CPEC: The Case for Full Disclosure

By Anjum Altaf

I am now less interested in CPEC, which is unstoppable, and more fascinated by how people think. Conventional wisdom has individuals using reason to objectively weigh the costs and benefits of an option and then choosing it if benefits exceed costs. More and more evidence on actual behavior suggests that individuals start with their minds already made up and then pick and choose arguments to support their positions.

At this time PML supporters are convinced CPEC is a game-changer while those opposed to the party believe it is a recipe for disaster. The former claim Nawaz Sharif is an astute industrialist and China a trusted friend. The latter argue Nawaz Sharif is corrupt and is using hype to distract attention from his troubles. Supporters are not willing to consider that their party can make bad decisions; opponents are unwilling to concede the the PML could get something right. No one is basing their position on factual information which remains irrelevant to the debate.   

Such attitudes make it difficult to convince anyone that their views might be mistaken. Objectively speaking, everyone should be neutral on the CPEC at this time as enough reliable information is not available to evaluate costs and benefits within reasonable bounds. The rational individual should be withholding judgement and demanding the numbers. Instead, stormtroopers on both sides are frothing at the mouth, ready to dismiss all contrary arguments as treason.

Although I am convinced that few minds are likely to be changed by my opinion, I still feel a responsibility to present the case for neutrality till more data is available for credible analysis. I believe my argument will make sense even to those lacking the expertise of  economists and financial analysts.

The starting point is the acknowledgement that $56 billion is a significant amount of money in the Pakistani context and that an infusion of this magnitude has the potential to do a lot of good. The big question is: Will the potential be realized?

Instead of answering this question on faith, I suggest participation in a thought experiment. Imagine your family is facing financial hardship and everyone you have approached has turned you down. Now someone comes along offering a loan of a million dollars, an amount that can solve all your problems and change your life. Would you accept the money with your eyes closed?

I am hoping you will ask for the terms of the loan. Suppose you are told you would be expected to convert to another religion. Or that you would have to indenture your children in case you fail to meet the repayment obligations. Would you accept the money on such terms?

These are hypothetical examples. I am not saying the Chinese are asking Pakistanis to give up their religion or indenture future generations. The extreme examples are only meant to dramatize the essential point that only a very foolish or reckless or desperate person would be willing to sign on the dotted line without knowing the terms of the deal. Is that an unreasonable conclusion?

Let us return to CPEC assuming the Chinese would not be asking for any such thing. But let us think of what the Chinese might ask for. Suppose they ask that whatever we buy with the money must be purchased from Chinese suppliers. Would you accept such a condition on a personal loan? If not, would you not worry if the nation is being asked for such an arrangement?

Consider the personal risks of accepting such a demand. The lender could sell you second-rate goods at above-market prices. Any tied arrangement would deprive you of better alternatives available in the market. At the national level, sole-sourcing would eliminate the efficiency gains resulting from procurement of supplies via competitive international bidding. Therefore, we should be reluctant to accept loans conditional on sole-sourcing.

The Chinese may not insist on sole-sourcing but ask instead for guaranteed charges and exorbitant rates of return on the investments independent of whether the projects are profitable or not. Many people know someone unfortunate enough to get enmeshed in exploitative arrangements with loan sharks and are aware of the consequences. This kind of outcome is not to be taken lightly.

These examples are speculative and may appear outlandish and I have no idea if CPEC involves anything of the kind. But that is exactly the point because such examples are by no means purely a figment of the imagination. Readers are well aware that usury, the charging of exorbitant rates of return on loans, is prohibited in most religions for good reason. They know that bonded labor still exists in some industries. Some who know their history would recall that the British passed an act in 1938 to rescue the heavily indebted Punjabi peasantry from the clutches of moneylenders. And there are records of violent opposition to alleged attempts by missionaries to influence people by offering them material temptations.     

The bottom line is that it is never a good practice to accept loans without full knowledge of the terms and conditions, more so when one is desperate for financial assistance. Readers would do well to read Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to reinforce this conclusion. And, if convinced, wouldn’t it be ethically wrong to urge the country to accept something that one would personally reject? You should not do to others what you would not do to yourself.

Intellectual honesty demands a stance of neutrality on CPEC till the terms and conditions are disclosed without which one cannot arrive at an objective assessment of whether it could be potentially beneficial for the country. Only then could one move to the next stage of appraisal knowing that even potentially beneficial projects of this magnitude depend for their success on many other factors. Asides from the truly random and uncontrollable ones, these would include the implementation capacity of Pakistani governments whose probity and track record is not one to inspire confidence. What would we need to do to hold the government’s feet to the fire and prevent another Reko Diq?

This opinion appeared in Dawn on May 15, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. See also, CPEC: Lessons from History and CPEC: Questions Persist.

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