A week after an investigative story into his alleged corruption was published on an alternative media website, Lieutenant General (retired) Asim Saleem Bajwa on Thursday decided to step down from his position as the special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcast. However, Bajwa said he will continue in his more lucrative role as the chairman of the China Pakistan Economic Authority (CPEC) Authority.
This selective resignation by Bajwa, who issued a press release on Thursday categorically denying allegations of financial misappropriation as a senior military officer over the past two decades, not only weakens his own rebuttal, it adds more credence to calls for a change in leadership of the CPEC Authority. But even that half-baked decision to step down has been unraveled by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s “refusal” to accept the resignation.
With millions of dollars’ worth of financial misappropriation already uncovered in the economic corridor that is still under construction, it makes little sense for CPEC to be spearheaded by an individual accused of such large-scale corruption. But common sense usually takes a backseat whenever questions centering around the army are posed in Pakistan.
It is no coincidence that the mainstream media that headlined Bajwa’s rebuttals on Thursday never ran the story that was being refuted. And even while appearing on such a shackled media, Bajwa was found wanting when asked about the prospect of producing evidence to back his defense. He even briefly left an interview in a segment that has since been cut on the official channel.
Even so, such has been the military’s hegemony that a retired general offering explanations to refute corruption allegations — albeit without evidence to back his claims — is being peddled as “historic.” The failure to hold the army accountable explains how half of the Pakistan’s history has been spent under military rule and the other half under army-backed civilians. And while one of the many ways those civilians are kept under check is through exposés on their financial misappropriation, the military’s own business empire is now worth over $100 billion — almost double the size of the $62 billion CPEC, which is China’s biggest ever overseas investment.
The visions of the Chinese leadership and Pakistan Army align seamlessly. They both seek to appropriate Pakistan’s resources to grow their own neoliberal empires. CPEC itself links Xinjiang and Balochistan, the hubs of multipronged abuses carried out by China and Pakistan, respectively.
Both government also seek to maintain totalitarian controls so that no dissenting questions are posed to either of the two leaderships. And now with the economic corridor merging the duo’s autocratic ambitions, it is increasingly evident that, similar to Islam and the army, CPEC has swiftly become a holy cow that can’t be questioned in Pakistan.
After coming to power in August 2018, the Khan-led Pakistan Teheek-e-Insaf (PTI) government sought to revisit CPEC projects, with many deals underlining exorbitant costs for Pakistan. Two months later, during a visit to Beijing, Khan and his team were left embarrassed when Chinese officials showed slides of questions raised over CPEC by the incumbent government. The message was clear: Don’t ever dare to debate the pros and cons of CPEC again.
Unsatisfied with a civilian stooge government stalling the projects, Beijing decided to push for a thorough military takeover of CPEC. In November 2019, the CPEC Authority was formed with Lt. Gen. (retd) Asim Bajwa its head. In July, a CPEC Authority Bill 2020 was proposed, practically handing over the corridor to the army.
Bajwa was made the prime minister’s adviser to further increase the military’s control over information, especially centering around CPEC. He had previously performed this role as the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) — the military’s de facto control room for Pakistan media.
Since CPEC’s launch in 2015, the military has eyed its share in the economic bounties, which have historically made it richer at the expense of the masses. The first phase of development saw the military eliminating the inbound jihadist groups — which had hitherto remained untouched despite terrorizing the country for a decade and a half, and killing over 80,000 Pakistanis — because they now posed a threat to CPEC. After the previous government’s refusal to completely comply with the military’s continued takeover of issues centering around security and diplomacy, just as CPEC was taking center stage, the PTI’s election triumph was engineered.
Today, Pakistan’s elevation of CPEC to hallowed proportions is line with its complete abandonment of the United States’ side of the new cold war divide, with Washington having issued repeated calls for Islamabad to add transparency to what it dubbed a “debt trap.” Pakistan is now confident that China will fulfill all of its economic needs — to a point that it can now afford to snub Saudi Arabia.
This absolute submission to Beijing is coupled with any questions about China — including its Uyghur concentration camps — being deemed an “attack on CPEC.” Similarly, calls for Bajwa to step down are deemed synonymous with “conspiracies to destabilize CPEC.” Even Bajwa’s rebutting tweet — phrased with uncanny resemblance to the military-linked Twitter bots that target dissenting voices — appeared to deem the exposé another conspiracy.
Imran Khan, the entirety of whose political narrative has centered around an anti-corruption drive against the powerful, is happy to play the democratic front of this corrupt, totalitarian takeover epitomized by the CPEC. And while much of the financial gains are to be enjoyed by the two hegemons, any trickled down benefits for the masses — such as the improving security situation — will come at the price of further surrendering of their liberties, and gory misappropriation of what is rightfully theirs.