ENVIRONMENT: Humanising Pak-China relations —Saleem H Ali
It is time to again humanise the Pak-Chinese relationship. Pakistan’s friendship with its giant northern neighbour clearly deserves greater attention and must be approached with greater creativity and less sentimentality
The residents of Islamabad will surely remember the militant assault on massage parlours in the city two years ago, which escalated into a siege of Lal Masjid. Chinese massage parlours were declared by the ulema of the mosque to be dens of sin and, much to the embarrassment of the government, some of the Chinese massage therapists and acupuncturists were held hostage by madrassa students under accusations of spreading immorality.
Such incidents were probably still raw in the minds of the Chinese when they denied Mr Zardari a financial rescue package last week, not to mention the string of other abductions and murders of Chinese workers in Pakistan. The Pakistani government had to remain content with a hydropower deal and a few other crumbs but the big bailout that seemed so close was not realised. The Chinese clearly had their hands full bailing out their far greater friend — the United States. Pakistanis would have to wait and eat humble pie.
The fabled Pak-Cheen Dosti slogan, which even many of our mullahs so fervently brandished a few years ago, is now silent. Perhaps there is finally a realisation that “friendship” among countries is not a yaarana of limitless loyalty that so many of our sentimental citizens consider sacred. Perhaps the plight of the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang has belatedly caused the mullahs to reconsider the unequivocal call of Chinese camaraderie. Whatever the factors, Pakistan’s relations with China have taken a rather pragmatic turn.
But let us not single out the Chinese on this account. The Saudis, who were much esteemed by the Lal Masjid brigade, have also denied us a bailout package despite having a huge surplus of cash on their hands thanks to record oil prices earlier this year.
Growing up in Lahore during the 1980s, I distinctly remember the presence of Chinese entrepreneurs in two particular businesses — restaurants and beauty parlours. Catering to wedding vanity and Lahori appetites for chow mien, many of these entrepreneurs became fairly well-off in those days of relative poverty in their homeland.
However, as China has transformed into a major economic power, many of these expatriates have returned home. The restaurants are still flourishing but many have transitioned to Pakistani management with an occasional visit from the Chinese owner. Most Chinese who now come to Pakistan are businessmen interested in large infrastructure projects such as the Gwadar port. They seldom encounter the average Pakistani amid their heavily guarded convoys. Our younger generation have a very distant view of China as well, confined to viewing the Olympics or perhaps an advertisement about Shanghai’s economic dominance on CNN.
It is time to again humanise the Pak-Chinese relationship. First of all, the language barrier must be crossed at multiple levels. While the Chinese are trying to get their population to learn English, it may be more fruitful for Pakistanis to start learning Chinese alongside English during high school. As far as I know there is no secondary school in Pakistan that offers Chinese as a language even though it is far more consequential for Pakistanis than learning French or German, which are still taught in some elite schools. Chinese (Mandarin) is one of the United Nations’ six international languages as well and Pakistanis could leverage such language skills in seeking international jobs with alacrity.
Just as there have been international exchange programmes sponsored by the State Department for Pakistanis to visit the United States in large numbers, the Chinese government should encourage more Pakistani students to spend time in China and receive higher education in Chinese universities. Having visited some of China’s universities, I can say with confidence that many of them, like Tsinghua University and Peking University (Bei-Dah), are world-class and deserve far greater attention by our students, once the language barrier has been traversed.
As for the massage parlours, they too deserve to be resurrected. Chinese therapeutic systems have great resonance with Pakistanis, and the mullahs may want to consider the strategy followed on this issue by another Asian country — Korea.
For decades, Korea has reserved the profession of massage therapy for the visually blind since this provides a valuable livelihood for them while also keeping unwanted sensuality at bay. The ulema would perhaps approve of this naabina solution to massage therapy as well as providing a natural purdah. The Chinese could train many of our blind youth in massage therapy and let them populate the profession as the Koreans have done.
At multiple levels, service sector partnerships between China and Pakistan ranging from the culinary arts to physical therapy have much potential to be given a fresh start beyond just the infrastructure projects. Pakistan’s friendship with its giant northern neighbour clearly deserves greater attention and must be approached with greater creativity and less sentimentality.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and on the adjunct faculty of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. www.saleemali.net