CPEC: Chinese work ethic and its implication for Pakistan

By Ali Salman, Originally published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2016.

The $1.8-billion Sahiwal Coal Power Project, now part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), employs 3,000 Pakistani personnel and 1,000 Chinese.

The Chinese construction firm deputed at the new Islamabad International Airport has around 200 Pakistanis and 100 Chinese. These ratios are indicative of the mix of human resource pool that CPEC is now generating. These projects have long gestation period, demanding long term commitments of these personnel. Today, I will not talk about the economic aspect of this blend, but will comment on the work ethic, and the possible influence that Chinese workers may have on Pakistani workers, having come from a considerably more developed economy than Pakistan’s.

According to a Gallup survey, China’s staggering economic growth has been fuelled not only by the attempt to replace a socialist “command economy” with one built along market lines, but also by an extraordinary commitment to hard work among the people of the Middle Kingdom.

Harvard theologian Michael Novak has argued that certain Confucian values are similar to those analysed by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904). Such values help explain the extraordinary performance of China’s economy following economic liberalisation. According to the British historian Niall Ferguson, “If you were a wealthy industrialist living in Europe in the late nineteenth century, there was a disproportionate chance that you were a Protestant…. It seemed as if the forms of faith and ways of worship were in some way correlated with people’s economic fortunes.”

Confucianism is often characterised as a system of social and ethical philosophy rather than a religion. In fact, Confucianism was built on ancient religious foundation to establish the social values, institutions, and transcendent ideals of traditional Chinese society. It was what sociologist Robert Bellah called a “civil religion.”

What do the Chinese themselves say about their personal values and philosophies? Since 1994, Gallup has asked the people of China which of these six statements comes closest to describing their basic attitude toward life: Work hard and get rich; Study hard and make a name for yourself; Don’t think about money or fame, just live a life that suits your own tastes; Live each day as it comes, cheerfully and without worrying; Resist all evils in the world and live a pure and just life; Never think of yourself, give everything in service to society.

In its last count, the Gallup survey reveals that not surprisingly, the credo “work hard and get rich” is by far the most popular choice, selected by 53% of respondents.

I wonder if such a question is posed to Pakistanis, how most will respond, though I am tempted to select “Live each day as it comes, cheerfully and without worrying”. In my last bus ride on Metro, I became part of a conversation between two young men – one who had graduated from a vocational institute two years ago and was still jobless – the other just got admission in a vocational institute and had spent only a day there. The graduated young man was advising the student to find a reference or seek job opportunity outside Pakistan. When I asked him how he has spent last two years, his answer, without a sense of remorse, was “wandering around.” This is certainly cheerfulness.

A leading Pakistani commentator Khaled Ahmed drew a comparison of work ethic within Pakistan. He writes that there is no doubt that in the west there is a kind of trust in individual transactions that one doesn’t always find in Pakistani society. At least, society offers an uneven manifestation of it. For instance, in Punjab, where the individual is still a “warrior,” it is minimal: people don’t trust the “other” enough to enter into firm commitments (commitment is an important part of trust) and end up not paying for goods bought. On the other hand, in Karachi, where businessmen belong to traditionally trading communities, trust is fundamental to economic success. The Lahore trader is notorious for his “pipeline” payment system; the Karachi trader pays promptly on receipt of goods.

In the recently held CPEC Summit, someone asked the question of cultural implications of CPEC for Pakistan, to which Minister Ahsan Iqbal replied that government is setting up Confucian Centers throughout the country.

In a society, which is overtly religious and ritualistic, yet does not practice honesty and hard work in general, the introduction of values from a Civil Religion should be welcome. However, I hope that Chinese businessmen will not inspire their Pakistani counterparts to get more dependent on the government, which is unfortunately still a hallmark of businesses in both countries. It is also hoped that Chinese will adopt the Confucian full circle, as the old Confucianism also required officials to criticise their rulers and refuse to serve the corrupt.

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