Pakistan prime minister invites Hong Kong to invest in country

Visiting South Asian leader seeks to turn ‘long friendship’ into ‘economic partnership’ while some 200 local protesters voice scepticism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2017, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2017, 11:19pm

Pakistan on Wednesday invited Hong Kong to invest in the country’s infrastructure and anticipated property market boom, as a top-level delegation to the city got down to business.

The “long friendship” with Hong Kong must develop into an “economic partnership”, Pakistani Minister for Commerce Khurram Dastgir Khan told the Post, and the city could be a key player in transferring capital, expertise and building infrastructure.

On the second day of their visit, Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held meetings with Hong Kong’s outgoing and incoming leaders and businessmen, as some 200 Pakistani local residents took to the streets in the evening to protest against corruption allegations involving Sharif and his family members.

The purpose of the Pakistani visit, Khan said, was to “boost confidence” in his country among Hong Kong investors and companies. Before arriving in Hong Kong on Tuesday, the Pakistani delegation was in Beijing to attend the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on China’s ambitious plan to open up trade along a new Silk Route.

“We are hoping that some of the future infrastructure will be built by Hong Kong companies in collaboration with Chinese companies,” Khan said.

“We are also hoping to use the Hong Kong stock exchange to list some of the major energy infrastructure we are building and to be able to raise money internationally for them.”

Khan suggested Hong Kong could provide technical, legal, architectural and planning services, noting he was expecting a “real estate boom” in Pakistan.

“Hong Kong has a very important role to play,” he said.

Khan and Sharif met representatives of 69 companies based in Hong Kong and mainland China at the One Belt, One Road Pakistan Investment Forum.

They discussed infrastructure projects with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his successor, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who takes over in July.

“She [Lam] noted that the Pakistani community in Hong Kong is well integrated and that she wanted to build on that strength and forge closer links,” Khan said, referring to the more than 30,000 Pakistanis living in Hong Kong.

A group of Pakistani residents launched an online petition last week calling on the local government to bar him from entering the city. By Wednesday afternoon, the petition had attracted nearly 4,000 signatures.

It was Sharif’s first official overseas trip since Pakistan’s top court on May 5 set up an investigation to probe corruption charges involving him and his family. The scandal stemmed from revelations in the Panama Papers last year that three of Sharif’s children owned offshore companies and assets that had not been disclosed.

“The truth is that these are just allegations. They should not prejudge the judicial process. They have to wait for the court verdict,” Khan said, commenting on the petition. Corruption allegations against the prime minister were “unfair”, he added, and there was “no single case of embezzlement of public finances” involving the current government.

The protesters on Wednesday walked from Kowloon Park to near the Shangri-La Hotel, chanting “Go Nawaz go”. They were little impressed by the commerce minister’s comments.

All said they welcomed China’s investment in Pakistan but were not confident the current government would use the funds properly and improve people’s lives.

Housewife Sana Malik, 30, said morality dictated that Sharif “step down” while under investigation. “He should be a role model,” she said.

She added that two of the five judges at the top court suggested Sharif be disqualified and the other three ordered further investigation.

Malik said she moved to Hong Kong six years ago as the city had more opportunities than Pakistan.

Hong Kong permanent resident Arshad Ali Javed, 35, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong, expressed strong support for Chinese investment, but cautioned that “if it goes to corruption then it’s going to be wasted”. He said a Pakistan that offered better opportunities for its youth would persuade him to return home.

Mechanical engineer Yasir Naveed, 27, also called on Sharif to step down. “He is employing people who are investing him,” he claimed.

Naveed, who has lived in Hong Kong over a decade and organised the online petition, said he was likewise grateful for the Chinese investment. He claimed Pakistan’s economic growth largely stemmed from remittances sent by overseas Pakistanis.

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In April 2015, Islamabad and Beijing signed the founding agreements of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The US$55 billion investment programme has been mostly focused on energy and infrastructure projects.

Khan said Pakistan last weekend struck a deal with Beijing on a major upgrade of the South Asian country’s railway network.

In the future, he said, there would be a stronger focus on “industrial cooperation”. That would mean identifying special industrial zones across the country and offering tax incentives for investors.

“It is not only a large investment. It is also an opportunity to develop our underdeveloped areas and create jobs,” Khan said. “The hope is to bring people out of poverty.”