The sudden removal of Asim Saleem Bajwa from the post of CPEC Authority’s Chairman on August 3 brings to fore the problem of corruption and lack of transparency in CPEC projects in Pakistan. In the first instance, selection of a tainted person like him to head the all important authority was an indication of the sort of “incentives’’ Pakistan’s state machinery was seeking to reap from the CPEC projects.
Interestingly, Bajwa was removed from the post of heading the CPEC authority not because of allegations of corruption or the power politics of the military being the sole authority in Pakistan that entailed his appointment, but rather because of the Chinese influence on Pakistani leadership that is ready to stoop to any lows to please the masters. This is evident as Chinese were unhappy with the pace of the execution of the CPEC projects and had hoped Bajwa, who belonged to the ‘deep state’ of Pakistan would be able to smoothen the edges, However, disappointed with the incomplete projects, lapses in security of Chinese personnel working in Pakistan, China has now decided to take control of things directly in the country, making Pakistan seem like a mere puppet at its hands.
Acting as the whistleblower, a Pakistani journalist Ahmad Noorani drew the world’s attention towards the scandals embedded in Bajwa’s dealings by publishing the same on the 'Fact Focus' portal in August, 2020. It emerged that Bajwa’s wife, brothers and two sons owned 99 companies in 4 countries including a pizza franchise worth $39.9 million. The report disclosed that Bajwa's younger brothers opened their first Papa John's pizza restaurant in 2002 when he was working closely with then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. The Bajwa family’s companies spent an estimated $52.2 million to develop their businesses and $14.5 million to purchase properties in the United States.
Interestingly, Bajwa’s wife was the common shareholder in all the foreign businesses from the very beginning and at present she is associated with or is a shareholder in 85 companies including 82 foreign companies (71 in United States, seven in UAE and four in Canada). US state government’s records and other documents related to the companies show that some of these American companies (all jointly owned by Asim Bajwa’s wife Farrukh Zeba) also have investments in the real estate sector and own 13 commercial properties in the United States, including two shopping centres.
That became a major issue in the political circles with the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) calling for his removal as the chairman of CPEC Authority until a probe into these charges is completed. Bajwa however managed with resigning only from the SAPM post ensuring his continuation in the more lucrative role as the chairman of the CPEC Authority. The indispensability of his core ‘skills’ was visible with the Prime Minister Imran Khan saying that he was satisfied with the evidence provided by Bajwa about his family's assets. Bajwa also received support from several TV channels. Contrary to corruption reports spread over internet, the mainstream media tried to suppress the coverage on the charges against him. The state authorities also tried to blame India for all these details coming to light.
However, the weight Pak authorities put behind Bajwa proved to be little when it came to Chinese commands. Over the past few years, Chinese apprehensions about lack of progress in CPEC projects have been increasingly visible. Pakistan’s local power dynamics were already problematic after Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) government was out of power. After coming to power in August 2018, Imran Khan led Pakistan Teheek-e-Insaf (PTI) government sought to revisit CPEC projects, pointing towards many exorbitant deals unfavourable for an economy like Pakistan. Unsatisfied at the pace of the projects, Beijing decided to push for a thorough military takeover of CPEC. In November 2019, the CPEC Authority was formed under Bajwa, practically handing over the corridor to the army. That he was made the Prime Minister’s adviser further demonstrated the Chinese preference to have the military’s control over CPEC related information.
But, Bajwa’s performance in the CPEC Authority created more issues for China than it solved. With many projects getting into controversies and facing delays, China had to slow down on funding. The bureaucratic inertia also made China look for a change of hand. The image of CPEC was getting hampered particularly when China wanted it to be a showcase for the BRI, a reflection of its ambitions. In the present scenario when Pakistan remains isolated in the world arena and has no partner as reliable as China for its funding needs, it cannot afford to overlook its wishes. In return, Pakistan can only hope that China will take care of its needs in the face of now frequent snubs from the west and other donors like Saudi Arabia.
Source: Economic Times