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December 29, 2010

False hopes about the Chinese visit


December 29, 2010

Some would call it double dealing or hypocrisy, but let’s just call it pretending. That way it becomes less emotive and more palatable. Why do we pretend as much as we do when in the end we end up fooling no one but ourselves? Worse, the pretence of yesterday becomes the facts of the next day when those acting the charade are not around to confirm that what was being reported as genuine was merely posturing, and actually a hoax. It’s important because if the past never really happened, how can it form the basis of formulating present policy? After all, the past is not just a package that you can lay away, and, besides, if we do not really know the past, how can we understand the present?
Consider the very, very recent past and the hoax perpetrated by this government about the $35 billion worth of MOUs concluded during the visit of the Chinese prime minister last week. A businessman summoned from Karachi tells a hilarious story of how he and some other businessman were rushed to Islamabad and made to conclude an agreement, the subject of which he has only a faint idea, but enough to know that it was as doable as walking on water.
Half of the so-called $35-billion deals are about more than doubling our annual trade with China. That’s not only ambitious but absurdly unrealistic. Actually, it’s impossible in our present circumstances when factories are closing due to power shortages and the costs of production have soared. Nor do we have a sufficient selection of items of interest to China. There are just so many carpets, leather goods, surgical instruments and footballs that the Chinese require or can kick around; and their textile products are cheaper. In any case, two-thirds of our bilateral trade is made up of Chinese exports to Pakistan and there is nothing to suggest that this imbalance will change in our favour.
The other half of the $35 billion concerns Chinese investments in infrastructure, and given the instability in the country these

are not likely to be invested soon, if at all. The Chinese know our internal situation better than other foreign investors having been exposed to its dangers more than others. In other words, it was a disservice to our profound friendship with China to knowingly set unrealistic targets, raise bogus hopes and make pious commitments.
I recall a similar situation in 1995. Benazir Bhutto had sent Mr Zardari to South Korea at the head of a business delegation and he had returned with a sheaf of MOUs amounting to several billion dollars. BB was pleased at her husband’s success and proud of what he had achieved. Our ambassador to South Korea had sent the inevitably glowing report on the “success” of the visit which was essentially an exercise in self-praise, as he was the one responsible for organising it. Sensing my silence as a sign that I did not share her enthusiasm at the outcome, BB asked, “Isn’t it great?”
“Well, let’s put it this way, Prime Minister,” I replied. “If even 1 per cent of the agreements concluded actually happen, that will be exactly 100 per cent more than what I expect.” She gave a wry smile and we heard no more of the MOUs, although later she remembered to give the ambassador an out of turn, and thoroughly undeserved, promotion.
It is a pity that we had to go through the charade last week merely to show that our relations with China are as warm as we pretend they are. Actually, they are not only warm, but hot and glowing, but for reasons that are rooted in the national interests of both. The fake MOUs were not necessary; as usual we overdid the pretence.
You don’t have to be an economic expert to know that one of the principal tasks of a government is to make it harder for the rich to get richer, while keeping the poor from getting poorer. Instead, this policy has been stood on its head in Pakistan and implemented with such gusto that in some car showrooms Land Cruisers are in greater demand than smaller cars. As the people sink into penury wedding receptions grow more lavish and suicides more common. A local vendor recalled the story of the father with his son in his arms threatening to jump off a roof. When told that suicide is illegal and forbidden, he cried out, “Then why does He not feed us?” and jumped.
Another show of pretence-in-the-making is the supposed satisfaction by all the players on the Pakistani domestic scene that democracy is working and that, left to find its way through the shoals, it will eventually reach its destination, battered and bruised but somehow intact. In fact, the opposite is true. Democracy is not working. From the corruption index, to crime, to bad governance, everything has gone up. What has gone down, actually plummeted, is the morale and hope of the people, faith in their leaders and, more recently and alarmingly, a belief in the continued existence of this country. Sadly, the present system is not working; it’s floundering, although no one is certain what will work.
Some disagree with such a pessimistic depiction of the state we are in and recall the adage that “hope springs eternal in the human breast.” But that’s hardly a good thing. “He who lives on hope will die fasting” is what many here have come to believe. In Pakistan today the tantalising properties of hope have no appeal. It’s not a case of viewing the glass being half empty or half full. We don’t even have a glass. Moreover, in the end hope must be satisfied to become worthwhile, and that’s doesn’t look like happening here, and few believe that it ever will.
The purpose is not to convey an “all is lost” message, but rather to shed the lies and shibboleths by which governments have operated thus far and which have proved so harmful and self-deluding. To bring about the change that is so needed, we have to confess what is wrong and bad in us, to ourselves, rather than hide them in the hope of earning cheap plaudits. When all is said and done, we owe our friends, and ourselves, the truth.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: [email protected]

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