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MENG Lisi and Li Xinheng (right) both joined churches in Zhejiang province.
MENG Lisi and Li Xinheng (right) both joined churches in Zhejiang province.

KARACHI: The killing in recent months of a Chinese man and a woman at the hands of suspected militants in Balochistan has put Beijing in a quandary. That’s because the two were not in Quetta to teach mandarin but to do something with which the Chinese are unlikely to be associated: preach Christianity.

The militant Islamic State (IS) group announced on June 8 that Meng Lisi and Li Xinheng, who were in their mid-twenties, had been killed. The pair had been kidnapped in Quetta on May 24 by gunmen masquerading as policemen.

According to an in-depth report published on Monday by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “as a self-declared atheist government, news of Chinese Christian missionaries getting into trouble abroad is embarrassing. But at the same time, Beijing needs to show it can protect its citizens as it goes global” by launching several ambitious infrastructure projects overseas.

Before the pair’s kidnapping Chinese citizens could occasionally be seen in Quetta but they have vanished since then: BBC

Despite the dilemma it is facing, the Chinese government has responded to the Balochistan incident by launching a crackdown on a community already under considerable pressure.

The government has detained “at least four preachers from church groups in Zhejiang [province] as part of a targeted blitz against house churches connected to overseas missions, says Bob Fu, whose US-based China Aid group supports Christians in the country”, said the BBC report. “They have been released but are not allowed to continue their activities and are banned from giving media interviews, he says.”

According to the report, “China’s up to 100 million Christians have been subject to increased scrutiny and harassment since Xi Jinping became president in 2012, Mr Fu says”. But the incident in Pakistan has made matters worse for the community.

That’s because the Quetta story “draws attention to an unintended and often overlooked by-product of China’s aggressive drive to develop new trading routes and carve out influence across Asia, Africa and the Middle East”, said the report.

“Hundreds and possibly even thousands of the country’s growing cadre of Christian missionaries are along for the ride too — even if Beijing doesn’t want them there.”

There are thousands of Protestant churches in Zhejiang, both the official ones permitted by the atheist Chinese Communist Party and so-called “underground” or “home” churches, whose members often meet inside private homes.

“Neither of the pair who ended up in Quetta were originally from Zhejiang, but they did join ‘home churches’ in the province,” said BBC.

Mr Li’s mother, who only wanted to be mentioned as Mrs Liu, told reporters that her son had not met Ms Meng before he travelled to Pakistan in September last year. She thought he was going to Balochistan to teach Mandarin.

After the kidnapping of the Chinese pair, the military launched a three-day operation in an area south of Mastung.

“It is in Mastung that IS later said it had carried out the killings, and Mrs Liu questions why the Pakistani government launched an attack in the area instead of trying to negotiate their release.

“Why didn’t the Chinese government tell the Pakistani side to save our children? she asks.

“She says her phone is monitored, and authorities have been investigating the family.”

When Ms Meng and Mr Li were abducted, they were first reported to have been working at a language school run by a South Korean.

“Locals in Jinnah Town, a wealthy area of Quetta where the language centre was based, said the group, while distinctly visible, kept a low profile... One boy said he overheard them saying ‘we are all sinners’, and that they distributed leaflets, rings and bracelets. “Another said he saw three women who spoke some Urdu and Pashto, and were ‘doing something about Christianity’.”

In the provincial capital, Chinese individuals could occasionally be seen on the streets before the May kidnapping but since then they have vanished.

In Gwadar, the centrepiece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, frequent attacks by insurgents have denied Chinese workers the freedom of unguarded movement on the streets, reporters there say. They remain in secure compounds and move under heavy security escort, according to the report.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2017