Sometime earlier this year, CPEC brought three Chinese families to my parents’ neighbourhood in suburban Lahore. For the first couple of months, I was told, the new neighbours rarely ventured out of their residences for anything other than commuting to work. In a more recent update, I was informed, they’ve started engaging with their locality. They go out for walks during the evenings, lounge around in a nearby park on weekends, shop regularly at the local supermarket, and even greet other residents on the street. Perhaps security concerns limited their movements early on, and maybe those concerns have withered away.
From what I can tell, there’s not a shred of hostility to their presence, as is often the case with Chinese residents in Pakistan. What has happened though is that their mere presence has altered what is otherwise an ethnically and culturally monotonous upper-middle class bubble tucked away in a corner of Lahore.
The bulk of the conversation around CPEC to date remains focused on the economy. That’s partly a function of the name — it is a self-identified ‘economic’ corridor after all — and partly because taraqi is a frequently declared national goal. Thus when we list the positives of this multibillion-dollar programme, we use phrases like ‘unprecedented investment’, ‘long-term development’, ‘heightened productivity’, ‘manufacturing growth’ and such. There are some strategic titbits added on too, such as ‘increased security’ and ‘regional balance’.
On those few occasions when someone does challenge this new national consensus, it’s largely done on the same turf. So the concerns voiced are about environmental sustainability of coal plants, or the magnitude of the debt we’re incurring in the process, or the damage to local manufacturing, or whether dollar outflows will throw us into a permanent balance of payment crisis.
Very rarely, if at all, do we talk about the political, social or cultural impact of Chinese investment in the country.
Very rarely, if at all, do we talk about the political, social or cultural impact of Chinese investment in the country. On the political front, questions about interprovincial equity emerged and were quickly addressed or brushed aside. Since then, there’s been little high-level discussion on the transparency of the plan or the nature of the agreements signed. The relative disinterest in addressing or investigating such concerns from all influential quarters is perhaps an indication of how politics could function in a rapidly approaching future.
These early examples raise other hypothetical questions: how will our political parties realign themselves in the face of Chinese pressure? Whose voice will get amplified in policy circles, and whose will get drowned out and discarded? What moral-ethical ideals enshrined in our Constitution will be considered expendable in the quest for economic growth? (Federalism and provincial autonomy remain early contenders). What will be the ‘new normal’ way of taking important political decisions? Will bureaucratic centralisation stage a comeback?
Naturally, not all of these shifts will take place at such big-ticket levels. Socially and culturally, a lot more will happen far away from the opaque arena of the state and high politics. Chinese migrants punctuating the monotony of a homogenous neighbourhood is a precursor to the diffused kind of social and cultural shifts we might see in the near future. Much of this will be interesting, and maybe even positive. Cities in Punjab, after all, could desperately do with some heterogeneity and cultural change.
The diffused aspect of a deeper relationship with China might lead to changes in how people here dress, what they eat, how they interpret gender roles, and even what they conceive of as legitimate life goals and aspirations. Doug Guthrie’s classic volume, Dragon in a Three-piece Suit talks about how foreign businessmen who worked with Chinese firms left a bit of their social practices with their partners and took home some of theirs from them. Maybe our highly provincial bourgeoisie will emulate (or imitate) their Chinese counterparts and start doing business differently. Maybe they’ll do this less out of choice and more out of compulsion.
These are all hypothetical questions. But they’re the sort of questions we need to be thinking about because history tells us no encounter of this scale is free from political, social and cultural change.
The British came to the subcontinent to appropriate rural surplus capital, and that they did highly effectively. But the edifice of their appropriation was tied with ideological and civilisational influences as well. Utilitarian philosophy influenced colonial administrators and Christian missionaries during the 19th century, as they sought to induce progress in a ‘backward’ society. Liberal ideals made their way to the Punjabi bureaucracy in the early 20th century and so we witnessed the enactment and institutionalisation of customary law and fragments of local self-government.
In the 1950s and 1960s, our strategic proximity to the Americans gave us a benevolent and functional dictatorship, and a De Tocquevillian fantasy of small, self-governing communities in the shape of Villageaid and the Basic Democracies Order. In recent years, despite the tumult of this relationship, our engagement with the West has left us with a steadfast commitment to the free market, to trade liberalisation, and a smattering of superficially-consumed liberal ideals.
CPEC is neither colonialism nor contemporary imperialism. Those terms are meaningful only when deployed in full hindsight of history, and history tells us we’re nowhere close to either. Nevertheless, China’s imprint on the region is growing, and its presence is no longer remote-controlled nor confined to staid government buildings. It is seeping into our economy, and if Marx was right, will soon reflect itself in the superstructure of politics, social practice, and culture. As we’re frequently told by our representatives (both elected and self-appointed) that it is both a gift and a game changer, in the months ahead, we’ll find out the extent of this benevolence and the nature of this new game.