Khan has given signs of this admiration for the Chinese political system earlier. In 2019, while on an official visit to China, he said he wished he could follow Chinese President Xi Jinping’s example and throw “500 corrupt people” in jail. This was another surprise. For years, Khan said his own political party would restore the rule of law to a country where it had been undermined by military rulers and the political elite. Now, he seemed to view due process and the right to a fair trial as an inconvenient obstacle.
In Pakistan, there is a broad consensus on friendship with China. Civilian and military leaders alike have spoken of a friendship that is “higher than the Himalayas,” “deeper than the sea” and “sweeter than honey.” But Khan’s latest comments have stirred controversy in Pakistan, because he seems to wish to run Pakistan the same way the Chinese Communist Party runs China.
Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy. The 1973 constitution is the sole consensus document in the country, welding together people of different ethnicities and political persuasions under a rights-based framework. It was signed by everyone from Baloch tribal elders to Islamist clerics. Successive military rulers tried to discard the constitution. When Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a coup in 1977, he boasted that he could “tear up” the constitution and impose a different system. Gen. Pervez Musharraf echoed him two decades later: “I think a constitution is just a piece of paper to be thrown in the dustbin.” But ultimately it was military rule that was dispensed with. Musharraf now languishes in exile, having been sentenced to death for treason.
Khan’s party and coalition partners rule with a razor-thin majority in parliament. They can barely pass laws of their own choosing, often resorting to presidential decrees to override the prerogatives of parliament. They are far from the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution and bend Pakistan’s political system to their will. When Khan was in opposition, he was a democrat. Now, he seems to yearn for the powers of an autocrat. He used to be a powerful advocate for media freedom, leveraging its reach to promote his own political message. Now, his government expresses impatience with dissenting voices, seeking to pass laws to muzzle critical and independent voices — on the air, in newspapers and online.
Pakistan’s prime minister wouldn’t have fared well under China’s political system. He would never have been able to establish a new political party that set out to overhaul the entire political system. The social media platforms his party has depended on to build a young following wouldn’t have existed. It is also difficult to imagine the wealthy capitalists and crusty feudal landlords in Khan’s cabinet flourishing under the Chinese political system. Indeed, he himself would have found it hard to find a voice at all.
One of Khan’s greatest heroes is Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, the famous poet-philosopher revered as one of the founders of Pakistan. Iqbal often wrote of the Muslims of China in his verses. In one of his best-known couplets, Iqbal called for Muslim unity: “All Muslims, from the shores of the Nile to the sands of Kashgar, are united to protect the Holy Kaaba.” Kashgar is a mostly Uyghur city in China’s Xinjiang region. The Holy Kaaba is Islam’s holiest site in Mecca. In today’s Kashgar, the Chinese Communist Party is systematically destroying the society of China’s Muslims, to the extent that some of them now speak of becoming “a people destroyed.” In 1933, when a rebellion broke out in what is the Xinjiang region today, Iqbal wished success to the “revolution,” which he hoped would create “a prosperous and strong Muslim state” where Muslims would be “freed from the age-old Chinese oppression.”
We often hear references to Iqbal in Khan’s speeches on the plight of Muslims around the world, whether he’s citing on Islamophobia in the West or the human rights violations endured by people in Kashmir or Palestinian territories. But when it comes to the Muslims of China, Khan has gone from claiming ignorance about the issue to more recently expressing satisfaction with the denials of Chinese officials. This is despite the fact that the human rights violations in Xinjiang affect Pakistanis directly, ranging from the Pakistani husbands fighting for the rights of their Uyghur wives to more than 600 Pakistani girls who have been sold as wives to Chinese men.
No doubt, Pakistan has an important relationship with China, but it must not cost us our hard-fought constitutional order. The constitution that guarantees the rights of dissenting voices in opposition also set clear limits for those in power. There are many things we can learn from China, but one-party rule isn’t one of them.