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EFSAS Commentary

Pakistan’s rapid descent into a vassal of China and its complicity in the atrocities against the Uyghurs


Pakistan has been a great vocal champion of the rights of Muslims across the world, especially when its support is measured in terms of the pitch of its outcries to the sometimes real, and at other times perceived, wrongs committed against Muslims in distant lands. Since Imran Khan became the Prime Minister in 2017, the country has sought to position itself as the prime defender of the Islamic faith. Khan himself has personally sought to lead the way, with his tweet in mid-May expressing solidarity with Palestine when violent clashes between the Israelis and the Palestinians raged being the most recent example. While the expression of solidarity with Palestine, in itself, is totally justifiable, acceptable and even laudable, Pakistan’s shrill reactions to other perceived insults or violation of rights of Muslims, especially in the Western world, have tended to go overboard. Even on Palestine, in the deliberations in Pakistan’s National Assembly last month, parliamentarians called for jihad against Israel and the dropping of nuclear bombs upon it. One learned member, the Jamaat-e-Islami party’s Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali queried the Army Chief of Pakistan on what good the 700,000-strong army was if it could not liberate Palestine and Kashmir. Even if these provocative military threats against Israel were actually meaningless hollow words, whether such attitudes benefit the Palestinian cause or subtract from it is something that clearly did not receive enough thought.

It is not a coincidence that Pakistan’s supposedly sympathetic attitude towards Muslims living in faraway lands is the diametrical opposite of how the country views Muslims in its immediate neighbourhood. The distant foreign Muslims are an avenue for Pakistan to hypocritically project itself as a torchbearer of the faith and its followers, an image that is sought to be sold together with the mainly psychological impact of the country being the sole Islamic possessor of the nuclear bomb. The successful pursuit of such a policy helps Pakistan to a degree when it goes every few years, begging bowl in hand, to the more affluent Islamic nations in the Middle East. Some of these countries such as Saudi Arabia are actually accepted quite widely across the Islamic world as protectors of the Ummah, and Pakistan seeks to give these countries the impression that it is helping them fulfill their onerous responsibilities, for which Pakistan deserves alms.

In contrast, Pakistan sees the Muslims in its immediate neighbourhood as tools to be exploited to fulfill its own strategic objectives. The religion of these neighbours is not really relevant for Pakistan, except in as much as it helps Pakistani agents tap them using religious commonality to fulfill its regional political goals. In Afghanistan, Pakistan has been responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of Muslims starting from its partnership with the United States (US) to oust the Soviets and continuing to its present-day relations with various terrorist groups, most notable of which are the Taliban and the Haqqani network. In Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), Pakistan abused religion to create terrorists of its youth, condemning them to die avoidable, violent and ignoble deaths in pursuit of an agenda that was purely Pakistani. While claiming to be the strongest supporter of the ‘Kashmiri’ cause, Pakistan has engineered the break-up of J&K into several fragmented pieces and caused its people to lose the long-held special status and autonomy that they had within India.

Pakistan’s ill-treatment of the persecuted Uyghurs of Xinjiang in China, however, is of a different nature. In the case of the Uyghurs, it is not Pakistan’s self interest in the region that is the culprit. Pakistan’s submission to the hegemony of China and the lure of the Yuan are what are to blame. The suppression of the small population of Uyghur refugees living in Pakistan and the deportation of hundreds of them to China without due legal procedures being followed nevertheless hopelessly exposes Pakistan’s hypocrisy, its utter disregard for Muslims, and the complete absence of any solidarity with them. It demonstrates beyond any doubt that as far as Pakistan is concerned, the protection of Islam is merely a convenient weapon that periodically requires to be greased with lip service.

Pakistan’s changing equations with China since the 1950s and the impact that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has had upon the relationship is illustrated well by the fate that successive generations of Uyghurs in Pakistan have had to contend with. Uyghur migrants whose ancestors had moved to Pakistan from the 1950s to the 1970s were gladly accepted in the country and granted all constitutional rights. They were allowed to integrate fully into Pakistani society, and they now speak fluent Urdu and wear traditional Pakistani dresses. However, as Abbas Rahim, a silk dealer in the ‘China Market’ in Rawalpindi told Asia Times, the situation for Pakistan’s Uyghurs has become more delicate since the CPEC was inaugurated. He asserted that Beijing’s growing influence over Islamabad had made things tougher for Uyghur immigrants through greater police and security agency surveillance, scrutiny and harassment. “They enter our homes and business places now and then on flimsy excuses and harass our females and children without any justification”, Rahim said. 

Peshawar based freelance journalist F. M. Shakil in a 4 June article titled ‘China leans on Pakistan to round up its Uighurs’ reported that Uyghur families were fleeing Xinjiang to avoid official persecution and were taking refuge in Pakistan. He quoted Pakistan Interior Ministry sources as saying that over 2,000 Uyghur families had recently illegally entered Pakistan, most due to Chinese State repression. Revealing that Pakistan had come under “immense pressure” from Beijing because of these refugees, a senior immigration official told Shakil that Pakistani security agencies and police had begun to pursue the new Uyghur refugees in response to this pressure to identify and deport them. He added, “The authorities have begun collecting biometric data on all Uyghurs living in Pakistan to know exactly how many Uyghurs have migrated from China”. Among the aspects being probed are the “religious affiliation and family history” of Uyghur households so that new arrivals from Xinjiang could be identified. Meanwhile, Uyghurs in Pakistan claim that Uyghur schools, community centers and religious seminaries are being shut down by Pakistani authorities due to Chinese pressure.

