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Smoker's corner: Are we ready for CPEC?

Updated Jun 12, 2017 04:02pm

Donald Trump is attempting to make real the obscure nostalgia of an isolationist United States, which before the presidency of F. D. Roosevelt over 80 years ago, was a withdrawn giant, consciously cut-off from the happenings of the world at large.

This insulation did not make America safe. In the late 1920s, its economy crashed; then in 1941 it was attacked by Japanese imperial forces and subsequently, Nazi Germany declared war against it. It too an unprecedented three terms of the Roosevelt presidency, some radical economic reforms and a new, more open paradigm of America’s political, economic and social engagement with the world to actually make America ‘great.’

But this piece is not about the aforementioned observation. Because any attempt to figure out the complexities of what Mr Trump is up to, is bound to start sounding like an unintentional satire on populist politics. Of course, one can stand back and smirk at this self-generated satire, but, at the same time, one is certain to also feel a sense of dread.


Now that the state has realised that CPEC promises positive economic change, to benefit from such a change, our society and polity needs to change too


I’m not sure whether by the time this column goes into print, Pakistan’s name too would be put on Trump’s ban list. But even if it’s not, the state, government and people of Pakistan must seriously become aware of the most recent hypothesis which is predicting the rise of China as a leading superpower in the event of Trump’s (rather belligerent) attempt to isolate the US from a number of countries.

I say this because Pakistan is now at the epicentre of China’s economic influence and growth in the region. China has positively recognised and responded to the many pecuniary openings available in a growing economy such as Pakistan, despite the fact that these opportunities are often overshadowed in local and international media by the perception of Pakistan being politically unstable.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the result of China’s pursuit to utilise these untapped investment opportunities available in Pakistan. China believes that the economic outcome of this investment would have a positive impact on Pakistan’s economy, which, in turn, would result in political stability.

Theoretically this makes sense. And if one is to further stretch this theory, the economic progress and the resultant political stability would attract investors from other countries as well. They are then sure to be followed by non-business visitors (i.e. tourists). Now the question is, is the prevalent social milieu of the country or the cultural ethos prevalent in Pakistan for the past three decades conducive to address the needs of such visitors?

Let’s look at it this way: CPEC produces good results and Pakistan’s economy begins to grow. The economic growth stabilises the country’s volatile political scenario. The stability begins to showcase the economic opportunities that had once been obscured by instability. More and more investors from other countries become interested in investing in Pakistan. The physical presence of investors in Pakistan creates an overall positive image of Pakistan which then attracts tourists.

Consequently, the government and state of Pakistan will have to initiate some drastic shifts and changes in the prevailing cultural milieu and ethos. Ideally, economic progress also boosts the tourist industry, which, though influenced by business tourism, eventually becomes the benchmark that foreign investors use to gauge a country’s economic feasibility.

For the past 30 years or so, the country’s cultural ambiance has become stifling. So, what will a tourist do here? Not all of them are likely to be mountain-climbers. When a country with a stifling ethos becomes a tourist attraction it can create problems. But these problems need to be resolved if that country is to continue being seen as a lucrative economic hub. Especially if that country does not have vast oil reserves like Saudi Arabia.

Travellers from developed countries are the most vital aspects of a country’s tourist industry. A majority of them expect easy availability of certain entertainment avenues in a country they have paid good money to travel to and stay. So let’s say in the next 10 years or so, CPEC empowers Pakistan’s economic growth, which triggers political stability which attracts more foreign investors. This then creates a healthy image and perception of Pakistan which then begins to attract tourists whose entry helps build Pakistan’s tourist industry. This further strengthens Pakistan’s image and the economic growth is thus successfully sustained by even more foreign investment. It’s a circular process.

Such a scenario will require a shift in the way we see ourselves as a nation. To begin with, we will have to bury the following cliché:

“Pakistan is a conservative society.” For years this cliché has been recycled by intellectually lazy western academics and commentators and also by the defeatist and timid mindset of the Pakistani leadership.

Pakistan is not a conservative society. It is not a bastion of liberalism either. Its strength lies in a historically inherent moderate disposition, which, whenever it was given the space to assert itself, exhibited a remarkable aptitude to tolerate a rather fruitful co-existence between conservatism and certain more permissive ideas and antics.

It was the first Muslim-majority country to elect a female prime minister. Twice. And before the 1980s, it was an entirely moderate society where mosques and sufi shrines thrived and so did cinemas, clubs and other vibrant recreational vistas. On most occasions both were at peace with each other, just as they still are in Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, and to a certain extent, Egypt.

Unfortunately some political outfits and eventually the state began to explain economic discrepancies between classes as something to do with the society’s and the rulers’ ‘permissive’ attitude. It was a convenient excuse which then became a cynical political ploy.

Ever since the late 1970s, the state concocted and proliferated a simplistic moral narrative to deflect criticism on economic issues from itself and towards abstract notions of ‘obscenity’, ‘immorality’, ‘impiety’, etc. We have all seen the results of this cynical approach. And when things got complicated, we became apologetic: “Oh, Pakistan is a conservative country, y’know.”

Nonsense. For over 30 years, from the day Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah announced the creation of a Muslim-majority state, till the 1970s, we were largely a nation of robust and enterprising moderates.

Many years after the state began churning a moral narrative to explain economic and political issues, we are in trouble. What’s more, what was once a project of the state has become a project of the society. This is why now, when the state wants to alter its course in this context, it is finding it tough. Indeed, it has realised that CPEC promises positive change. But to fully benefit from such a change, society and polity needs to change as well. This is what the Pakistani state and government should now be working towards.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 5th, 2017