Pakistan: A soft prey to Chinese cultural diplomacy


The Chinese influence in Pakistan has been pervasive ever since the early 1950s, characterising the ‘all weather’ friendship between these two countries. Historically, relations between the two nations have been largely based on their common enmity with India resulting in increased security and defence cooperation (Hassan, 2017). The 1960s saw a shift from the tactical to the strategic dimension with both the countries harmoniously defining their border and exchanging military hardware. In the following decade of the 1970s, Pakistan was instrumental in recognising the Sino-US rapprochement. This trajectory of bilateral relations between the ‘forced neighbours’ only consolidated in the years to come. In the post-9/11 era, Beijing and Islamabad officially ensured the continuance of strategic cooperation in fighting radicalism and terrorism in the region and building peace in Afghanistan. Further, the Presidential level interaction in 2006 and 2008 resulted in the formulation of what in 2015 was termed as the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor () that was placed under China’s broader economic vision of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

With CPEC-BRI, China now has a legitimate pretext to intrude into Pakistan for the sake of ‘reconstructing’ the country- slowly and quietly. Through this stratagem of providing better and state of the art infrastructure, China has penetrated many countries of the world, including those in Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Pakistan is no exception to this policy and remains the showpiece in the Indian Subcontinent. CPEC is thus considered to be a ‘game changer’ for Pakistan’s economy and political future. It is also coined by many as the ‘Chinese Revolution in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’.

Initially in terms of asserting its own soft-power strategy, China attempted to influence those within its ‘own constituent units’, such as Tibet or Xinjiang. Interestingly, the Chinese soft power rests on establishing a ‘harmonious society’ at home and a ‘harmonious world’ globally. However, in complete contrast to this principle, the indigenous culture, religion, ethos and traditions of the people in many of these areas that China claims to be its own, have been vehemently subjugated by the Han (Ethnic majority in China) way of life. Imposition of Mandarin language, anti-religious policies, demographic changes brought about by the Han Chinese people are few of the apparent instances with regard to ‘mainstreaming’ the Uyghurs and the Tibetans who reside in these regions. Soft power was also specifically identified as a national policy in a political report to the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The report urged China “to enhance culture as part of its soft power to better guarantee the people’s basic cultural rights and interests”.

Beyond its own borders, China is now trying to penetrate into Pakistan through the introduction of Mandarin. This phenomenon though currently in a nascent stage will definitely have a dominating impact in the future, creating strong imprints on impressionable minds. Mandarin is the ‘new English’ for young Pakistanis who desperately in need of education and jobs. Also, the use of media is proving to be a means for Pakistanis to acclimatise themselves with the presence of Chinese in their own country. Although, people in Balochistan have a negative approach towards CPEC and China, the Chinese presence in media is working as a huge normalising agent. Unfortunately, the social impact of engaging with the Chinese is having its own undesirable results in the form of forced marriages or abduction of local Pakistani girls by the Chinese mafia. These facets are discussed in detail in the following segments.

Mushrooming of Mandarin Schools
As Pakistanis consider Mandarin to be the language of the 21st century and with emergence of Chinese scholarships and jobs, schools are increasingly incorporating compulsory Mandarin classes for Pakistani children and also private Chinese (Mandarin) language learning centres are cropping up all across the country. This works well for China as its rising economic influence has provided an opportunity to exercise its soft power through the dissemination of Chinese language and culture.

The Pakistan Government on its part has also patronised the language to a large extent and is slowly introducing Mandarin in public schools, colleges and universities, including the University of Punjab. For example, the Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority (TEVTA) have allotted slots in 47 institutes in 23 districts of Punjab for the said purpose, according to a report published in a leading Pakistan English daily, Dawn, in 2018 titled “Reasons to learn Chinese language”

China is also boosting its Mandarin teaching capabilities through state-backed language and culture organisations called the Confucius Institutes – Pakistan is home to four such Institutes with two more Confucius resource centers set to open soon. Their intended purpose is to spread and promote Chinese arts, language & ways of being while creating a media narrative in their favour in a bid to engage everyday Pakistanis.

Many Universities including the National University of Modern Languages, the Government College University and the University of Central Punjab are today offering Mandarin courses. TEVTA reportedly received 11,000 applications for Chinese language course in 2018. Worryingly, many consider this growth of Mandarin as a subject of ‘cultural colonisation’ of Pakistan by China.

“It is true that learning languages broadens our worldview. But China is also extending its cultural dominance through economic projects,” Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur, a cultural analyst is known told German media house Deutsche Welle. “It will have an impact on Pakistan’s already diminishing languages. The economic activity will spread Chinese culture to our society. This will harm indigenous cultures,” Talpur added.

Chinese influence in Visual Media
In another move to push the soft power policy, China has sent the Pakistani state-owned PTV and other commercial television channels a series of documentaries, dramas and other television programmes for free. Experts state that China has been ramping up attempts to win the hearts and minds of Pakistanis (like many other citizens of the BRI countries) through language, traditional media and social media campaigns, echoing the cultural firepower previously wielded by Western nations. Earlier in 2019, PTV World aired its first Chinese cartoon series, titled ‘Three Drops of Blood.’ Not just in the realm of television but in the world of films too, China has been insisting on enhanced collaboration with the Pakistanis. On November 13, 2020, Parwaaz Hai Junoon became the first Pakistani movie to be commercially released in the Chinese mainland in over three decades. Before this movie, the 2017 romance film Chalay Thay Saath became the first Pakistani film to be screened in Hong Kong, but it never made it to the mainland. The film features Chinese Canadian actor Kent S. Leung as a Chinese traveler who falls in love with a Pakistani girl.


Pakistani Brides
According to various media sources, Chinese mafias are operating to get Pakistani brides married off to Chinese grooms. The cities and towns in which mafias are active are: Lahore, Islamabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Sheikhupura and Sahiwal. Girls belonging to impoverished and lower middle-class backgrounds are generally targeted by the mafia. There are also incidents of putting up matrimonial banners in small towns of Pakistan seeking brides for Chinese men. Local people in villages also work as agents, (both men and women) of these mafias to get hold of Pakistani girls. In a way these girls, mostly Christians are lured into marrying Chinese men for a better financial prospect for themselves and their impoverished families. But in reality in most of these cases, the situation is dreadful, as after reaching China, many of these women are allegedly subject to trafficking and forced into prostitution. Saleem Iqbal, a Christian human rights activist who has been tracking such marriages, said he believed at least 700 women, mostly Christian, had wed Chinese men in just over a year. What happens to many of these women is unknown but Human Rights Watch says they are “at risk of sexual slavery”, BBC reported in 2019.

Thus China’s efforts to exercise soft power in Pakistan is actually a medium to complement the CPEC, increase its acceptance while permeating the Chinese way of life into the everyday existence of Pakistan’s common citizens. This process is slow & tacit meant to have a deliberate, lasting and undeniable influence. Various forms of cultural engagements actually act as favourable means for percolating the Chinese influence within Pakistani society. These endeavours harp on human connections which make them seem natural, building bonds of affinity and cooperation but in reality are parts of a larger, well planned design to enhance the Chinese mandate and power in the region, demolishing local cultures and Islamic ways of being. In this game of thrones in the world at the moment, it is time the Pakistanis realise they need to toss the dice for themselves and not just be tossed around to China’s advantage.



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