Protests against Chinese influence on locals' livelihoods and daily lives in Gwadar, once considered the "crown jewel" project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), have intensified this month.
Thousands of residents on November 20 blocked the expressway leading to Gwadar port, which remains a crucial part of CPEC, a Pakistani component of China's controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR).
Under the banner of the "Give Gwadar its rights" campaign, protesters have demanded an end to illegal deep-sea fishing by local and Chinese trawlers and the harassment of locals at security checkpoints leading to projects part of the CPEC since October.
"The protest will continue until the problems are solved," announced Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, a local Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan leader who founded the "Give Gwadar its rights" campaign.
"Residents of Gwadar, again, have given a clear message to the ruling classes. If attention is not given, the public will have no choice but to close the port," said Rehman, who led an earlier protest last year.
"We don't have water, power, or education. We don't want such a CPEC," Rehman told the 4th Asma Jahangir Conference in Lahore on October 22.
Instead of providing teachers and schools to Gwadar residents, the CPEC has led to military checkpoints and military personnel who guard Chinese nationals and their interests, Rehman had said.
Protesters said that CPEC-affiliated projects have not improved the lives of Gwadar residents, nor have they helped resolve basic civic issues, such as water and power shortages.
Ashraf Ali, a student in Gwadar who attended the protest, said that Gwadar port has long been portrayed as a jewel in the CPEC crown, but in reality, Chinese promises of prosperity and lucrative development turned out to be lies.
"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 restrict residents' movements," Ali said.
"The people of Gwadar are still forced to buy drinking water at the rate of 2,500 PKR ($12.50) per tanker," he said.
The latest protests are a sign of the growing anger of residents, according to Javed Hussain Shah, an Islamabad-based scholar of BRI projects in Pakistan.
"Gwadar's people showed their frustration over the empty dreams Beijing had sold to them at the expense of its gains," said Shah.
After a spike in attacks on Chinese citizens and projects by militant groups, Pakistani authorities 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, prompting backlash that swelled into a rights campaign.
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.
Growing anti-China sentiments
This new series of protests in Gwadar began on October 27 and came after similar month-long rallies in December last year.
At that time, China had taken notice of the protest in Gwadar in the media and waved off the protests as fake news.
Pakistan is one of the major targets of Chinese propaganda because of the country's involvement in the BRI and growing public anger over Chinese influence, according to Pakistani media observers.
Beijing has invested in Urdu-language services on Chinese state-run media outlets, and launched websites, such as Gwadar Pro, which publishes content in English and Urdu, mainly to counter the rise of anti-China sentiment in Pakistan,
The exponential growth of Chinese influence in Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan and Sindh provinces -- with Chinese companies exploiting local resources without care or concern for the impact on locals -- has led to serious unrest in the province.