China’s Belt and Road Initiative is about doing business and opening markets. It puts China at the centre of global trade — all roads lead to Beijing. One important stop along the “belt” is Yinchuan, a northwestern Chinese city that is home to one-fifth of China’s Hui Muslims and has become China’s gateway to trade with Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan. It hosted the China-Arab Expo in 2017. Dealing in everything from Halal meat and headscarves to oil, China is now the second-largest trading partner of Arab countries. Chinese president Xi Jinping’s 2018 visit to the United Arab Emirates signalled China’s continued interest in the region.
The initiative is also transforming relations with China’s neighbours. Pakistan, a long-time political ally, is also an important trading partner. The two countries’ governments started to jointly build the Karakorum Highway in 1959. Opened 20 years later, the so-called Friendship Highway connects Kashgar, China’s westernmost city, with Pakistan; it remains integral to bilateral trade today. When a 2010 earthquake damaged part of the highway, the Pakistani government hired a Chinese company to rebuild it — a project worth $275 million. The highway is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which was launched in 2015.
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While the Chinese government has touted the corridor as yet another win-win project, others resist what they see as growing Chinese encroachment. Not everyone is embracing Chinese engagement with open arms: Pakistani activists are protesting the destruction of national heritage sites; politicians are decrying what they see as China’s ulterior geopolitical motives. Increased trade is also enabling China to extend its cultural influence abroad. Pakistani children enrolled in Chinese-language programs at private schools believe that Chinese is the language of the future.
Diana Fu is the host of TVO's China: Here and Now documentary series. She's an assistant professor of Asian politics at the University of Toronto and an affiliate of the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Her research examines the relationship between state power and civil society in contemporary China. Fu's book, Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China, won the American Political Science Association’s Gregory Luebbert Prize for the best book in comparative politics.
China: Here and Now is a major, multi-part documentary series that examines the cultural, economic, and political implications of China's growing global influence. It airs on TVO Tuesday nights until November 13. Or, stream it at TVO.org.