Road closures around Chinese embassy spark anger in Islamabad

By Zarak Khan

Quaid-e-Azam University students protest near the university gate in October against the closure of Third Avenue. [QAU student Shamim Shah]

Quaid-e-Azam University students protest near the university gate in October against the closure of Third Avenue. [QAU student Shamim Shah]

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistani authorities have shuttered a major road leading to the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, hindering travel for locals for months.

The embassy pressured Pakistani authorities to close off Third Avenue following a spate of attacks against Chinese interests across the country, according to an official of the Capital Development Authority (Islamabad).

The road, which has been closed for the past several months, provides direct access to Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU), Bari Imam Shrine and various residential neighbourhoods.

Alternative routes for students and locals are long and in poor condition.

"We always are late to our classes or exams because of the road closure," said Shamim Shah, a student of political science at QAU.

It has also become more difficult for residents to access their neighbourhoods and people to visit the Sufi shrine, he said.

"In the name of providing security to the Chinese embassy, Pakistani authorities have made thousands of lives miserable," Shah said.

Dr. Ashraf Ali, a political analyst, said police stopped him from using the road to access QAU because Chinese embassy officials asked them not to allow anyone to pass.

"Instead of [taking] one minute to reach the campus, I was forced to use alternative and broken roads among the fields that took 18 to 20 minutes," Ali wrote in an article in Urdu-language daily Mashriq May 10.

"Thousands of students, followers of shrines and local residents have been suffering, but no one in the government has dared to criticise the Chinese embassy for the road closure," he said.

QAU students and residents of nearby localities have organised several protests against the Chinese embassy over the road closure, but Pakistani media have not covered them because of self-censorship, a journalist who covers civic issues in Islamabad said on the condition of anonymity.

"The Pakistani government has ordered media not to cover reports that could harm Sino-Pak relations," the journalist said.

Pakistanis suffer

The closure of Third Avenue is among several incidents in which Chinese projects have cut off access for Pakistanis.

Construction on Main Line-1 (ML-1), a major Pakistani rail project, has been restricting the movements of the residents of lower-income neighbourhoods of Karachi.

The ML-1 project is aimed at track doubling and upgrades on 1,872km of railway between Karachi and Peshawar and between Taxila and Havelian.

The mega railway project is among several deals Islamabad inked with Beijing under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a Pakistani component of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR).

In several Karachi neighbourhoods, such as Keamari and Shireen Jinnah Colony, Pakistani authorities have built walls around the tracks of the ML-1 project with the aim of protecting the Chinese-financed project from sabotage.

However, the construction of the walls has complicated and restricted the movements of more than 100,000 residents, locals and activists say.

There is precedent for preventing the blockage of transportation routes around Chinese interests.

In January 2021, Balochistan's provincial court stopped Pakistani authorities from building a barbed-wire fence around the port in Gwadar, which aimed to protect Chinese workers, after locals protested that the fencing would hamper residents' movement and prevent fishermen from reaching sea access points.

In recent years, Gwadar locals have held several demonstrations under the banner of the "Give Gwadar its rights" campaign, demanding an end to illegal deep-sea fishing by local and Chinese trawlers and to the harassment of locals at security checkpoints leading to CPEC projects.

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There are more loyalists of the Shah than the Shah, so when it comes to security. Keep the locals and Pakistanis away, how do they know that we also have any rights