Increasing attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan raises concerns

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Police are investigating the targeted killing of a Chinese Pakistani dentist who was shot dead in Pakistan’s largest commercial hub, Karachi, on September 28.

A lone shooter pretending to be a dental patient opened fire on Chinese Pakistani dual nationals, killing one and injuring two other people at a clinic in the southern port city of Karachi. The suspect escaped from the scene. Those killed and injured were identified as Ronald Chow, Richard Hu, 74, and his wife Margaret, 72.

Police say the victims were a soft target and have lived in Pakistan for many years. Detectives are investigating whether the injured and killed hold Chinese nationality or not, as China doesn’t allow dual citizenship.

A new Sindhi ethno-nationalist militant group, the Sindhudesh People’s Army, from Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, said they were behind the attack in a statement claiming responsibility. Not much is known about the group.

However, Karachi-based journalist and researcher Zia Ur Rehman believes it could be a new breakaway group with links to separatist ethno-nationalists who have been behind such attacks on Chinese nationals in Karachi, Sindh province’s capital, in the past.

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Ethnic Baloch separatists and Sindh separatists alike have recently launched a series of targeted attacks on Chinese citizens in Karachi and restive southwestern Balochistan province. Separatist nationalists say China is involved in large-scale resource extraction and exploitation in Sindh and Balochistan.

In its statement, the largely unknown Sindhudesh People’s Army also expressed similar reservations.

“We warn China to stop its exploitative projects on our homeland and leave immediately,” the militant group said in a statement released to the media.

Interior Minister Rana Sana Ullah Khan condemned the Wednesday shooting. “Such incidents aren’t tolerable,” he wrote on Twitter. “The security of Chinese nationals should be ensured in every way.”

Sporadic Attacks on Chinese Nationals Creating Distrust and Fear

Despite strict security measures by the Pakistani authorities to guard Chinese citizens working on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an estimated $62 billion bundle of infrastructure projects launched in 2015, militant groups have continued to spread chaos and panic among Chinese nationals and authorities, mainly by pursuing soft targets.

“Karachi is one of the largest trading hubs of Pakistan in terms of trade, investment, and economic activities. It also has its geostrategic importance. This is why the Chinese are an easy target in this crowded city,” said Rehman.

“Apart from the Karachi Consulate attack in November 2018 and the April suicide bombing on Confucius Institute [workers], in the past, there had been low-scale targeted attacks on Chinese nationals, too. Militants with such low-scale attacks have been receiving widespread media attention globally,” he added.

Rehman also believes this rise in such soft targets indicates this is a new strategy militants have recently adopted. He says militants chose soft targets like ordinary Chinese citizens because targeting high-profile figures isn’t easy after the city’s security improved. Yet such attacks still create media hype.

Recently Pakistani law enforcement agencies have largely been successful in averting high-profile attacks on the Chinese. Still, small-scale sporadic but soft targets have been a cause of tension and distrust for the Chinese.

“Pakistan had done a very good job protecting Chinese nationals from the late 2000s until relatively recently. A series of special measures that had been put in place back then, and reinforced when CPEC was launched, meant that for a long time Chinese officials and Chinese workers on economic projects had been kept largely safe,” Andrew Small, an expert on China and a transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund Asia program, told The Diplomat.

But recently, that security seems to have become less effective. “China had already grown concerned about the near misses at the consulate in Karachi and the attack in Quetta. Still, the Dasu attack last July in which 9 Chinese were killed really crossed a threshold – a major loss of life on a protected project – and the Confucius Institute attack reinforced that, even if it was different groups involved in the different cases,” Small said.

“The concern on China’s part is that the protection measures no longer seem to be working as well, they don’t entirely understand why, and they have been asking questions about, for instance, having more of their own security personnel in the country.”

Earlier this month, reports in the Pakistani press indicated that Chinese economic engagement with Pakistan has decreased, and the work on CPEC dramatically slowed down, particularly during former Prime Minister Imran Khan. A Western diplomat said the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan remained out of the country for around five months between February and early July, possibly due to mistrust and political reasons.

