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.
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.
Is China using Prisoners as labour to save costs under CPEC? This is nonsense. The person spreads rumors like this has a hidden agenda— Muhammad Lijian Zhao (@zlj517) December 19, 2016
Referring to allegations of graft in the CPEC, the diplomat – who uses the name “Muhammad Lijian Zhao” on Twitter – posted this:
For those who accuse CPEC projects of corruption, there is one Chinese saying: Gauge the heart of a gentleman with one's own mean measure.— Muhammad Lijian Zhao (@zlj517) December 19, 2016
Zhao’s tweets didn’t go unnoticed among Pakistanis, including Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida, who replied:
Easy there... Chinese, yes, but still a diplomat in Pakistan, no? https://t.co/tFuqGd0xiv— cyril almeida (@cyalm) December 19, 2016
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.
No need for that war on corruption back in China, then... https://t.co/A3T9ARr5DB— cyril almeida (@cyalm) December 19, 2016
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:
Much that is unfortunate here and several out of their minds, but surely not a reasonable (diplomatic?) response... https://t.co/CTIV3ipZv1— cyril almeida (@cyalm) December 19, 2016
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.
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.”