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CPEC criticism angers Chinese diplomat, has online spat with Pakistani journo

world Updated: Dec 20, 2016 15:28 IST
Rezaul H Laskar
Rezaul H Laskar
Hindustan Times
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File photo of Zhao Lijian, chargé d’affaires at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, who is known for defending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on Twitter.(Twitter)

Criticism of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has forced Beijing’s usually inscrutable diplomats into overdrive to defend the $46-billion project, with an envoy engaging in a very public spat with a top Pakistani journalist.

The CPEC was announced in 2013 but work began on infrastructure that is part of the venture over the past year, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif looking to the project to create jobs and ramp up the generation of electricity to counter a crippling energy crisis.

However, Pakistani experts have repeatedly questioned how China will raise the funds for the CPEC and also the amount that Islamabad will have to pay back as interest on loans for the project, with one estimate putting the annual net outflow at $3.54 billion. India too has opposed the CPEC as it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Read | Pakistan special naval force to guard Gwadar port and CPEC against maritime threats

The allegations and charges appear to have angered Zhao Lijian, the acting Chinese ambassador and chargé d’affaires, who has used Twitter over the past few months to defend the CPEC. Sources in Islamabad described Zhao as an “aggressive” diplomat who did not like criticism of the flagship project.

Zhao took to Twitter early on Tuesday morning after he was apparently angered by an allegation that China was using “prisoners as labour” on the CPEC.

Referring to allegations of graft in the CPEC, the diplomat – who uses the name “Muhammad Lijian Zhao” on Twitter – posted this:

Zhao’s tweets didn’t go unnoticed among Pakistanis, including Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida, who replied:

Almeida, who was recently in the news after the military was angered by his report on differences between the army and civilian government on countering terrorists, also referred to China’s long battle with corruption.

Almeida also responded to Zhao’s snarky comment about senior journalists believing stories of “Chinese prisoners in CPEC projects” by questioning whether his remark was a “diplomatic” response:

The Dawn daily also reported that Zhao had dismissed criticism of the CPEC at a seminar organised by a think tank in Islamabad on Monday. “CPEC is working well. But there are some people who are maligning the project, which enjoys the support of most of the people of Pakistan,” he said.

Read | Beijing says China-Pakistan economic corridor not against India

Besides criticism of its cost and financing, the CPEC has led to a row among Pakistan’s provinces, with smaller units such as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa saying the project would benefit Punjab, the most populous and prosperous province. Leaders in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa had said their province had not been allocated any projects and the local assembly had threatened to file a petition in court to seek a clarification.

The Chinese embassy had described these charges as “untrue and misreporting”. It said in a statement: “CPEC is for Pakistan as a whole and will bring benefits to all Pakistani people including the people from the western parts.”

Read | India, Pakistan spar over economic corridor passing through PoK