The army chief’s call for an “open debate on all aspects of CPEC” is to be welcomed, but a few irritants stand in the way before any such debate can happen.
The first irritant is the lack of disclosure by the government of many of the crucial details. Specifically, the long-term plan needs to become a public document, and greater debate ought to have gone into its finalisation. Details regarding the financing, the Special Economic Zones and the concessions being given to Chinese enterprises could also be more transparent. When this newspaper ran the details from the long-term plan developed by the Chinese government for CPEC, people were genuinely surprised to learn that the scope of what is planned under the corridor projects goes far beyond power sector investments and transit trade. To this day there has been no specific denial from the government about the contents of that report, which has lent credence to the idea that what is in fact being developed under the plan is a far larger engagement than the government is willing to admit. The second irritant is the extremely defensive language the government adopts every time questions about CPEC are asked, accompanied with reminders that “an enemy of CPEC is an enemy of Pakistan”. This is a childish attitude and if an open debate is to take place on all aspects of CPEC, then defensive reactions of this sort will have to be dispensed with.
An open debate is necessary, indeed vital, given the project’s depth and scope, to help build confidence that it is being pursued with the best interests of the country and its citizens in mind. Thus far that confidence is lacking. One burning question, for example, that refuses to die down is how far the beneficial impact of the project through developments like job creation will actually filter down to the people, and how far it will be siphoned off by the Chinese counterparts. The larger macroeconomic impact of the project is also in question given the heavily debt oriented nature of the inflows associated with it.
At the end of the day, an open debate will promote greater clarity and understanding about the projects. Mere assurances and statements from government ministers and functionaries that all is well are not enough. It is sad to see parliament and the provincial assemblies neglect their role in promoting such debate, and the political parties themselves are too preoccupied with the politics of the moment to spare a thought for this enormous and landscape changing undertaking that is taking place amidst us. It is astonishing how little is known about the details outside of a small coterie of individuals. Without wider debate, the potential benefits of CPEC will not be felt by the common citizenry, at least not in the shape that we are being told.