Gwadar protests show the basic exploitative nature of Chinese investments

Massive protests have rocked Gwadar, the ‘jewel piece’ of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Angry locals have demanded basic governance, even as authorities continue to divert resources to construct the port and overlook the locals’ grievances. These protests have again brought to fore the exploitative nature of Chinese investments in Pakistan, which have only benefitted China and the Punjabi elite of Pakistan while impoverishing the locals. No wonder the CPEC is often ridiculed as the China-Punjab Economic Corridor, designed to serve only the interests of Punjab province and ensure its domination over other provinces.    

Since November 15, the port city of Gwadar has witnessed frenzied protests by workers of some political parties, civil rights activists, fishermen, and concerned citizens. They have camped at a prominent square in the city, carrying a 17 point charter of demands. Their main demand is stopping “the humiliation of residents of Gwadar” at checkpoints set up in the name of security; prevention of deep-sea fishing using illegal trawlers from the Makran coast; permission for local people to continue border trade with Iran from Panjgur to Gwadar; supply of water and electricity; and improvement in the public education system.[1] The protestors have also threatened to stop the CPEC work if the government doesn’t accede to their demands.

The protests have been organised under the banner of ‘Gwadar Haq Dou Tehreek’ or ‘Give rights to Gwadar’ movement led by Maulana Hidayat ur Rehman, the provincial general secretary of Jamaat-i-Islami who belongs to the Surbundan area of Gwadar. Rehman has strongly criticised the government earlier for failing to resolve the fundamental problems of the people of Gwadar.[2]

Rehman’s ‘Gwadar Haq Dou Tehreek’ movement is a culmination of protests over the last couple of months in and around Gwadar. In mid-August, a massive shutdown was called in Gwadar to protest against the lack of electricity supply. It was followed by a huge sit-in demonstration on a coastal highway to protest the lack of water supply in September. A few weeks later, thousands of residents of Gwadar and Turbat gathered in early October to demonstrate against the non-availability of drinking water, health and education facilities, and rising unemployment in the Makran division.

As expected, Pakistani authorities have not yielded to the protestors’ demands, leave alone acknowledging their grievances. But even more astonishing is the fact that just as the protests gained momentum, the government included Rehman’s name in the 4th Schedule, the watch list for those suspected of terrorism.[3] Such blatant misuse of anti-terrorism provisions to label a genuine movement demanding accountability for misgovernance only smacks of paranoia.  

On the face of it, these protests may appear as merely long-standing popular grievances, but a deep dive suggests that the administration’s lackadaisical attitude has been heightened by the CPEC-led project in Gwadar, which has sought to displace and deprive the locals of their rights.

Beijing has touted Gwadar port as CPEC’s and Belt and Road Initiative’s flagship project. It has pitched the project as benefitting the local populace and bringing prosperity to Balochistan. On the contrary, the project has made Gwadar a garrison town, with local authorities making every effort to secure the port and the Chinese personnel working there. The locals’ welfare hardly makes it to the priority list of the authorities. Instead, measures have been put in place where the locals’ freedom of movement has been curbed, and there is unwarranted questioning of their activities.[4] Moreover, the locals’ livelihood is now threatened with the arrival of Chinese trawlers. According to them, authorities have issued licenses to the Chinese trawlers whose gigantic nets take a massive catch of the fish, leaving very little or nothing for the local fishermen and their small boats.[5]

Naturally, the locals resent the presence of Chinese engineers and other personnel in Gwadar. This has led to the growing backlash against the CPEC as they perceive the project as a ‘resource extraction exercise.’ The coercive attitude of the Pakistani military only worsens the locals’ predicaments.

Consequently, it has boosted Baloch insurgent groups, who have carried out terrorist attacks in protest at CPEC projects. This year, a suicide bomber targeted a convoy carrying Chinese personnel on the Gwadar East Bay Expressway in August. As a result, two locals were killed while one Chinese was injured.[6] Balochistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack. The terrorist threat to the Gwadar project and the Chinese personnel is only expected to increase further as authorities make no attempt redress people’s problems.

Despite years of involvement in Pakistan, China remains a subject of intense scrutiny and susceptible to Pakistan’s internal conflicts. It will be no different in the case of the CPEC, which has fundamental conceptual flaws and carries no economic benefits for locals or their livelihoods. The ongoing protests in Gwadar validate the argument that the CPEC is not a panacea for Pakistan’s economic growth and remains a half-baked idea. Any attempt to impose top down development programmes without any consideration for people’s concerns can only put the project on the path of the failure. Therefore, China and Pakistan will need to re-examine their investments and efforts into Gwadar, lest the project is doomed.