A Pakistani mother of two shockingly blew herself up outside the gate of Karachi University’s Chinese language and culture institute in April incinerating a minibus and killing three Chinese teachers and a Pakistani driver, just one example of a growing number targeting Chinese nationals working abroad in Asia and Africa— and a sign of Beijing's deepening challenges as it pours money into the developing world with the aim of extending its influence.
China is the largest lender to the developing world, mainly through Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road infrastructure program. The country has worked to portray itself as a benevolent partner to the countries where it is spending money, in an attempt to draw a distinction with Western powers.
Still, as its global reach expands, China is increasingly grappling with the consequences of projecting power around the world, including corruption, local resentment, political instability and violence. For developing countries, China offers perhaps the best chance of quickly building major infrastructure.
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China has faced Western criticism that it is pursuing lopsided lending arrangements that drive developing nations into heavy debt without necessarily delivering the desired local economic benefits. But Beijing also has confronted significant risks, from defaults to political unrest that endangers Chinese assets and workers in borrowing countries.
“The Chinese have to come to terms with the fact that these are unstable countries with fragile internal politics,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank. “If you are going to operate here, you are going to encounter these problems.”
Beijing accepts a degree of security risk in pursuing its Belt and Road program and is committed to working with partner governments, such as in Pakistan, to mitigate threats to Chinese personnel and assets, Chinese experts say.
“We couldn’t possibly wait until all terror attacks cease before starting new projects,” said Qian Feng, a senior fellow at Tsinghua University’s National Strategy Institute. “We have to keep working, studying the issues, and undertake preventative measures at the same time.”
Chinese businesses and workers in several countries where it is making investments have become favoured targets. Chinese nationals are seen as wealthier than most locals and, in some cases, are perceived to be reaping too much of the economic benefits and job opportunities created by Beijing’s investments.
Gunmen in Nigeria abducted four Chinese workers in June during an attack at a mine in the country’s northwest. In October, unidentified “thugs” attacked a Chinese-funded business in Nigeria and killed a Chinese employee there, according to the Chinese consulate in Lagos.
The consulate urged Chinese companies to hire private security and fortify their work areas.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Chinese investors dominate the mining industry, Chinese business groups and workers have sounded alarms about armed robberies and kidnappings in recent months. Beijing has urged local authorities to step up security for Chinese assets and personnel.
There were about 440,000 Chinese people working abroad for Chinese contractors in Asia and roughly 93,500 in Africa at the end of last year, according to the China International Contractors Association, a Beijing-based industry group.
The Oxus Society, a Washington-based think tank, counted about 160 incidents of civil unrest in Central Asia between 2018 and mid-2021 where China was the key issue.
Beijing recognises the rising threat to its workers in developing countries but doesn’t want to send in its army as it professes noninterference abroad, said Alessandro Arduino, author of “China’s Private Army: Protecting the New Silk Road.” Instead, China is deploying technology such as facial recognition and hiring more private Chinese security contractors, he said.
China chose Pakistan—one of its closest allies, with deep military ties and a common rival in India—as a showcase of its investment in developing nations. Beijing has spent about $25 billion here on roads, power plants and a port.
This month, Pakistan’s prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, made his first trip to Beijing since taking office in April. Both leaders committed to their countries’ partnership.
“China views its relations with Pakistan from a strategic and long-term perspective, and Pakistan has always been a high priority in China’s neighborhood diplomacy,” Mr. Xi said, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Xi also expressed concern about the safety of Chinese nationals in the country. Islamabad told Beijing it could import armored vehicles for protection and that Pakistan would increase its security at some Chinese projects, Pakistani officials said.
After the April attack at the gate of Karachi University, Beijing sought to bring Chinese private security contractors into Pakistan. Islamabad, which provides 30,000 Pakistani soldiers to guard the Chinese, denied the request, according to Pakistani officials.
The suicide bomber targeted a minibus of teachers returning from lunch to the university’s Confucius Institute, part of Beijing’s global network of schools teaching Chinese language and culture.
One of the teachers killed, Huang Guiping, helped establish the program about a decade ago and just a month earlier had returned for a second stint as director of its language institute.
“Karachi is my second hometown,” Mr. Huang said at the time, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.
A Chinese teacher who survived but was badly injured, Wang Yuqing, was flown to China to recover. Another 11 teachers in Karachi, who taught at different colleges in Pakistan’s largest city and weren’t in the minibus attacked, returned to China.
“The motherland has brought us back,” said a teacher who flew home in May with the ashes of their deceased colleagues, state-run Xinhua reported.
The Baloch Liberation Army, the deadliest separatist group in Pakistan’s westernmost province of Balochistan, claimed responsibility for the attack.
In September, a gunman raided a dental practice in Karachi run by an ethnic Chinese couple who had grown up in Pakistan. The assailant shot and injured the dentist and his wife, both in their 70s, and killed their ethnic Chinese cashier. The attack was claimed by a militant group.
Pakistan is in the throes of a political clash between the current government and its recently ousted prime minister, Imran Khan.
