BRI underscores importance of Pakistan finding its own development path: Pakistani expert
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have made great impact on Pakistan, including improvements in infrastructure, people’s living standards and women’s empowerment, and has led to a shift in the country’s development approach, said a Pakistani expert.
Zoon Ahmed Khan is a research fellow with the Belt and Road Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University. In a recent interview, she shared with the Belt and Road Portal (BRP) her views on the achievements of China-Pakistan cooperation and the influence of the BRI and the CPEC on the Pakistani society.
BRP: Why did you come to China, and how did you become interested in the BRI?
Zoon Ahmed Khan: I have been in China for almost six years. I studied political science during undergraduate study in Lahore, Pakistan, and my interest was in regional politics, diplomacy and international relations. Over a few years of working after I graduated, I came to realize that China is becoming very important in the world and I felt that China’s rise is good news for the global society, especially for Pakistan and the region around.
This led me to my master’s study at Tsinghua University in 2015 in a program called Chinese politics and foreign policy. So, my decision to come to Beijing had little to do with what kind of a life I would personally have. Instead, it had everything to do with the fact that I really wanted to learn about China, to be part of this shift and to experience something phenomenal. This is what I came here for.
As I was studying China’s perspective on the world, China’s own history, and how these were related with the kind of global governance China would promote and support, I noticed how China’s way of reaching out to the world is very deeply aligned with what the BRI is about. That’s how after I received my master’s degree in 2017, I joined the university-level institute called Belt and Road Strategy Institute as a research fellow.
BRP: Based on the years of stay in China, what is your impression of this country?
Zoon Ahmed Khan: In 2015, when I arrived in Beijing, I was amazed by the infrastructure, which tells you how important people are for a country, and how important it is for a government to make sure that its people have a good life.
I cannot say enough about Tsinghua University. For an emerging country like China, it is important to have multiple perspectives. I met in Tsinghua people from developing and developed countries all over the world, each with a unique point of view, which allowed me to be exposed to diverse opinions.
Another thing is, through studying Chinese perspective on the world, I constantly found it to be very much close to exactly the kind of global governance that I have always desired – more equality, respect for all people, and all countries having a right to determine their future.
With everything combined, my experience in China is something I am grateful for. Over the years of living in Beijing, sometimes it feels as if I am not in the same city, or even I am not the same person. I think this is what anyone who has lived here for long enough would feel – China is growing fast and its people are growing along with it.
BRP: How would you evaluate the achievements of the CPEC?
Zoon Ahmed Khan: The success of the cooperation under the CPEC or the BRI is not only about how many roads we build or how much cement and bricks we put together, but how many people actually benefit from it.
Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have a better life because of the CPEC. For example, when I went to different parts of Pakistan, especially in Gwadar, I saw young girls making Vlogs or working in offices with very good working environment. Earlier, an incident went viral in Pakistan that women were working as tractor drivers in some of the projects with Chinese investment.
Women’s empowerment is a very important issue in Pakistan’s way forward. Because of the CPEC, we see such progress, which is an example of how a society’s mindset can be changed when there is positive development in the region.
A few days ago, I went to a high school in Huaping in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province. At an assembly, one of the girls asked me three very interesting questions. She asked me how did I feel about the term batie, what was the progress under the BRI in Pakistan, and what was my expectation of future cooperation between China and Pakistan. I was surprised to hear such questions from a young girl living in a remote region – her confidence and her interest in the issue really touched me.
I explained to the students that there are Chinese companies in Pakistan building schools just like theirs for Pakistani students, especially girls, who did not have the opportunity to get educated. I told them that they should be proud of their country, because many people in developing countries are benefiting from Chinese investments and Chinese projects. So, to me, if there is any way to gauge the success, it is not necessarily the numbers, but what you see and feel – the impact on people.
BRP: What do you think is the BRI’s biggest contribution to Pakistan?
Zoon Ahmed Khan: Apart from the improved infrastructure and higher living standards of people, I think one significant contribution that China makes through the BRI is emphasizing on the fact that developing countries like Pakistan have to find their own development path, rather than follow a Western model of governance.
The best thing Pakistan can learn from the Chinese model is to come up with its own model. China does not wish to impose its journey and experience on other countries, which is quite important. Because no country has the right to determine what another country should study or how it should study.
With increased investment coming from China and increased interaction between China and Pakistan on development, I think this realization is becoming more and more mainstream in Pakistan – people are starting to figure out ways to solve our own problem by referring to the successful models of different countries in the region, on the basis of understanding what we have and pinpointing where we are.
Actually this is also the way how the BRI is benefiting a much greater region than Pakistan. Through the initiative, what China tries to do is to present the partner countries with its experience and the things it can offer, and ask them to build a community based on economic ties, through which countries can lower their barriers and cooperate. This is how the BRI can help countries move further away from a zero-sum mindset and conceive a reality where they can co-exist in a more equal world.
BRP: Did you stay in China during the pandemic? How was the experience?
Zoon Ahmed Khan: I did stay in China the whole time during the pandemic.
As someone who is trying to understand China, I just really saw what this country is capable of. I witnessed a society operating with its government in such a way where people were not thinking about themselves. They wore masks because others could be safe, and they stayed at home because the frontline workers already had too much to handle.
I spent a lot of time covering stories happening in China for different Pakistani media and talking to Pakistani students staying in China. People asked me about how China was able to control the pandemic so well, I said it is just about everyone taking their responsibilities, by being willing to have the discipline, the patience, and the confidence to eventually achieve a higher level of mobility for all people in a shorter time.
BRP: As far as you know, what is the impact on the CPEC projects during the pandemic?
Zoon Ahmed Khan: Projects that were isolated could continue the work. For example, the Orange Line in Lahore started its commercial operation during the pandemic on October 25, 2020.
For other projects relying greatly on global mobility, it would take time for them to get back on track. However, during the pandemic, many things were done to have better planning for next-stage cooperation.
The Chinese and Pakistani embassy, along with organizations and experts of both countries, were engaged in conversations to put all resources together and figure out comprehensive plans of future work. This time was not being wasted, but actually being utilized very well. I am confident that in the future when things gradually pick up pace, we will be better prepared and this will definitely benefit long-term development of the CPEC.
BRP: In what field should we focus in future cooperation under the CPEC and the BRI?
Zoon Ahmed Khan: China and Pakistan together need to invest more on cultural diplomacy. The year 2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between China and Pakistan, but the two countries’ relationship goes far back than the past 70 years.
The historical bonds between China and Pakistan are very important premise of having more solid cultural exchanges between the two countries. As Pakistanis, when we think about China, we think of warmth. And when I came to China, I found that such feelings are truly mutual. Batie is such a powerful word, it means through thick and thin. Therefore, in the next 70 years, we should expect people of both countries to have more awareness about each other’s culture.
This will in turn benefit the bilateral economic ties as well. Economic cooperation between China and Pakistan depends a lot on trade, which depends a lot on the cultural presence of one country in the other. Both sides should make efforts to work through social media and mainstream media to make Pakistani culture more visible in China and vice versa, in order to get people of both countries interested in learning about each other – when we have people flowing, everything flows from there.