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Belt and Road

Xinhua begins Pakistan language service to push Belt and Road

Islamabad hopes China's state news agency will improve image of projects

KARACHI -- China's state news agency Xinhua has launched Urdu service in Pakistan to promote cooperation with local media, ostensibly to counter criticism against the major projects under the Belt and Road Initiatives in the country, known as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and the dominant media market segment. 

A ceremony was held in Islamabad on Dec. 26, where memorandums of understanding were signed between Xinhua and over a dozen local media houses. Under the agreement, Xinhua will provide news services to Pakistani news agencies in both English and Urdu. Xinhua already has an English and now it has launched the Urdu service to target the Urdu audience.

People in Pakistan will see news content from Xinhua via local media.

Addressing the Xinhua launch ceremony, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan said that media cooperation between Pakistani and Chinese media is necessary to counter negative propaganda against projects under CPEC.

The launch of Xinhua's Urdu service follows the 5th China-Pakistan Media Forum, held in Islamabad in November. The forum comprises journalists from Pakistan and China and is organized by the Chinese embassy in Pakistan and the Pakistan-China Institute, a non-governmental think-tank. Participants of the meeting chose to use the platform to counter negative propaganda against the corridor, according to news reports published in several Pakistani newspapers citing China Economic Net. 

This development comes in the aftermath of the critical attack on Belt and Road by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Alice Wells. Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at Wilson Center, agreed with the assertion. He believes that Wells' speech in November shook up many people in Islamabad and Beijing. "Both capitals have now concluded that they need to make a course correction in terms of public messaging in Pakistan about CPEC, to ensure it pushes back more robustly against dissenting views," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Beijing's ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing also welcomed the cooperation agreement between Xinhua and Pakistani news agencies. He praised Pakistani media for largely defending the corridor.

He also pointed out that "some isolated voices under the influence of the Western countries' propaganda" played a negative role in terms of criticizing CPEC.

The launch of Xinhua's Urdu service, coupled with the decisions of the 5th China-Pakistan Media Forum, is being perceived by experts as a media strategy to control growing criticism of CPEC, the Pakistan component of Beijing's grand Belt and Road project.

Children play by the railroad tracks as a passenger train passes a neighborhood in Karachi in 2018.   © Reuters

Kugelman believes it is already difficult to offer dissenting views on CPEC in public forums in Pakistan, so efforts to control the narrative have already enjoyed significant success. "Few media outlets in Pakistan have been critical of CPEC since the project was launched," he said.

Malik Siraj Akbar, a former journalist and currently an analyst based in Washington, believes that CPEC has serious loopholes that require a national debate but the Pakistan government has discouraged criticism on the mega project. The media has an important role in asking for more clarity and transparency, and it is not wise to counter the critical views, he said.

Experts doubt the effectiveness of the launch of Xinhua Urdu service in Pakistan or the creation of Pakistan-China media forums because criticism is mainly expressed on foreign media and social media.

Kugelman said, "The use of Xinhua [Urdu Service] will restrict dissenting views on CPEC in Pakistan even more, though this won't stop Pakistani critics from continuing to express themselves on social media or in media outlets outside of Pakistan."

In Pakistan, social media in general and Twitter, in particular, have been used to criticize different aspects of CPEC over the last three years. The criticism on Twitter has also prompted an aggressive response from the Chinese diplomats -- most notably Lijian Zhao, Beijing's former Deputy Ambassador to Islamabad -- who have wasted no time in calling out the critics and rejecting the criticism.

Akbar told Nikkei that Pakistan has a robust social media community, which has been shaping an alternative narrative on the corridor projects. Despite repeated efforts, the government has not been able to fully silence dissenting voices on social media, he explained. 

"As we see an end to traditional media's monopoly over the domain of shaping public opinion and the rise of social media, Chinese investment in the media landscape will not fully succeed in thwarting criticism and suspicion of CPEC," Akbar added.

The arrival of Xinhua in Pakistan benefits the country's media industry, which is shrinking due to the financial crisis.

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