The country is facing inflation running at 25%, plus devastating floods, and it recently secured a bailout from the International Monetary Fund as its foreign exchange reserves dwindle to dangerously low levels.
China’s investments in Pakistan were supposed to lay the foundation for an economic takeoff, according to both countries.
Prime Minister Mr. Sharif pledged to resume China’s Belt and Road program, after it stalled under his predecessor. Mr. Khan’s ministers questioned the value-for-money of power projects and whether bribes had been paid for some of the road-building—accusations angrily denied by Beijing.
Pakistan’s province of Balochistan is home to the port of Gwadar, a focus of Beijing’s infrastructure program in the country. There are plans to add an airport.
Only three ships call a week and 28 Chinese nationals, including two chefs, live there, said Zhang Baozhong, chairman of China Overseas Port Holding Company, which runs the port, part of the state-owned China Communications Construction Co. Ltd.
Locals, who don’t have sufficient electricity and drinking water, say they haven’t benefited from the port.
Hidayat ur Rehman Baloch, a religious cleric whose party swept local elections this year, led a yearslong and ultimately successful push to convince authorities to drop a plan to expel residents and bulldoze part of the town for a port expansion.
“What does development mean?” he asked, adding that he holds the Pakistani government responsible for what he sees as the lack of local benefits from China’s investments. “We have no electricity, no healthcare available. We are thirsty.”
Islamabad is hoping to entice the Chinese private sector to follow in the footsteps of state-owned firms and set up factories in the country. After the April bombing in Karachi, many Chinese entrepreneurs interested in bringing industry to Gwadar canceled their plans, said Mr. Zhang.
“The effect is very negative,” the port chief said in an interview at the new U-shaped office complex he built at the port, complete with marble floors and domes. “We still believe that Pakistan is a safe place for Chinese investors, provided you follow guidelines.”
Raffaello Pantucci, co-author of the book “Sinostan,” about China’s influence over its Muslim-majority neighboring nations, said Belt and Road was designed to help countries develop economically and lead to greater stability.
“The truth is, this doesn’t always resolve peoples’ anger,” Mr. Pantucci said. “Pakistan is a toxic brew for China where they have become enemy No. 1 for an array of militant groups on the ground due to their proximity to the Pakistani state.”
The Baloch Liberation Army are secular insurgents who say the province’s natural resources are being exploited by the rest of the country and often target the Pakistani military. Jihadists from the Pakistani Taliban also have attacked Chinese nationals.
Many insurgents in Pakistan see Beijing as working arm-in-arm with the government they are fighting. “President Xi, you still have time to quit,” a Baloch Liberation Army video released after the Karachi University attack warned.
Last year, in northern Pakistan, militants rammed an explosive-laden car into a bus carrying Chinese construction workers being taken to the site of a dam they were building. The bus was blown off a mountainside, killing nine Chinese and four Pakistanis.
This month, authorities said two men belonging to the Pakistani Taliban, a group close to al Qaeda, were sentenced to death for their role. The group hasn’t claimed the attack.
The Pakistani Taliban also tried in 2021 to assassinate the Chinese ambassador, whose car was about two minutes away from arriving at a hotel that was bombed, Pakistani security officials say.
In Karachi, the Baloch militants have attacked the Chinese consulate and the stock exchange, in which Chinese investors have a controlling interest.
“Chinese confidence in our system has been shaken up,” said Mushahid Hussain, a lawmaker with close ties to Beijing, and chairman of the Senate Defense Committee. He said Pakistan has deployed enough security personnel, but needs better intelligence to prevent attacks on the Chinese.
Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s planning minister, said that China’s projects in the country were “not dependent on one or two odd security incidents.”
“It reflects a broader understanding between the two countries to forge a long-term economic partnership,” Mr. Iqbal said.
Shari Hayat, also known as Shari Baloch, was a 31-year-old with a master’s degree in zoology. Moments before she blew up the minibus, she recorded a message for her family: “Be strong. This is a hard path but we have to walk it.”
Baloch is a common surname in the province, especially in separatist circles where it is taken to denote closeness to the struggle.
Ms. Hayat’s family said she had no contact or grievance with the Chinese.
“No one expected anything extreme from her,” said her father, Mohammad Hayat, a 74-year-old retired civil servant.
Human-rights groups say thousands of Baloch men have been picked up by security forces as terrorist suspects under Pakistan’s crackdown on the insurgency, with many tortured or executed. Pakistani authorities acknowledge there are missing Baloch, but deny torture and extrajudicial killings.
Ms. Hayat’s husband, a 32-year-old dentist named Habitan Bashir, also known as Habitan Baloch, said his wife told him two years ago that she would carry out a suicide attack. He is being sought by the Pakistani authorities for alleged involvement in the attack.
She was greatly affected by the Pakistani military’s abduction of youth in the region and the anguish of their families, he said. “She took this step to show Pakistan that not only Baloch men but Baloch women are also ready to sacrifice in defense of their motherland.”