Economic and political ties between Pakistan and China are strengthening, but the experiences of Mahmood Ahmed and Zhang Xinguang show that the friendship sometimes comes at a heavy personal cost. Although both countries benefit from exchanges of knowledge and growing trade, both men have suffered as a result - one losing his family business and the other, to a certain degree, his family. Mr Ahmed, 44, took over a domestic sewing machine-parts business from his father Abdul Hameed in 1987, and lives with the reality that the long-time family business is slowly but surely dying, being swamped by cheap imports and changing demands. He tells of the decline of a business he hoped to leave to his two children. 'Ten years ago, it cost us 35 rupees to produce a shuttle hook,' he said, recalling one of the major factors leading up to him closing the first of his factories in Lahore in 1995. 'China sold it here for eight rupees,' he said, alleging the price difference was due to parts being smuggled over the Sino-Pakistani border. Gradually five more of his seven factories, which employed more than 700 workers during peak times, also closed, leaving him with a handle attachment factory which today employs 34 workers. The remaining factory, which used to produce 1,500 attachments a day during its peak in 1995, now produces 300 units daily. Once wealthy, the family has also been forced to sell land and cars. In 1997, Mr Ahmed's wife, Khadija Ahmed, 44, started a higher education consultancy firm to provide an alternative source of income. 'Because Pakistan and China are friends, we should have joint ventures where people from both countries, not just one, can gain employment,' she said. 'Chinese factories are kept busy, but our factories have shut down.' Her husband does not hold a grudge against Chinese imports. 'We are happy with the Chinese products, which are very cheap and good quality. Now everything is from China, even kitchenware, lace, buttons, stationery, clothing and shoes. We don't have any complaints,' he said. Chinese exports to Pakistan surged from US$524 million in 1998 to US$2.46 billion in 2004, according to figures supplied by the Chinese embassy in Pakistan. Mr Ahmed said many of his friends were manufacturers-turned-traders, now selling Chinese goods in Pakistan. 'A trader cannot employ 700 people. When the factory closed, it was not only the owner affected, but also the 700 people,' he said. Mr Ahmed said it was only a matter of time before his last factory closed, but this time not because of Chinese products. 'Slowly Pakistanis are switching to industrial sewing machines. There are cheap ready-made clothes available and people don't want to sew at home,' he said, adding that the provision of electricity to more families in Pakistan would allow them to buy machines with electric motors and there would also be no need for his handles anymore. Foreseeing such a change, Mr Ahmed is fishing for opportunities, including co-operation with Chinese businesses. 'Maybe I will go for a small construction business building houses. Or small trade - I'd love to find Chinese enterprises to work with in Pakistan,' he said. Apart from Chinese goods flooding Pakistani markets, more and more Chinese firms are going to Pakistan to take advantage of commercial opportunities and to help build infrastructure. As of March, there were 44 Chinese companies in Pakistan, most of them state-owned, according to the Chinese embassy. Zhang Xinguang, 53, is the chief representative and general project manager in the Pakistan office of Central China Power Group's international economic and trade division. Mr Zhang said he was earning 70 yuan a month on the mainland, which rose to US$300 a month when he arrived in Pakistan 15 years ago. But he said money was not the main incentive. He was motivated by the desire to toughen himself up by working outside China. 'I came here because I wanted to help the company expand. It was not easy to develop Chinese electricity projects outside China,' he said. 'After the completion of the first project in the early 1990s, I felt I could still make some contribution to the company and the country, because China was still poor.' But the projects, which were scheduled to take between one and three years, more often took three to four years because of delays. While originally only intending to stay in Pakistan a couple of years, Mr Zhang said it was easier to remain where there was established work and networks, rather than return to China. Despite his successes, he still believed he had sacrificed his family life, returning home only a few times a year. 'I feel there are changes every time I go home,' he said. 'There is a lot of construction and the living standard is rising. But every time I return to Pakistan, I find everything the same.' Mr Zhang's leisure activities after work include watching Chinese TV programmes, walking and reading. 'There's not much to shop for here,' he said. 'Life is monotonous. There is not much of a variety of goods and most of the stuff is imported from China. 'For me, there is basically no normal family life. I can't take care of my daughter and mother. But one comfort is that, at least, I can mail them some money to improve their lives. 'No matter where you are, you still have to work. True, the living standard in China is better and you can live with family. But no pain, no gain. People here have developed much higher problem-solving skills and receive higher salaries - five to 10 times more than for the same jobs in China.' There is, however, a hidden reward for being Chinese and living in Pakistan, according to Mr Zhang. Put simply, he feels like a bridge between China and Pakistan. 'In Pakistan, Chinese receive greater respect than anywhere else in the world,' he said, adding that the company was hiring dozens of locals. 'Pakistan does not have the facilities for huge electricity projects,' he said. 'We are coming as professionals and bringing a different set of management skills. I have a sense of achievement for contributing to the good relationship between the two countries.'