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EFSAS Commentary

Organized Crime, Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation; CPEC brings more than the people of Pakistan wished for


In China, a saying popularized during the Mao Zedong era goes: ‘women hold up half the sky’. A powerful phrase, which is even more relevant in today’s struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. Shortly after Mao Zedong’s death, his successor Deng Xiao Ping installed the infamous one-child policy, aiming to curb China’s rapid population growth and very quickly, the popular saying was consigned to oblivion. Females were seen as a burden, rather than as an indispensable pillar of society, capable of running and building it alongside with men. An age-old preference, rooted in traditional gender roles, for male children, was reinforced since men were the ones passing on the family name, caring for their elderly parents (women were “married-out”, meaning they would leave their parents’ household to care for their parents-in-law), and having a higher wage-earning capacity. 

This policy proved to have dire consequences for China. Indeed, as a result of the one child policy and the son preference of the Chinese population, it is estimated that there are approximately 40 to 50 million “missing women”; women that were supposed to be born and alive today but are not. The following phenomenon of son preference, sex-selective abortion, infanticide and neglect for female children led to a severe gender imbalance. It is estimated that there are currently 33 million more men than women, meaning that eligible bachelors are struggling to find themselves a wife. On top of that, it is still customary to pay a dowry when wishing to take a woman’s hand in marriage. Considering the male to female ratio, the competition to find a wife in China is still high and men cannot always pay the price demanded by the potential bride’s family. 

Chinese men, especially those from poor rural areas who do not have the means to pay the high bride price demanded by Chinese women’s families, resort to “importing” women from poor neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Vietnam, and Pakistan. However, these women, who in most cases are from even more impoverished rural areas themselves, are often lured by the promise of a better life in China, only to find themselves victims of human trafficking, not only for being forcefully married, but for the purposes of prostitution as well. 

Pakistan’s “all-weather” friendship with China has raised cause for alarm, notably due to the construction of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Although the multibillion developmental ‘game changer’ plan was ostensibly established for the purposes of fostering trade and people-to-people contact, enhancing both countries’ political and logistical control over their frontiers and capability to deal with external and internal security threats, and on paper appeared as a win-win situation, in reality the foundation of the project was settled in very murky waters. The infrastructural development happening without any local involvement has created enormous dissatisfaction and tension among the indigenous people, causing numerous human rights violations on the local population. The growing bonhomie between China and Pakistan has brought about a growing number of Chinese nationals immigrating to Pakistan. As of November 2018, 20,000 Chinese nationals reside in Pakistan and this number is estimated to grow in correlation with the development of the CPEC. Furthermore, around 70,000 Chinese nationals visit Pakistan annually on short-term visas. 

Organized crime rings on both sides of the border have been taking advantage of the ‘China-Pak friendship’, by exploiting the high demand for women in China and the appalling situation of women from marginalized minorities and communities in Pakistan. Illegal marriage centres, set up by both Pakistani and Chinese matchmakers, have been luring women primarily from Pakistan’s Christian community, into marriages with supposedly good, wealthy, Christian Chinese men. This has ostensibly presented a great economic opportunity for the families of these women as they receive on average $2,800 plus a monthly compensation of $200. Once married, the brides are sent to China with their new husbands, and reports from such brides expose a horrifying pattern of sexual abuse and forced prostitution on behalf of their Chinese husbands. Saleem Iqbal, a human rights activist who has been tracking such cases, says he believes at least 700 Christian and 300 Muslim women were married to Chinese men since October 2018. Testimonies show that after marrying in Pakistan and moving to China with their new husbands, brides are treated violently, often times sequestered by their husbands, and sexually exploited. 

