Pakistan is a land of deep contrasts. Its population of 220 million is a mix of diverse ethnic groups that would be hard to assemble in one country. Its land wears the changing colors of four seasons through the year. It boasts the world’s tallest and most mesmerizingly mountains. Its strategic location places it at the heart of global connectivity. And, in the 75 years since its founding, Pakistan has experienced and survived cataclysmic events that would have broken the spine of any other nation. Resilience despite odds, therefore, runs in Pakistan’s blood.
But, oddly, Pakistan is also bedeviled by tough luck and poor choices. Its economy is in tatters due to decades of mismanagement and corruption. More than 24% of Pakistan’s population lives below the poverty line. Political instability is in Pakistan’s DNA. And, in a polity and people divided by distrust, most initiatives – domestic or international – that promise to change Pakistan for the better, are viewed with suspicion and bitterness.
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Take the case of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor or the CPEC
CPEC is understandably at the center of US criticism because of US-China rivalry, something that also inevitably places Pakistan in the crosshairs. But, Pakistan’s challenge doesn’t only lie in warding off US criticism and convincing the world that CPEC is a level playing field for international investors. Rather, Pakistan’s biggest challenge remains fighting its own demons.
Take the interview of China’s Consul General Mr. Li Bijian earlier this month. While speaking about the CPEC’s benefits for Pakistan’s economy, the Consul General expressed concern over the lack of appreciation by a section of the Pakistani media for the contributions made by the Chinese investors. He also urged changing the narrative regarding CPEC and creating awareness about how Chinese companies and investors are helping Pakistan.
Changing the narrative or storyline on CPEC remains Pakistan’s Achilles heel. It is one thing for Pakistan to reluctantly put up with Western storylines painting a grim picture of CPEC for a global buy-in of their anti-China rhetoric. But, it’s quite another when Pakistan’s own media buys into these stories and paints a picture of CPEC as a project that isn’t doing any good to Pakistan.
The Chinese Consul General also said that the sacrifices and contributions by China need to be acknowledged by Pakistani people and said that the Chinese investors and workers are badly hurt when they see some Pakistani media speaking the language of the unfriendly forces. He warned that if this situation continues to remain like this, the Chinese investors may be scared away. The Chinese Consul General has a valid point
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Pakistan first needs to tell the CPEC story to its own people
On 13 January, I attended the Future Summit held in Karachi which was attended by government ministers, global influencers, and leading Pakistani businessmen. During the Summit, a panel discussion that I participated in was on the CPEC and titled “CPEC – The Way Forward”. My co-panelist was Mr. Khalid Mansoor, the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on CPEC Affairs and Minister of State.
In his address, Mr. Mansoor gave a detailed progress report on the CPEC and where it stands today. Amongst other things, he told the audience of more than 500 attendees that CPEC Phase I has been completed and that CPEC would now be entering Phase-II whose focus would be on the socio-economic development of Pakistan. During the Q&A session, Mr. Mansoor emphatically debunked the fake news and propaganda surrounding CPEC. He was categoric: CPEC Phase-II would usher in a new era of prosperity and development for Pakistan’s future.
In my address at the Summit, I gave a snapshot of the “shared experiences” and “international best legal practices” under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and how they can be applied in CPEC Phase-II. As someone not known for holding back his punches, I was critical of two particular aspects. First, Pakistan’s bureaucratic red tape ends up stymying foreign investment in Pakistan and second, Pakistan’s courts which have held some international contracts entered by Pakistan to be contrary to Pakistani law despite foreign governing law and foreign dispute resolution clauses in those contracts. These two issues, I pointed out, need urgent attention if Pakistan wishes to have broader international participation in the CPEC.
I also proposed that Pakistan and China should consider incorporating an “overarching mediation framework” in all their CPEC contracts to manage their disagreements and to stop them from becoming disputes. In my experience, litigation, which is a zero-sum game (one party wins and the other loses), is not a good cultural fit for Pakistan and China whose relationship goes beyond commercial aspects. I also spoke briefly about China’s International Commercial Court – a one-stop show for dispute resolution that offers a hybrid of litigation-mediation-arbitration.
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Due to the paucity of time, however, I could not drive home all my points. One of these was changing the narrative surrounding CPEC, something also pointed out by China’s Consul General.
It is high time that Pakistan found the right balance between freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under its Constitution and the right of all Pakistanis to be spared propaganda, half-truths and fake news being repeatedly peddled by sections of the Pakistani media regarding CPEC and other national projects.
To do this, I propose the following
First, Pakistan needs to adopt a top-down approach to disseminating the facts about CPEC. This is necessary for creating awareness within Pakistan on CPEC’s importance to Pakistan and its future. Despite a bitter political divide in Pakistan, we can agree that there is a “least common denominator” or an agreement within Pakistan that CPEC was the initial big push needed by Pakistan to revive its economy. Traditionally, Pakistan had been plagued by two perennial issues: energy issues and poor infrastructure.
Thanks to CPEC Phase-I, Pakistan has been largely able to overcome these two issues. In other words, without CPEC’s baseline infrastructural support, Pakistan would not have been able to jump-start its economic engine. We must never forget this. And, it is the job of the government to educate the masses and the media through an awareness campaign.
Second, Pakistan needs domestic legislation that protects the public from falsehoods, propaganda, and fake news as well as counters proliferation of the same. This legislation must not be aimed at gagging the media or discouraging healthy criticism. Healthy debate and criticism are the hallmarks of a vibrant society. Rather, it should be aimed at discouraging fake news and propaganda and penalizing media persons who knowingly indulge in misleading the masses. Like any other country in the world, Pakistan’s public interest would be served when the public gets to hear the truth. Pakistan owes it to its people to share with them the facts surrounding CPEC and how it promises to transform Pakistan’s future.
Third, Pakistan must explore “shared experiences” in the BRI’s context that can benefit Pakistan’s narrative building on CPEC. Pakistan isn’t the only country that faces Western opprobrium due to its closeness with China. China’s BRI, which connects the four corners of the world, is like an ocean full of national experiences of other countries. Pakistan should take a drop or two from this ocean and look into the lessons learned by other countries as they have implemented their national projects forming part of China’s BRI. This can help Pakistan in generating a domestic narrative on the promise that CPEC holds for Pakistan.
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In today’s digitalized world, far greater damage can be inflicted on an adversary through media lawfare than traditional military means. A tweet by an influencer can send a stock market crashing. Social media targeting of individuals can send reputations plummeting. Cyber attacks can bring countries to their knees. Similarly, fake news and propaganda about national projects can seed doubts in the minds of the potential benefactors of those projects. Although Pakistan can’t change the West’s narrative on BRI or on the CPEC, making sure that CPEC isn’t maligned by its own media, is very much in Pakistan’s hands. Pakistan must go out of its way to protect the CPEC. It remains Pakistan’s best bet for the prosperous future of its people.
Hassan Aslam Shad is an international lawyer based in the Middle East. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, U.S.A. with a focus on international law. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy