Karachi University suicide bomb: Attack on academic ties?

The death of three Chinese teachers and their Pakistani driver on Tuesday 26 April at the hands of a woman suicide bomber at the entrance to the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi in Pakistan has raised concerns that China-Pakistan academic collaboration is becoming a target for separatist resistance.

The tutors who were killed have been identified as Huang Guiping, the founding director of the Confucius Institute (who was also the deputy director of the International Exchange and Cooperation Office of Sichuan Normal University), Ding Mufang and Chen Sai.

Another Chinese teacher, Wang Yuqing, was injured along with three local residents who were taken to a hospital in Karachi.

The Baloch Liberation Army, a separatist organisation banned by Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the suicide attack carried out by a woman identified as Shaari Baloch.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Wednesday condemned the deaths and said blood of the Chinese people would not be shed in vain, while Sichuan Normal University, which co-hosts the institute, urged Pakistan to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The incident was also condemned by the Pakistan government which termed it a “cowardly terrorist attack”.

Classes resumed at Karachi University on Thursday just two days after the bomb blast.

Acting vice Chancellor of the University of Karachi Nasira Khatoon told local television she was "in a state of shock" but that she had already been aware of security issues surrounding Chinese people on campus, alluding to security issues involving the Uyghur Chinese muslim minority which were a concern of the Chinese government.

She said she had brought in strong measures in terms of campus security and had become aware of threats to the campus from December onwards which she said had been "checked out" by the country's security agencies. Khatoon said she would try to implement "other strong security measures" for Chinese on campus.

University sources said Pakistan authorities including the Higher Education Commission had asked the university administration to draft a security plan with recommendations for assistance required from HEC and security agencies.

Security has been increased around the five campuses of the Confucius Institute and two Confucius classrooms in provinces across the country.

The Confucius Institute at Karachi University was established in 2013 through an agreement when former Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang visited Pakistan. The institute has over 30 teachers from China and over 7,000 students. According to the Lahore-based Pakistan-China Institute, nearly 30,000 Pakistani students are learning the Chinese language at Confucius Institutes in Pakistan.

Growth in academic cooperation

Academic cooperation increased between China and Pakistan after the 2015 launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and involves an estimated US$60 billion Chinese investment in Pakistan, with Gwadar Port situated in Balochistan province its major focus.

In a letter claiming responsibility for the attack, spokesperson for the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), Jeeyand Baloch, hailed the sacrifice of the 30-year-old female suicide attacker, whom he disclosed was a mother of two as well as a highly qualified science teacher.

In a press release issued the same day, BLA named all Chinese nationals who were targets of the attack and warned China of more severe attacks if China does not “halt its exploitation projects and does not stop aiding Pakistan”.

“Targeting director and officials of Confucius Institute, the symbol of Chinese economic, cultural and political expansionism, was to give a clear message to China that its direct or indirect presence in Balochistan will not be tolerated,” it stated.

Promises of enhanced security

Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, in a prompt visit to the Chinese embassy in Islamabad shortly after the attack, promised to hunt down and hang the perpetrators and vowed to continue CPEC projects, promising enhanced security for Chinese nationals working in Pakistan.

An academic in Pakistan believes that although the attack on Chinese lecturers was not specifically targeted at academic relations between the two countries, it would dent the confidence of Chinese teachers in Pakistan and that of Pakistani students seeking to study at the institutes.

“It is an attack on Chinese citizens regardless of their profession as in the past such targeted suicide attacks have been carried out resulting in deaths of Chinese engineers and other workforce from China working on CPEC-related development projects.

“But the recent attack, which has resulted in the killing of three academics from China, might invoke a sense of insecurity among the Chinese teachers and the local students,” Professor Naeem Ahmed, chairman of the department of international relations at Karachi University, told University World News.

An attack on academic ties

However, Zahid Anwar, director of the China Study Centre of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s University of Peshawar, said the Karachi University attack cannot be viewed as targeting CPEC projects only as the start of CPEC led to enhanced academic cooperation between China and Pakistan. Thus, the attack is equally against academic collaboration between the two countries, Anwar said.

After the CPEC was initiated in 2015, major bilateral cooperation projects in higher education were undertaken by China and Pakistan, including the 2018 establishment by Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC), with funding of PKR1.5 billion (US$8 million), of the Pakistan Institute of China Studies at the University of Sargodha, where one of the five Confucius Institutes is located.

China study centres were also established at many universities in Pakistan under the CPEC Consortium of Universities which was founded in August 2017 to promote collaboration between Chinese and Pakistani universities. The consortium now comprises 85 universities from the two countries and is open for further expansion.

Last year in October, Pakistan’s HEC and the China Association of Higher Education launched the China-Pakistan Higher Education Research Institute to be jointly managed by Islamabad’s National University of Sciences and Technology and Peking University of Beijing. Pakistan’s HEC is currently calling for proposals to fund research under its CPEC-Collaborative Research Grant programme.