In April, Human Rights Watch released a report urging Pakistan and China to take action against the cross-border marriage organized crime groups and issue of bride trafficking. The following month, Pakistani authorities cracked down on such a group in Punjab province. Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency conducted the investigation and arrested eight Chinese nationals as well as four Pakistani nationals. The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad has condemned the practice of illegal cross-border marriages and is tackling the issue by looking into the visa applications of Pakistani women that married Chinese men in Pakistan. Suspicion was raised by the considerable surge in such types of visa applications; in 2018, 142 Pakistani women applied for a visa to China after their marriages. In the first half of 2016, 140 Pakistani women applied for visas to China after their marriages to Chinese nationals and 90 applications were rejected following investigation. Furthermore, Beijing has sent a task force to Pakistan to aid local authorities in combating transnational crimes. While Chinese authorities have recognized the issue of illegal cross-border weddings and the lucrative illicit profits it has generated, they continue to deny claims of forced prostitution in China. 

Human Rights Watch reported that the Chinese bride trafficking network established in Pakistan was unnervingly similar to that of other Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and North Korea. The creation of such human trafficking networks that operate with the sole purpose of providing Chinese men with women, in a most degrading and inhumane fashion, illustrates the devastating effect the one-child policy and its resulting gender imbalance has had not only in China, but in Asia as well. While both Pakistan and China have recognized the severity of the situation, neither has a particularly enviable track record when it comes to the protection of human rights, or women’s rights. 

Hence, the relations between Chinese and Pakistanis do not always reflect the one that Beijing and Islamabad glorify. In November 2018, the disregard of the discontent of the domestic populations by China was manifested through the targeting of the Chinese Consulate in Karachi by militants from the Baloch Liberation Army, which is strongly against Chinese presence in Balochistan (where part of the CPEC is being constructed). As EFSAS Commentary of 30-11-2018 explains, Baloch insurgent organizations that were earlier peeved at Pakistan for unfairly exploiting the province’s resources, especially its natural gas and minerals, and for crushing dissent by blatantly resorting to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, have now also turned their anger against China, accusing it of conspiring to take over Baloch lands surreptitiously. Baloch insurgent organizations believe that the Pakistani military is colonizing their province with the help of China, turning them into a minority in their own province. Therefore, faced with this reality, it would be in China’s own interest to convince its heavily beholden all-weather junior partner, Pakistan, to consider a political solution to the Baloch-issue and an infinitely more humane approach to engaging with the Baloch. It can only be reasonable to expect the Baloch to desire a say in how and where external investments are utilized in their province. 

In other parts of South Asia similar violent clashes between Chinese employees working on CPEC projects and locals have erupted. A recent case outlined in a BBC article of June 2019 delves into the deadly mass brawl, which took place at a construction site of a China-funded power plant in Bangladesh, where reportedly a Bangladeshi worker fell to his death and the Chinese authorities attempted to cover up the incident. In another case in Pakistan, in April 2018, Chinese workers engaged in the construction of the M4 Motorway from Bahawalpur to Faisalabad, attacked policemen deployed for their security. The workers were supposedly looking to visit a local “red-light” district and became violent after being denied permission to leave the camp unaccompanied by authorities. 

It remains to be seen as to how Pakistan will handle those situations of human rights violations that have arisen as a consequence of the CPEC project. Attention must be also drawn onto Pakistan’s increasing financial dependence on Chinese loans for infrastructural projects constructed under the flagship of the CPEC; according to Ishrat Husain, adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on institutional austerity and a Federal Minister, $11 billion out of $100 billion of Pakistan’s debt is owed to China. Pakistan should thoroughly evaluate the plight it finds itself in, namely becoming a gambit in China’s great game in the Indian subcontinent, by sacrificing the future and prosperity of its own people and submitting itself to Beijing’s strategic objectives in return for Chinese Yuan, which will inevitably drain on the country. 

As long as China was accomplishing its agenda without any major obstacles, Pakistan turned a blind eye to all issues surrounding the construction of the CPEC; yet, once the Chinese funding fails to lead to the anticipated returns and violence and instability thwart all initial projections, Pakistan will be compelled to observe the serious flaws of its relationship with the Asian Dragon.