Islamabad, Pakistan — In a bustling street in Pakistan’s capital the air is thick with the familiar smell of mutton sizzling on charcoal. The plumes of smoke rising into the night sky are illuminated by something once uncommon here — the blinking red neon of a sign bearing the restaurant’s name in Chinese.
Gulab Khan Shinwari, the owner, stands at its entrance welcoming a steady stream of Chinese customers. “My restaurant is called Khyber Shinwari but everyone here calls it the CPEC Hotel, since so many Chinese customers have started arriving since the deal was announced.”
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, popularly known by its acronym of CPEC, has become a buzzword for longed-for economic prosperity in Pakistan. An integral part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, the corridor is a combination of projects ranging from road networks, an fiber optic cable project, railway lines, a deep-sea port, coal mines and solar farms that Pakistan views as a huge opportunity to develop its economy.
Following the ancient Silk Road that stretches from the Himalayas in Pakistan’s northern border with China all the way down to the Arabian Sea, the corridor was announced with much fanfare in 2015 when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Islamabad and announced a $46 billion investment plan, roughly 20% of Pakistan’s economic output.
With the implementation of these projects and their promised riches, Pakistan has seen the influx of a large expat community, roughly 20,000, according to Mustafa Hyder, chief executive of the Pakistan-China Institute.
It’s a community whose influence is slowly trickling into Pakistan’s daily life.
In April, a commercial released by Shan Foods, a Pakistani company that sells spice mixes, showed Pakistani and Chinese neighbors bonding over a shared love for biryani, a popular rice and meat dish. The ad immediately went viral, with more than 59,000 shares on Facebook in the first week of its release.
While the ad might not have initially been made with CPEC in mind, there’s no doubt the foreigners Pakistanis interact with most on a daily basis are Chinese. “They’re our best neighbor,” says Humayun Farooq, marketing general manager for Shan Foods.
“If this ad has given CPEC a human face then I am glad for that.”
Across town, Pakistanis discreetly sip cheap Chinese beer and wolf down dumplings made by Amber Shen, from China’s Anhui province. Shen and other Chinese expats do their shopping from a handful of Chinese grocery stores that have sprung up in Islamabad. Popular American treats, like Chips Ahoy and Skittles, with Chinese packaging and even cans of stewed pork, a meat banned in Pakistan, are all available.
Last year, a bilingual newspaper called Huashang Weekly launched with a staff of both Chinese and Pakistani journalists. It publishes and distributes 30,000 copies each week to Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi.
“There’s a lot of curiosity amongst private Chinese investors about the potential in Pakistani markets, there’s just the language barrier that I wanted to erase through Huashang Weekly so these investors can have an understanding of what’s happening in Pakistan. These are very interesting times,” says Derrick Wang, the paper’s publisher who came to Pakistan five years ago.
Meanwhile in cinemas, one of the latest movies “Chalay Thay Saath” (Together We Went), stars a Chinese-Canadian lead actor and is about a Chinese man finding his roots in Pakistan.
In Islamabad, a city that has never really had a Chinatown, these developments are unusual. But China’s embrace of Pakistan has risks attached. Analysts say Pakistan will owe China $90 billion if all the planned projects go ahead. But criticisms about Chinese investment aren’t evident on the streets of Islamabad.
Times are changing and Pakistan must keep up, says Sabina Zakir, an administrator at the Roots millennium schools, an education system that has introduced compulsory Mandarin lessons for all students starting at age 8 and going all the way up to middle school.
“The sleeping dragon has finally awoken,” she says about the country’s northern neighbor. “And our children, the custodians of our future, must be prepared to deal with this new roaring beast!”