She Sees the Blind Spot in the Relationship of Trust
By Manling, China Plus Host
Zoon Ahmed, a Pakistani researcher and anchorwoman based in Beijing, has emerged into the limelight thanks to her active and high-profile role in media cooperation and academic exchanges between China and her home country.
When we met, Zoon was surprised when I told her that I used to be a fan of Barbra Sharif and Ghulam Mohyuddin, and had watched their film "Mera Naam Hai Mohabbat" ("My Name Is Love") again and again along with other Pakistani movies when I was younger. Zoon said she had no idea these Pakistani films had made their mark in China, and was surprised to learn that they truly were household names in the country and a part of the lives of Chinese people who were kids back in 1960s and 70s. But you wouldn't know it, speaking to younger generations of Pakistanis. Although Chinese and Pakistani people are good neighbors and friends, we lack a good understanding of each other; and when it comes to trade, tourism, and cultural exchanges, the efforts of the two countries often fall short.
In 1951, Pakistan became one of the first countries to recognize the legitimacy of the nascent People's Republic of China. Since then, the two countries have remained close. But why have many other countries surpassed Pakistan in the number of deals that they've struck with China? Zoon has her own answer: Because we trust each other, and we tend to spend far more time studying our enemies than we do our friends. This makes sense in that we are vigilant to ward off precariousness and uncertainties. But do our friends deserve more of our time and effort? Absolutely! That said, I was surprised that Zoon, who is young but insightful, was able to point out this blind spot in the relationship between our two countries. Her insight came from both her family history and her own observations.
From her family, especially her father, Zoon got early exposure to Chinese culture at home. Her father used to be an airline pilot shuttling between Beijing and Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan. In 1970s and 80s, he frequently brought home Chinese goods for his wife to decorate the house, and for friends who desired inexpensive and authentic Chinese products such as porcelain, jade, fans, and tea.
Like other foreign friends, he was treated favorably by China's government. At a time when daily necessities and staple foods were still rationed in China, foreigners could buy the best-quality Chinese products available at Friendship Stores using foreign exchange certificates（外汇券）, a type of coupon exclusively allocated to them. And they stayed in Friendship Hotels, the best accommodation on offer in China, while most Chinese families lived in small, shabby houses without restrooms, relying instead on communal toilets. But when China launched its economic reform and opening up in 1978, Zoon's father witnessed China begin to change at a speed unprecedented in human history.
In the 1990s, he stopped flying to Beijing. Twenty years later, when he came back here to visit his daughter, he was in awe at how different the place had become. The changes in the food and the housing, the changes to the infrastructure, even the changes in what people wore: the drab uniformed suits were gone, replaced by colorful outfits. And the people he met were much keener to talk with foreigners. The once shy and introverted Chinese people had become more open-minded and outgoing.
As Zoon was deciding what to study, she saw that China was booming. She also saw that Pakistan was in trouble, beset by a sluggish economy and sporadic terrorist attacks. She wondered what lessons she could learn from China's development, and so decided to become a student of political science in China.
When Zoon decided to apply for a master's degree program at Tsinghua University in 2014, her friends and family couldn't understand her decision at first. Why would an international studies major choose to take up postgraduate study in China rather than the United States? But Zoon says she felt very strongly that the world was shifting away from its post-Cold War unipolar power structure to one that was multipolar. And China is definitely part of that shift. "My personal insight at that time was that this is going to matter," said Zoon.
Zoon came to Beijing in 2015. She says that, like her hometown Lahore, Beijing has the rich history, culture, and art that an ancient city has to offer. And because they're both ancient cities, she hasn't felt out of place in Beijing. Living in Beijing also helped to foster the passion for her research. In addition to her study at Tsinghua University's Belt and Road institute, Zoon is also an anchor on an online program called "Belt and Road Initiative: Face to face" at China Economic Net. The work brings her into contact with a wide variety of people, ranging from well-established scholars to ordinary people working in China and Pakistan.
Her time living and studying in China has allowed Zoon to see the changes brought about by the Belt and Road Initiative. "Now, we have think tank cooperation; when I came to China we had none of that. We have media cooperation; we didn't have any of this... For us, China is a brother. So this feeling that we need to develop an expertise and understanding each other, I think it came a bit late but now it is there. Actually there's so much more that we can do."
"We need to bring back the emotions between our people that were alive," Zoon said to me on WeChat after our interview, as we chatted about the Pakistani movie stars I love. I agree with her. Another friend from the West once said that movies are the best way to bridge differences between people from different cultural and ideological backgrounds. We can get to know each other and build trust and understanding through film – it's what those old films from Pakistan helped to do. But in today's world, that's not enough. And political slogans aren't the basis of deep connections between peoples either, and the same is true of roads and railways alone. Trade, student exchanges, and tourism are the kinds of connections that build lasting ties between people.
I wish that my memories about Pakistan weren't limited to the singing and dancing in these unforgettable movies. I wish that they included visits to the must-see highlights in Lahore recommended by Zoon, such as the Badshahi Mosque, the Lahore Fort, its Walled City and the Alhamra Arts Council. These are places where I could truly immerse myself in Pakistan's history and culture, sample its famous cuisine to my hearts' content, and enjoy dancing to the local music until my feet were sore.
Thankfully, this isn't an unattainable dream. China now has high-speed trains to its Xinjiang region, and the buses that frequently cross the border destined for Lahore are inexpensive. China and Pakistan are neighbors, and old friends. I hope that people on both sides of our shared border can work towards rekindling a friendship that is almost as old as our People's Republic of China.