The biggest fear that recent Uyghur refugees in Pakistan have is of being deported to China. Rahim, the silk dealer, explained why when he said, “Pakistani authorities have deported hundreds of our community members to China where we learned many were executed by the Chinese army and many incarcerated back in the concentration camps for indoctrination. We are trying to trace them but the police are not cooperating with us. We suspect that the law enforcers picked them and handed them over to the Chinese authorities”. Amnesty International had claimed that the Chinese authorities had executed most of the 35 Uyghurs that Pakistan had earlier deported between 1997 and 2016. A Human Rights Watch report released in April had revealed that China had tracked down hundreds of Uyghurs across the globe, forcing them to return and face persecution. In many cases it was “impossible to find out what has happened” to them, the report said.

Brent Huffman, a documentary filmmaker and professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, who has directed and produced a documentary titled ‘Uyghurs Who Fled China Now Face Repression in Pakistan’, wrote on 21 May that the situation in Pakistan for the Uyghurs has deteriorated rapidly. He confirmed that the Pakistani government, under pressure from China, is now deporting Uyghurs back to China, where they face an uncertain future. Huffman asserted that Pakistani authorities were under huge pressure from China owing to the CPEC, adding that “the promise of Chinese money seemingly overpowers the desires to stop what is happening to Uyghur Muslims”. He quoted one of the Uyghurs in Pakistan whom he had interviewed as saying, “The Pakistani government will do anything China orders them to do. Uyghurs are suffering so much because of CPEC”.

Belief that the CPEC has contributed greatly to the plight of the Uyghurs in Pakistan is shared by others as well. Shakil believes that the tide turned more decisively against the Uyghurs since 2015, when Pakistan inked the $60 billion CPEC deal with China. Thereafter, Beijing started exerting concerted pressure on Pakistan and influencing Islamabad’s decisions in almost all spheres, including on the Uyghurs. The threat of potential suspension of lucrative investment projects caused the Pakistani government to buckle at each escalating dose of pressure that came its way, and it has now reached the stage where Pakistan cannot even host 2,000 suffering fellow Muslims, with whom it has no quarrel whatsoever, just because China does not want it to. In the tug of war between the justified rights and the dignity of fellow Muslims on one hand and the power and economic largess from China on the other, Pakistan has chosen to put its full weight behind Chinese money. Pakistan has, in the process, confirmed the long-held fear that it would sooner rather than later be compelled to totally sell out to China.

Shakil drew attention to the reality that Pakistan’s debt problems had escalated as liabilities due on China-funded energy projects established under the CPEC had surpassed $31 billion. Beijing, meanwhile, has declined to restructure $3 billion in liabilities that will soon become due, and which Pakistan is in no position to pay. He further wrote, “The debt load, owed largely for the building of independent power producers (IPPs) on take-or-pay power generation contracts, is substantially more than the $19 billion in total invested in the plants, according to reports and industry analysts. Pakistan is obliged to pay $5.9 billion to the power companies for take-or-pay capacity payments alone over the next four years by 2025. Those will entail more pay than take at current power usage rates. The money is owed despite the fact many of the plants are not actually producing power due to overcapacity and the failure of Pakistani power authorities to develop the national grid and related delivery systems to fully meet grassroots demand”.

Saim Saeed in an article in Politico titled ‘Pakistan learns the cost of an alliance with China’ summed it up well when he wrote, “Protests, massive debt, dwindling cash reserves. Those are the consequences of Pakistan’s increasing reliance on China — but the country has still decided it’s all worth it”.

There is a peculiar shamelessness both to Pakistan’s prostration before China and to its treachery towards the Uyghurs. Islamabad is not coy about either. It has no hesitation in giving China the clean chit in Xinjiang, which in turn translates into an unconditional rejection of the reality of a genocide being inflicted by China upon the Uyghurs, so what if they are Muslim. Washing his hands off the plight of the Uyghurs completely, Imran Khan had responded when asked about it in 2019 in the US that he knew nothing about the Uyghur issue. More recently, The Diplomat in an article by Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and M. Habib Pashya on 5 May revealed that Pakistan’s Ambassador to China, Moin ul Haque, had said in an interview with a State-owned Chinese channel that he had not seen the slightest evidence of violence perpetrated by the Chinese government during his recent visit to Xinjiang. Haque emphasized instead that Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang have experienced rapid economic advancement and are allowed to go to school and worship freely. Sinking deeper into his assumed role as a virtual spokesman for the Chinese government, Haque added, “there is no conspiracy, there is facts here, the fact is China is rising and developing everywhere including Xinjiang, some people are not happy about that and they would like to stop China by any means”. Such sycophancy fitted in well with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s recent obtuse statement pertaining to Xinxiang. Qureshi had stressed “Pakistan’s support for the ongoing negotiations of Code of Conduct and underlined that the concerned parties may find a solution through consensus”.

After Pakistan has literally signed the death warrants of the hundreds of Uyghurs that it has deported to China, and after it has publicly told the world, including the Islamic world, that it gives two hoots for the genocide that China is carrying out against the Uyghurs, it will be a travesty if Pakistan is allowed to associate itself in any way with the larger Islamic cause. Pakistan’s duplicity must be called out, or else even genuine aspects of this cause stand the risk of becoming diluted. Pakistan’s remaining few partners in the international domain beyond China would also do well to reassess their relationship and their trust with an irresponsible and unprincipled entity that doesn’t blink twice before condemning the very people that it claims to protect to brutal deaths.

If courts of law across the world try and punish accomplices of the primary criminal even for small roles that they may have played in the crime that has been committed, shouldn’t Pakistan also stand trial for its abetment of human rights abuses and the genocide against the Uyghurs by China?