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China the new medium for Pak politics

The decision by Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to use an interview to the Chinese media to attack the army chief and the ISI chief was no coincidence.

world Updated: Jan 13, 2012 02:17 IST

The decision by Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to use an interview to the Chinese media to attack the army chief and the ISI chief was no coincidence.

Gilani insists the interview was set up weeks in advance and that it had nothing to do with the army chief being on an official visit to China at the time. "When I concluded the interview and went out of the room, my military secretary informed me that the army chief had landed back in Pakistan," he told the media. This has been met with skepticism.

But it is possible the message being given was not to General Kayani but to the Chinese. "There was a scare in the PM office that Kayani had gone to China to take the Chinese leadership into confidnece before staging some sort of coup or change of guard," comments analyst Najam Sethi. Possibly that is what prompted the Pakistan PM to give his own message through the Chinese media.

China, seemingly embarrassed at being the intermediary in a political crisis in its closest ally, blacked out the Gilani interview to People’s Daily Online for its domestic audience.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson refused to respond to a question on how Beijing perceives the sudden sacking of the Pakistani defence secretary.

The local media reported the incident, carrying agency reports dated Islamabad, in the blandest possible manner. Xinhua merely said the parliamentary session today would be important. There has been no analysis of the event or its implications in the Chinese media.

The role of the foreign media as a via media in Pakistani politics remains a constant. However, in the past, it has usually been the Western media that is used to convey messages. The "Memogate affair" erupted after an article in the Financial Times. President Zardari, who has written pieces in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, said that he did not sue the paper "because the national interest would have been hurt."

This soft line towards the Western media infuriates journalists at home."If such an article had appeared in a local paper, the paper would have had to suffer the consequences," comments journalist Shamimur Rehman.

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif would also use the foreign media to convey concerns to Washington and the to West. Foreign ministers would also follow suit. BBC’s Tim Sebastian got an award for his interview with then Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz over the Kargil conflict in 1999. Aziz, however, came across as a bumbling and lost bureaucrat in the interview. When General Musharraf took over some months later, one of the first pictures of him that was released was with his dogs – again a PR exercise directed towards the West. The picture was criticised at home.

The military is not far behind. When ISI chief General Shuja Pasha took command, one of his first interviews was with a German magazine where he claimed he was fluent in German and loved that country.

The army has routinely used Western publications and news agencies to leak stories. "The Chinese example is somewhat different," comments media analyst Jawed Iqbal. He says that this possibly reflects the growing influence of China in Pakistan's internal affairs.