The creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), under which China plans to invest around $62 billion dollars in Pakistan, represents a “qualitative shift” in Sino-Pakistan relations, already touted officially as being “higher than the Himalayas…and sweeter than honey.” Alongside Chinese investments, the two countries have also seen an increase in the movement of people between them. These include Chinese workers linked to CPEC projects moving to Pakistan as well as students and entrepreneurs from Pakistan moving to China. It is this side of Sino-Pakistan relations, which involves citizens from both countries, that has come under great stress in recent days.
The global crisis created by the emergence of the novel Coronavirus 2019-nCoV in Wuhan city, capital of the central province of Hubei, China, has affected citizens from both countries along with the rest of the world. According to the latest data, in China so far 17,491 cases have been confirmed and 361 deaths reported (these figures are constantly changing).
Adding to worries over the outbreak, Wuhan, which has an approximate population of 11 million, hosts international students from various countries, including Pakistan. In Hubei province, where the virus originated, 21,371 international students have been registered.
China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) in 2018 reported a total of 492,185 international students in China from 196 countries who were pursuing studies in 1,004 higher education institutions. Out of these, 28,023 students were from Pakistan, the third-highest total of any country.
As the number of confirmed cases and death toll grew, the central government in China decided to take drastic steps to control the disease’s spread and put Wuhan under quarantine. What started out as restrictions on the movements of 11 million people soon progressed to the quarantine of at least 50 million to prevent the spread of the virus.
In light of the emerging situation, the United States arranged for its citizens to be flown out of Wuhan despite China’s efforts to contain the spread of the disease through quarantine. The United States was soon followed by other countries such as Japan, the United Kingdom, India, Bangladesh, and others.
In the midst of these developments, the Foreign Office (FO) of Pakistan announced that 500 students from Pakistan were stuck in Wuhan. Subsequently, four of those students became infected with the coronavirus. In light of the situation, the Pakistani government formed a “Technical Committee” to monitor developments and on January 30 decided not to follow other countries in evacuating their citizens from Wuhan. Their decision was claimed to be in solidarity with China for the greater good of people in Pakistan and the world at large, so as to control the spread of the disease. Pakistan’s government hence demonstrated their full trust in measures taken by China in handling the coronavirus and “stands firmly with Chinese brothers,” entrusting Beijing with the welfare of Pakistani citizens inside China.
The FO estimates of 500 Pakistani students in Wuhan has already been disputed by some of those living inside China, who believe 2,000 is a better estimate. Already in a state of great concern, these students and their families viewed the Pakistan FO account in a state of panic. If their government didn’t even know how many Pakistani citizens were actually studying in the area, then what hope was there they would be provided any help in the future?
Some Pakistani students used their accounts on social media, such as Twitter, to raise awareness about themselves and their situation. As a result, private media channels in Pakistan were alerted and began to share news items related to the students on their digital platforms. Soon news of the plight of these students spread inside Pakistan, with opposition parties raising calls for their repatriation in Parliament.
This series of events related to the coronavirus, which unfolded over the course of just a few days, has exposed the soft underbelly of Sino-Pakistan relations: its people-to-people connections. There are no clear figures as to how many Chinese citizens are currently in Pakistan. A recent report pointed to a figure of 4,000, with some gone back to China for the Lunar New Year. Some of the Chinese citizens still in Pakistan have reportedly visited hospitals with suspected cases and been given the all clear.
The position of the Pakistani government, as of this writing, was still that they were not going to remove any of their citizens from China, entrusting their care instead to the Chinese government. How long they will be able to hold this position is difficult to guess. What is certain is that this is a delicate time in Sino-Pakistan relations in that it involves the welfare of each other’s citizens. If not handled with care, it could potentially rupture the already fragile relations among people in both countries.
Dr. Eram Ashraf holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from Swansea University, UK with research interests in critical security studies, social identity, and China.