Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has come under fire from politicians and commentators for his praise of China’s autocratic one-party system, which he said offered a better model for countries compared to electoral democracy.
Speaking via video link at the Chinese Communist Party and World Political Parties Summit in Islamabad on July 6, Khan said Pakistan hoped to emulate the party’s “remarkable” achievements in development and nation building and went on to praise Chinese President Xi Jinping for launching the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Those statements follow earlier ones delivered by Khan to Chinese-state media on July 1 for the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Chinese Communist Party, where he offered support for Beijing’s repressive policies against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and lauded China’s political system.
“The [Chinese Communist Party] is a unique model. Up until now we were told that the best way for societies to improve themselves is the Western system of democracy,” Khan said. “And they have actually beaten all Western democracies in the way they have brought up merit in their society.”
The strong relations between China and Pakistan -- which date back to the early days of the Cold War -- have grown stronger in recent years through the expansion of the BRI, in which Beijing has become an increasingly important economic and political patron for Islamabad.
Despite the close ties, Khan’s effusive praise for an authoritarian, oppressive one-party system also received criticism at home from both politicians and independent analysts.
“This is dangerous thinking if Imran Khan wants to convert Pakistan into China,” prominent Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir wrote on Twitter following the prime minister’s interview with Chinese media. “Friendship with China is good, but the Chinese system can’t work in Pakistan.”
Echoing those sentiments, Murtaza Solangi, another prominent journalist, offered a critique of Khan’s words by quoting a poem from the famous poet and leftist activist Habib Jalib.
“China is our friend, we are ready to sacrifice for it. But the system that runs China, don’t go towards that, we will have our solute from far away,” Solangi tweeted.
Official statements from both Beijing and Islamabad often refer to the two countries’ relationship as unbreakable, referring to them as “iron brothers” that maintain an “all-weather friendship.”
The mammoth China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project has become the centerpiece of the BRI, morphing in size and scope into a bundle of energy and development projects that could reach $62 billion once it is completed.
Beijing also enjoys strong relations with the Pakistani military, with China reportedly leaning on Islamabad as it looks to navigate the complex security situation in the region triggered by the withdrawal of U.S.-led Western troops from Afghanistan.
Pakistan was also early in expressing support for China during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Beijing sending millions of vaccines to its South Asian neighbor.
“The main motivation behind [Khan's] remarks is the fact that China is Pakistan's main source of political and economic support, and Islamabad can't afford to alienate its closest ally,” Filippo Boni, an expert on Sino-Pakistani relations at the Open University in Britain, told RFE/RL.
Despite the political maneuvering that Pakistan’s generally China-friendly political class would expect, Khan’s comments were still seen as crossing a line by some.
Mushahid Hussain Syed, a senator from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League party, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that he believed Khan’s statement was “more related to [the] China-Pakistan friendship and it has nothing to do with democracy.”
Lahore-based analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais was also critical of the prime minister’s comments, telling Radio Mashaal that the region has a storied history of constitutional democracy and, while the Chinese model has indeed strengthened China’s economy, it has also deprived the Chinese people of their democratic rights.
“Implementing [the] Chinese model here in Pakistan is not possible,” he said.
Former Pakistani envoy to the United Nations Maliha Lodhi raised concern that such overt praise for the communist system by Khan could have diplomatic consequences and lead to miscommunication that could damage other important relationships for Pakistan.
“In diplomacy it is essential to know when not to publicly say something and when to speak. Words have consequences, intended or unintended,” Lodhi wrote in a July 5 op-ed in Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper.
“These considerations seem to have been ignored in foreign policy statements and interviews by the government’s top leaders, causing unnecessary confusion and slip-ups, which are unhelpful for the country,” she added.
In addition to his favorable statements about the Chinese political system, Khan also went on to offer support in interviews for China's policies in the western province of Xinjiang, where Beijing is operating internment camps that have targeted Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities.
United Nations human rights officials estimate that more than 1 million Muslims are detained in the camp system, prompting an international outcry that included the U.S. government and the parliaments of several Western nations calling China's actions in Xinjiang a genocide.
Beijing has denied such charges and labeled the camps as “vocational educational and training centers,” defending them as necessary to combat extremism.
Khan said on July 1, echoing previous statements, that he accepted the Chinese narrative.
“Because we have a very strong relationship with China and because we have a relationship based on trust, so we actually accept the Chinese version,” Khan said during an interview with Chinese media. “What they say about the programs in Xinjiang, we accept it.”
The prime minister’s stance on the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang stands in contrast to his outspoken advocacy against Islamophobia and discrimination toward Muslims, particularly in European countries.
“At a time when the West is confronting China on its human rights record, Pakistan has clearly signaled where its priorities and allegiances lie,” said Boni.
Daniel Markey, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a former State Department official for South Asia, told RFE/RL that Khan’s recent comments, which were delivered in English, were designed for an international, primarily Chinese audience, and not a domestic one.
“Pakistani leaders have long counted on the fact that they can effectively control messaging to the vast majority of their people even in the [online] media era,” Markey said.