Chinese Workers in Pakistan and Blasphemy Allegations - AICIS

China Pakistan CPEC Kashmir

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) represents a significant bilateral initiative aimed at fostering economic cooperation and connectivity between China and Pakistan. The CPEC has witnessed an influx of Chinese workers across the infrastructure, energy, and transportation sectors. These workers from different cultural and religious backgrounds play a vital role in project implementation. However, their relationship with the local Pakistani public has been marked by tensions stemming from factors like militant attacks, security restrictions, and, notably, blasphemy allegations made by the locals. Pakistan, as an Islamic republic, maintains blasphemy laws to ‘safeguard religious sentiments and promote social harmony’. Blasphemy allegations carry substantial social and legal consequences in Pakistan, often resulting in public outrage and demands for strict action, sometimes even leading to calls for capital punishment.

Incidents against Chinese workers

Even prior to the initiation of the CPEC projects, numerous allegations of blasphemy had been levelled against the Chinese. While a comprehensive catalogue of these incidents is not publicly accessible, a few noteworthy occurrences have garnered significant media attention over the years. One of the initial documented instances took place in May 2013 in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK). During this incident, a Chinese manager employed by a Chinese consortium working on the Neelum Jhelum Hydropower Project was accused by his Pakistani colleagues of disrespecting the Quran by discarding it on the ground. The situation escalated into violent protests by the local populace, resulting in damage to the company's premises and necessitating the relocation of the accused to an undisclosed location for safety reasons. Another blasphemy allegation involving a Chinese national emerged in Khanewal, Punjab, in August 2017. In this case, a Chinese worker employed on a CPEC project was accused of desecrating the Quran, triggering outrage among local workers and residents. The accused individual was promptly arrested, and an investigation was launched to ascertain the authenticity of the accusations. It is worth noting that Khanewal, Punjab, was also the site of another killing in February 2022 linked to blasphemy allegations, wherein the victim was attacked by villagers armed with batons, axes and iron rods, and subsequently hanged from a tree. Likewise, in June 2018, a Chinese engineer was accused of tearing pages from the Quran in Sindh province, provoking condemnation and protests. The individual accused of this act was arrested, and legal proceedings were initiated. In October 2019, a Chinese worker in Gwadar faced accusations of defacing a mosque, resulting in public outcry, protests and demands for strict action. Subsequently, the individual was apprehended and taken into custody.

In November 2020, an altercation between Chinese workers and local staff in Havelian, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, escalated into a blasphemy accusation. The disagreement arose from work-related matters, and tensions mounted between Chinese and Pakistani workers. Blasphemy allegations were levelled against the Chinese workers involved. Through investigation and dialogue, authorities were able to defuse tensions and resolve the situation peacefully. However, specific details regarding the resolution and consequences for the Chinese workers remain undisclosed. A similar incident took place in February 2022, when a Chinese engineer in Rawalpindi was accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad during a conversation with a Pakistani colleague. The most recent incident on record happened on 16 April 2023, when a Chinese engineer working on a hydropower project in Kohistan District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was arrested on blasphemy charges. A video later emerged, showing a violent mob of Pakistanis demanding punishment for the Chinese national. Reports suggest that the accused engineer allegedly made remarks about the slow pace of work during the Islamic holy month of Ramzan, which incensed the Pakistani employees. As news of the alleged blasphemy spread, an agitated mob gathered outside the residential camp, chanting death threats and pelting it with stones.

Implications and concerns

Blasphemy allegations, if used or misused, have serious legal and social consequences for the accused. Further, blasphemy allegations against foreign workers not only impact the individuals directly involved but also have broader economic, social and diplomatic implications. Such incidents also have the potential to significantly disrupt China’s confidence in Pakistan, particularly concerning investments and long-term partnerships. These incidents strain Pakistan-China bilateral diplomatic relations, and can even result in retaliatory actions from the Chinese side. The allegations have actually raised security concerns among Chinese workers, forcing at least some of them to stay away from CPEC worksites. According to some reports, this has also deterred foreign investors, companies and nationals from taking up projects in Pakistan. Though none of the Chinese workers have so far lost their lives in mob violence over blasphemy allegations, the case of a Sri Lankan factory manager who was beaten and burned to death by a Pakistani mob in December 2021 is still fresh in public memory.

(The author is a keen follower of international relations and contributes to other leading platforms as well. Views expressed in the article are personal to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of AICIS.)

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