A protest movement launched in Gwadar to convey local residents' concerns over Chinese influence on their livelihoods and daily lives overwhelmingly won the local government polls held on Sunday (May 29).
Chinese promises of prosperity and lucrative development clearly failed to convince voters in the Balochistan seaport.
Gwadar is expected to be a major part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), opening Pakistan to trade and development projects that many Pakistanis consider harmful to their country and beneficial to China.
Since November, residents of the port city have taken part in the "Give Gwadar its rights" campaign, which has demanded an end to illegal deep-sea fishing by local and Chinese trawlers devastating the livelihood of fishermen.
The campaign has also sought an end to the harassment of locals at security checkpoints guarding BRI projects.
Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, a local cleric, has been leading the campaign, which fielded its candidates for the local government polls on Sunday.
The electoral victory by the rights movement illustrates voters' concerns over the rising influence of Beijing on their lives and livelihoods, say political analysts.
After a spike in attacks on Chinese citizens and projects by proscribed Baloch separatist groups, Pakistani authorities have established dozens of security checkpoints to protect Chinese nationals working at the Gwadar port.
However, the checkpoints have hindered the movements of the more than 300,000 residents of Gwadar district, arousing a severe backlash from the local population that swelled into a rights campaign.
"After organising a protest for more than a month, the movement succeeded in pressuring the government to fulfill some of its demands, including easing the checkpoints and stopping fishing trawling," said Bashir Hout, a leader of fishermen in Gwadar.
Because of the Chinese presence in Gwadar and other parts of Balochistan, local residents are in a state of uncertainty, he said.
In January 2021, a provincial court stopped Pakistani authorities from building a barbed-wire fence around the port in Gwadar that locals said would have hampered the movement of local residents and prevented fishermen from reaching sea access points.
Worse off with China
BRI-affiliated projects have not improved the lives of Gwadar residents, nor have they helped resolve long-standing water and power shortages, locals said.
"Instead of making Gwadar a hub of business and trade and [creating] development projects for the residents, China has been forcing Pakistani authorities to make the port city a security zone and to limit residents' movements," said Ashraf Ali, a student in Gwadar.
"The people of Gwadar are still forced to buy drinking water at the rate of 2,500 PKR ($12.50) per tanker," he said.
Chinese investment in Balochistan without the public's consent is further worsening the overall security situation in Gwadar and other parts of the country.
Anger over growing Chinese influence in Balochistan has spurred Baloch and Sindhi militant organisations to ally with each other, fuelling concern that the combined group will step up violent activities in the region.
In late April, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a component of the Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS), claimed responsibility for killing four people, including three Chinese teachers, in a suicide attack inside a state-run university in Karachi.
BLA separatists in February also staged twin assaults on army posts in Noshki and Panjgur districts, Balochistan.
"The February 2 attacks, hours before Prime Minister Imran Khan's China visit, were linked with the Baloch population's grievances with Beijing over its exploitation of [Balochistan's] natural resources," said Mujtaba Baloch, a Panjgur-based political activist, at the time.