of influence of the clergy in developing public discourse towards “others” in religiously conservative societies like Pakistan in the age of Facebook and Twitter.
From an academic standpoint, it is imperative to have some solid facts to establish an acceptable claim. I would like to use the results of the recent general elections. The 2018 General Elections results showed that religious groups failed to make their presence felt this time. 12 religious parties participated in in the elections. These parties were only able to manage to secure 9.5 % votes collectively. Many of these parties saw a severe decline in their vote bank when compared to the elections of 2013. Thus, the claim that religious groups have a significant impact on the nature and scope of public discourse and can get it institutionalized is to some extent misleading.
There was a time when religion had a dominant role in Pakistani politics and it contributed to shaping the country’s relations with other nations. But Pakistan has moved forward to a stage where the government and people are more interested in economic progress
Who is projecting China as a monster?
A critical review of main India and the Western media outlets reveals that China is deliberately being projected as an evil state. Some have called it a proponent of debt-trap diplomacy and others held it responsible for promoting authoritarianism across the world. In the case of Pakistan, the campaign was even lethal and deep. There have been several reports claiming a large number of Pakistani brides being sent to China for immoral activities.
— Kathy Gannon (@Kathygannon) December 4, 2019
A report claimed that after bringing brides from Pakistan “the women are often isolated, neglected, abused and sold into prostitution, frequently contacting home to plead to be brought back”.
Later on, the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan had to counter the rumors by issuing a statement on 13th April, 2019. The statement read as: “We hope that the media reports should seek truth from facts, be objective and fair. We hope the people of China and Pakistan do not believe the rumors. We will never allow a few criminals to undermine China-Pakistan friendship and hurt the friendly feelings between two peoples.” Chinese officials also shared the videos of the girls leading blissful life after marriage in china.
The bottom line is that those afraid of CPEC’s economic and political impacts intend to disrupt it through various means. Since women in Pakistan, and particularly in economically humble classes, are considered men’s honor or possession, not independent agency, the target was clear: hurt men’s ego, create a sense of fear and avenge against Chinese men who are allegedly disrespecting Pakistani women. As a result, I have observed, and my interaction with several men and women in Lahore confirms, that Chinese men are seen with great suspicion in Pakistan’s cultural settings now.
Can Pakistan develop cultural ties with China?
There are two views prevailing in popular media: likes of Muhammad Amir Rana believe that the CPEC could have created a great impact but has failed to do so because of the existing religiously conservative cultural discourse in Pakistan, and there are those who believe that the two cultures are extremely different and cannot coexist.
Social change is a complex and multi-dimensional process that takes several years and the wisdom of generation to be manifested in the form of social institutions. Will Durant, a prolific American historian, argued that customs and values “are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history”. Hence, it will be unfair to conclude that the project has failed to create the intended (or unintended) cultural impacts. It is a matter of time. We need to patiently wait and positively influence the process.
But the claims that these two cultures are too different to adjust together are misleading. Prof. Samuel P. Huntington, a celebrated author and political scientist, in his famous book The Clash of Civilization draws many similarities between Confucius and Islamic civilizations. On the other hand, he was of the view that the West and Islam are in clash and stand opposite to each other. But we see that besides having different or ‘opposing’ cultures, many western and Islamic countries have managed to maintain good relations. If this is the case then the chances are even brighter for China and Pakistan to develop good cultural ties.
In the present context, both states need to focus on two aspects: a) people to people contact is facilitated and b) organized and state-sponsored propaganda against CPEC is effectively countered in order to let it create a new type of multiculturalism in this region.
The writer is a Lahore-based political analyst. She tweets at anwar_saleha. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.