LAHORE/ SHANGHAI: Zhang Yang, a businessman from Chongqing in southwest China, is searching online forums for fellow stout-hearted entrepreneurs willing to cast aside security concerns and join him on a scouting mission to Pakistan.
Zhang, 48, is one of a growing number of Chinese pioneers sensing an opportunity across the Himalayas, where Beijing has pledged to spend $57 billion on infrastructure projects as part of its “Belt and Road” initiative.
Numbering in the thousands, this second wave of Chinese arrivals are following in the wake of workers on Belt and Road projects. Some are opening restaurants and language schools, while others are working out what products they could sell to a market of 208 million people, or what goods they could make cheaply in Pakistan to sell around the world.
“A lot of industries are already saturated in China,” said Zhang, who has worked in property, electrical appliances and household goods in China and says he wants to explore the potential for setting up factories or importing Chinese goods. “Pakistan’s development is behind China, so it will hold better opportunities compared to home.”
But the new arrivals face dangers, creating a headache for Pakistani security officials.
The killing of two Chinese nationals in Quetta in June highlighted the risks posed by militants, who may see them as soft targets in their war with the state.
Beijing has also long fretted about hardened fighters linking up with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uigher militant group Beijing accuses of seeking to split off its western region of Xinjiang, Pakistani officials say.
Islamabad does not release immigration data but a source in the foreign ministry said about 71,000 Chinese nationals visited in 2016. A senior immigration official added 27,596 visa extensions were granted to Chinese that year, a 41 percent increase on 2015, suggesting more are staying in the country for longer.
For Pakistan, the stakes in keeping all those Chinese nationals safe are high.
Rama, Editor in Chief of Hushang, a Mandarin language weekly newspaper, works at her office in Islamabad, Pakistan. PHOTO: REUTERS
Beijing’s infrastructure splurge has helped revive Pakistan’s sputtering economy, and deepening ties between the two nations have turned Pakistan into a key cog in China’s grand plan to build a modern-day “Silk Road” of land and sea trade routes linking Asia with Europe and Africa.
While the first phase of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), concentrated on infrastructure projects, the second part will focus on setting up special economic zones and integrating Chinese firms into the local economy to help Pakistan develop its industries ranging from mining to agriculture. China has also surged to become by far the biggest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) for Pakistan, topping US$1 billion in 2016/17, and is betting on its neighbour at a time when many Western companies are still put off by security concerns and corruption.
“Pakistan really needs foreign investment and we are not going to miss out on this because of some idiots with a gun,” said Miftah Ismail, a special adviser to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. “We won’t let them mess with the Chinese.”