In addition, recently, China has been eager to bring its own private security companies to guard its nationals working on CPEC-led projects in Pakistan.

Adnan Aamir, an independent analyst and researcher from Balochistan covering the Belt and Road in Pakistan, agrees that such small-scale infrequent attacks have created distrust between China and Pakistan.

“Especially after the Confucius Institute attack in April this year, Chinese came up with a proposal to bring its security to guard Chinese citizens. Pakistan politely turned that proposal down,” Aamir said. “Still, the issue remains unsettled.”

Aamir also told The Diplomat that the Chinese have recently made their investment conditional in Pakistan: “Some sources have informed me all new Chinese investment remained defined by Pakistan agreeing to Chinese proposal of allowing Chinese security firms here or not.”

China’s Talks With Ethnic Baloch Nationalists

In another sign of mistrust between the two nations, China has recently attempted to talk directly with ethnic Baloch parliamentarians to address their concerns, bypassing Pakistani authorities.

In August, the Chinese envoy to Pakistan, Nong Rong, held a series of one-to-one meetings in Islamabad with politicians from Balochistan to discuss Baloch nationalists’ grievances with China. Nong also arranged a joint dinner for several politicians from Balochistan that same month.

“What I observed from my conversation with Mr. Nong, I felt Beijing has realized the scale and sensitivity of the conflict in Balochistan,” said a Baloch politician who met the Chinese ambassador in August in Islamabad upon his invitation.

“The ambassador has a feeling that Pakistan alone cannot resolve the Balochistan conflict. That is why [China] is interested in direct talks with stakeholders from Balochistan for stability so that the CPEC goes on without any opposition from Baloch nationalists,” said the Baloch politician.

Chinese working on CPEC projects in the port city of Gwadar in Balochistan province also raised donations for the flood victims of Balochistan as a sign of sympathy and generosity.

On September 30, the Chinese ambassador announced more scholarships for the students of Balochistan while meeting a politician from the province.

Balochistan, where CPEC’s gateway Gwadar port is located, has been gripped by violence and lawlessness since early 2000. However, Baloch ethno-nationalist militants have recently stepped up their presence by launching suicide bombings and lethal ambushes on Pakistani law enforcement agencies and Chinese installations inside and outside the Balochistan region. Mounting insecurity and sporadic attacks by Baloch insurgents have created deep worries for Beijing.

“All of this has created some tension. The most recent attack appears to be on another soft target, of the kind that is somewhat familiar to the Chinese in Karachi but will still add to the sense of threat. In the past, China has threatened to pull personnel from projects, and there are indications that in Gwadar, for instance, there has been a paring back of Chinese presence as a result of the worsening threats,” said Small.

In 2018 Financial Times reported that Beijing was attempting to hold talks secretly with Baloch separatists living in exile in the West to end the two-decades-old insurgency in Balochistan. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty confirmed Financial Times’s report but said that China hadn’t achieved any real gains from the outreach.

But Baloch rights activists claim Beijing has taken a less gentle approach.

Abdullah Abbas, information secretary of the independent Human Rights Council of Balochistan, said that following an attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by Baloch separatist insurgents in 2018, the United Arab Emirates deported Rashid Hussain, a Baloch activist, to Pakistan after holding him incommunicado for seven months. Abbas believes it was due to Chinese pressure. In February this year, Abdullah said another cousin of Hussain was arrested by Emirati intelligence and forcefully deported to Pakistan under the same circumstances.

“We have substantial evidence Beijing continuously pushes the Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, to hand over to Pakistan Baloch activists it considers are opposing Chinese investment,” Abbas said.

Kiyya Baloch, a freelance journalist, reports on the Baloch separatist insurgency, politics, militancy, and violence in Balochistan. He tweets at @KiyyaBaloch.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor