Footprints: the Chinese Pakistan

Updated 18 Apr 2014

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“We expect there will be around 20,000 Chinese workers in Pakistan in five years. There will be more investment by Chinese companies,” says Mushahid Hussain. — File photo
“We expect there will be around 20,000 Chinese workers in Pakistan in five years. There will be more investment by Chinese companies,” says Mushahid Hussain. — File photo

IT’S 9:30am. Professionals and businessmen hasten to clinch their first targets of the day. In one multi-storey building at the thriving Blue Area, Islamabad’s hub of commercial activity, elevators carry customers to a front desk on the first floor. A petite Chinese woman with a pleasant smile is seated beside a cabinet loaded with files.

Zhang Feimin, 27, stares at some papers she’s carrying, trying to learn the rules of business and prepare for her meetings. She is the bank’s latest employee and one of the estimated 12,000 Chinese people working on various projects in Pakistan. The bank has created the position for her to capture the growing business from trade worth over $12 billion and an expected investment of around $18bn for the establishment of the Pak-China economic corridor. The newly carved-out China Business Wing at this bank came as a window of opportunity for Zhang; she uses her Chinese roots to further the interests of this establishment.

During the first few weeks of her banking career, she visited various Chinese companies in Islamabad to attract the maximum number of clients. Zhang arrived in Pakistan in 2004 to accomplish her dream of working in a foreign country. She started out helping her uncle in his Chinese restaurant in the plush F-8 residential sector.

She also got a bachelor’s degree in business administration from a Pakistani institute affiliated with a leading Australian university. Still overseeing the management of the restaurant, too, she often leaves her post to wait at tables. In a room in front of her, people enjoy their meals; she looks after the service, prepares the bills and settles the cheques.

“Working in a foreign country was my passion,” she says. “There are so many Chinese people here in Pakistan, so I chose to come here.”

The managers at the bank where she works believe that she will prove helpful in attracting big accounts. “We have established the China Business Wing to get maximum business from the upcoming investment by Chinese companies in planned projects in the region. We have employed Chinese people in all the regional offices in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad,” said one of Zhang’s colleagues without giving his name because his bank’s management is unwilling to reveal details about their operations.

Official estimates suggest that Chinese companies and engineers are working on more than a hundred major projects in energy and infrastructure development (roads and bridges) from Karachi, right up to Khunjrab Pass.

A few kilometres from Zhang’s restaurant, a Chinese couple stroll in a leafy F-7/2 street. Thirty-year-old Liu Jia and her husband Ma Ginadu run a beauty parlor here. Liu came to Pakistan in 2003 to learn English in Islamabad’s National University of Modern Languages. After completing her course in 2006, she sensed a business opportunity.

She went back to China for a three-month beauty course and returned with an investment of $100,000. Now, she employs some 50 people, including seven Chinese beauty experts. Her husband has started a separate business of importing Chinese renovation materials and selling them to Pakistani and Chinese contractors working in Pakistan.

“Pakistan is good for business,” Liu says. “You earn profits if you work hard. I’m used to living here and wouldn’t like to leave this country now.”

Over in Rawalpindi’s Saddar Bazaar, some Chinese faces appear in the midst of hundreds of pairs of shoes. They speak Urdu more fluently than many Pakistanis can. The China Boot House is one of the city’s favorite shoe shops.

But the owners of the shop don’t like to be identified as Chinese. “We’ve been here for more than five decades now,” says the middle-aged Wang Zu. “Why should we consider ourselves Chinese?”

“The Chinese have a better business and work environment in Pakistan as compared to other neighboring countries,” says Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the Pakistan China Institute, a regional think tank in Islamabad. “We expect there will be around 20,000 Chinese workers in Pakistan in five years. There will be more investment by small and medium Chinese companies.”

For Ahmed Rashid Malik, senior researcher and director of the China and Asia Pacific wing of Islamabad’s Institute of Strategic Studies, close relations between the governments and the people of China and Pakistan are encouraging more and more Chinese to come here for work. “They get better opportunities and a welcoming attitude in Pakistan,” he says.

“Other countries of the region like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are hostile towards Chinese businessmen. They think China will take over their markets.”

But then, there are other realities, too. As Zhang says, “The Pakistani people are very pleasant and friendly. But bomb attacks and killings scare me and are forcing me to think about going back to China.”