Tea Leaf Nation

China Loves Pakistan … but Most Chinese Don’t

China's pro-Pakistan state media blitz may be more about convincing its own people.

Pakistani labourers arrange a welcome billboard featuring the Chinese and Pakistani national flags ahead of the forthcoming visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Islamabad on April 18, 2015. Pakistan needs a "huge amount of financing" for infrastructure and energy projects and China is ready to announce help when President Xi Jinping visits next week, a foreign ministry official said April 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / Farooq NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Pakistan, and the $46 billion infrastructure and energy deal announced between the two countries on April 20, have headlined Chinese state media websites for days. The trade deal is part of China’s ambitious “New Silk Road” strategy to create an economic corridor linking western China with South Asia and the Middle East, and it’s meant to further deepen a bilateral relationship that China is eager to promote. On April 20, state news agency Xinhua characterized the relationship as an “ironclad friendship.” Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily quoted people on the street in Pakistan exclaiming, “We would rather give up gold than abandon the China-Pakistan friendship,” with the news outlet stating that this was the “heartfelt wish” of the people there. Pakistan’s government, for its part, is no less effusive, with officials there previously having described its relationship with the East Asian giant as “sweeter than honey,” one rising “higher than the Himalayas.” China-Pakistan diplomatic relations have indeed been strong for decades. Pakistan was one of the earliest countries to establish official relations with the People’s Republic of China, in 1951. China is Pakistan’s largest trading partner and its top arms supplier, and in the past decade, the two neighbors have been swift to provide aid to each other after natural disasters.

But quantitative measures of grassroots sentiment between the two countries tell a different story. While Pakistanis view China in an overwhelmingly positive light — a July 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 78 percent of respondents view China favorably — Chinese maintain a far less enthusiastic attitude toward their South Asian neighbor; only 30 percent of Chinese view Pakistan favorably. It’s not clear why Chinese popular opinion of Pakistan is so out of kilter with the two countries’ official relationship. Though most Chinese do acknowledge the close ties between the countries, some view Pakistan as violent, chaotic, and poorly governed. Pakistan shares a 372-mile border with Xinjiang, the northwestern Chinese region home to 10 million Uighurs, a largely Muslim Turkic-speaking minority, a region with sporadic outbreaks of violence between Uighurs and the majority Han population. In August 2011, officials in the region of Kashgar in southern Xinjiang claimed that Uighur militants had received training in Pakistan, and Chinese officials have pressured Pakistan to expel Uighur separatists who may be operating there.

To some in China, when imagining a violent, lawless, or run-down place, Pakistan is what first comes to mind. One young woman, upon returning to her college dorm room in the northern Chinese city of Dalian on an early spring day in 2013, discovered to her shock that the ceiling had caved in. “I thought I had been transported to Pakistan!” she posted on Weibo, a major social platform, along with a picture of the collapsed ceiling. When speculation abounded in April 2014 as to the fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, some were quick to link the plane’s disappearance to Pakistan. “I think it must be related to Islamic extremism,” one Weibo user wrote in a representative comment, adding “The airplane might already be in a place like Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Yemen.” And in China, the general impression of Pakistanis themselves is often little better. A 2013 discussion thread on question-and-answer site Zhihu asked, “What kind of country is Pakistan? Are there a lot of terrorist organizations?” As one user wrote, “The poor people [there] are hooligans; they utter lewd expressions at women on the street.”

The recent flurry of close, floridly worded Chinese affirmations of friendship with Pakistan seem designed not just to cement the official relationship between the two countries, but perhaps also to bring public opinion into closer alignment with the official relationship. On April 21, People’s Daily posted on its Weibo account a playful explainer aimed to help readers “understand in one picture why the China-Pakistan friendship is strong like iron!” The colorful infographic presented key high points in the bilateral relationship (“China was the first country to offer relief during the 2010 flooding in Pakistan!”) and other fun facts demonstrating the closeness of the relationship (“Pakistan hardly even garrisons its borders with China!”).

The Daily’s post prompted many web users to share their positive impressions of China-Pakistan goodwill. One Weibo user in the western city of Chengdu wrote on April 21 that he had once run into a Pakistani user on a social media platform. “As soon as I told him I was Chinese, he became so friendly and excited,” wrote the user. The Pakistani user even gave the Chinese man his phone number, and invited him to visit if he ever came to Pakistan. “Only afterwards, when I did an online search, did I realize that the China-Pakistan friendship was so strong and resilient.” Other users recalled important moments in the history of China-Pakistan relations. “Chinese people haven’t forgotten that Pakistan is the country that donated all its tents to China after the Great Sichuan Earthquake,” wrote one Weibo user in a popular comment, referring to the deadly 2008 earthquake in China’s southwest, after which Pakistan donated $2 million worth of emergency aid, including 30,000 tents. In the aftermath of the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen protests in 1989, when China became an international pariah subject to human rights sanctions, Pakistani officials continued to meet with their Chinese counterparts regularly in a move that stood in stark contrast to Western nations at the time. That support has lived long in the Chinese consciousness, with one user marveling, “Now that is true brotherhood.”

Others clearly viewed the China-Pakistan relationship as a creature of geopolitical interest. “China and Pakistan have no border disputes and no historical issues,” wrote a pharmaceutical engineer in Beijing. “Together they face the challenge posed by India; they must have [a relationship of] iron.” A 19-year-old young man in Suzhou framed the relationship in less equal terms, writing of Pakistan, “Without China, India would destroy you.” Others questioned the effusions of friendship, with one user wondering if it would prove as lasting as the much-hailed “China-Soviet friendship” — which ended in the bitter Sino-Soviet split of 1960.

It’s clear that the strong relationship between the two countries is popular, despite the sometimes lackluster sentiment towards Pakistan itself. And it’s a bilateral relationship that isn’t likely to falter any time soon. Back in 2013, Xi described the China-Pakistan friendship as an “all-weather strategic partnership,” a phrase repeated frequently during Xi’s recent visit. As an April 21 Xinhua article asserted, with the ironclad friendship’s new agreement, “iron has become steel.”

Yiqin Fu and Shujie Leng contributed research.

AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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