China boosts soft power in Pakistan via film and social media
In a small office at the Pakistani Television Corporation (PTV) headquarters in Islamabad, producers are preparing to air a video interview of a Pakistani man and his Chinese bride.
The woman in the footage is dressed in traditional Pakistani clothes, sitting next to her husband who addresses her in fluent Mandarin, amplifying a message of trans-national love prevailing over differences in language, religion and culture.
The videos are the latest sign of China's growing push to build up cultural "soft power" to complement the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the $60 billion infrastructure programme it has launched as part of the Asian giant's flagship "Belt and Road" project.
Over the past year, China has sent state-owned PTV and other commercial television channels a series of documentaries, dramas and other television programming for free, officials from PTV told Reuters.
Experts say China has been ramping up attempts to win the hearts and minds of citizens in Belt and Road nations through language, traditional media and social media campaigns, echoing the cultural firepower previously wielded by Western nations, which have leveraged everything from language centres to Hollywood and blue jeans to burnish global influence.
Keep on trucking: Art on the move in Pakistan
They pollute the roads and chug along at a snail's pace, but to their Pakistani owners the rickety trucks are moving pieces of art. And indeed, the trucks with their many garish portraits of flowers, Islamic art and snow-capped Himalayan peaks are now attracting global attention. By Caren Firouz and Jibran Ahmad
A driver opens the door to the carved wooden cab of his decorated truck
"We, the drivers of Khyber, Mohmand and other tribal regions like flowers on the edge of the vehicles," he said. "The people of Swat, South Waziristan and Kashmir region like portraits of mountains and different wild animals"
For the drivers, the designs that turn decades-old vehicles into moving murals are often about local pride. Picking the right colour or animal portrait is tougher than the countless hours spent on the road
Drivers rest on beds at a truck stop on the outskirts of Faisalabad, Pakistan, 3 May 2017
Boys posing for a picture in front of a decorated truck in Peshawar
Scenes from the holy sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina on a decorated truck in Faisalabad, Pakistan
Workers unload fruit from a decorated truck at the wholesale market in Faisalabad
South Asian "truck art" has become a global phenomenon, inspiring gallery exhibitions abroad and prompting stores in posh London neighbourhoods to sell flamboyant miniature pieces
"We have learnt from the experience of the United States, the UK and other Western countries - but now, it's time for the world to understand China," said Chen Xiang, a correspondent coordinating state-run China Radio International's wide-ranging presence in Pakistan.
"We want to tell the people the truth about China, what real China is … through radio programmes, through TV and through other cultural activities we can do this."
China is boosting its Mandarin teaching through state-backed language and culture organisations called Confucius Institutes – Pakistan is home to four with two more Confucius resource centres set to open – and spreading exposure to its arts and narrative media in a bid to engage everyday Pakistanis.
Earlier this year, PTV World aired its first Chinese cartoon series, titled Three Drops of Blood, following its premier at the government-funded Pakistan National Council of Arts, where the Chinese Embassy rented a large portion of the building to host a China Cultural Centre.
Recent investments in TV and film follow Chinese interest in print media. Launched in 2017, Huashang, the first-ever Chinese language newspaper in Pakistan, now boasts a readership of over 60,000 a week.
With around 25,000 Pakistanis learning Chinese at home and another 22,000 Pakistani students in China, there is some way to go before Mandarin challenges English in Pakistan, where the legacy of British colonial rule is everywhere.
But signs of China's presence are increasingly visible, from expatriate engineers and their families shopping in city centres to a growing number of Chinese tourists visiting the spectacular scenery of Pakistan's rugged mountainous north. Locals report an increasing appetite to engage using shared cultural touch points and language – sometimes with business in mind.
"China is interested in improving its soft power all across the world, " said Dr Kiran Hassan, Research Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, adding Pakistanis were responding with enthusiasm.
"It's an audience that is ready to receive the Chinese perspective as they feel that China is offering them an economic opportunity."
Awais Chaudhry moved from his home in the eastern city of Faisalabad to study at a Chinese language institute in Lahore for more than six months, hoping it would help his marketing job.
"China is our neighbour and a large number of imports is from there and so with that business point of view, I tried to learn the basics of this language," he told journalists.
Everyday cultural contacts, while still limited, are expanding, although there is inevitably sometimes a darker side, notably in the periodic scandals over people-trafficking involving Pakistani girls sent to China to be married to men unable to find a wife at home.
China's Uighur heartland turns into security state
China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in its Xinjiang region. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority. By Nadine Berghausen
Economy or security? China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas
China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security: three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants
One Belt, One Road Initiative: an ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond
China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit: a man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic set piece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence
Ethnic minority in China: a woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East
Communist Party vows to continue war on terror: Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation
CCTV cameras are being installed: many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar
Ban on many typically Muslim customs: the most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police
Security personnel keep watch: authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalised", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses
There is a harder edge to some of China's soft power, notably in its response to criticisms of the Belt and Road initiative as a neo-colonial project, promoting environmentally damaging projects such as coal-fired power plants that benefit Chinese companies more than Pakistan.
Media and think tank officials from both nations plan to set up a "Rapid Response Initiative System" to counter negative perceptions and stop "fake news" about China-Pakistan projects, some of which have garnered increasing scepticism of their economic benefits and criticism of the environmental cost.
Run collaboratively by China Economic Net, a Beijing-based online news organisation and the Pakistan China Institute, a pro-Beijing Islamabad-based think tank, the system disseminates information to counter negative or "fake" views about CPEC and replace it with a message of a profitable alliance.
"We can't take down information, so what we do is give correct information. All media tools are used," says Mustafa Sayed, Executive Director of the Pakistan China Institute, adding that they spread messages via news anchors, newspapers and Twitter.
In August Zhao Lijian, China's then-deputy ambassador to Pakistan, re-tweeted an article titled 'CPEC is dead. Somebody tell Beijing.'
"Congratulations, this report has won the title called 'joke of the day'" he wrote in the Tweet. "The article is pure nonsense, fake news, groundless speculation. This article has become the largest laughing stock in China and Pakistan." (Reuters)