With all its current troubles, Pakistan has not been attracting much foreign investment recently. In fact, China seems to be the only country that's prepared to pour money into Pakistan in a big way.
But a boost in Chinese investment has sparked resentment in southern Pakistan, where activists accuse China of trying to be a new colonial power. A bomb blast recently hit near the Chinese Consulate in Karachi — an ominous sign of the rising tensions.
When Bashir Qureshi, a politician in his late 40s, died unexpectedly last month, the medical examiner said it was a heart attack. But Qureshi's friends and family don't believe that. Instead they claim there's been a conspiracy, and that Qureshi was murdered. Poisoned, in fact — by China.
"He said that he had a lot of threats. Probably China was involved in his murder," says Imtiaz Chandio, who was Qureshi's best friend. Both Chandio and his late friend believed that Chinese investment in Pakistan challenges local power brokers in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh.
The last speech Qureshi ever gave was against China; it's now the ringtone on Chandio's cellphone.
"The enemy won't break us. Long live Sindh!" the crackly voice says.
There is no evidence linking China to Qureshi's death. But the conspiracy theory being floated by his friends reflects their own suspicion of Chinese influence in their country.
China and Pakistan have been allies for decades, and China recently pledged to greatly increase its investment in Pakistan, from $7 billion to $30 billion a year.
Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and Britain, says that money couldn't come at a better time. "Let's face it: Foreign direct investment into Pakistan has plunged to a historic low," she says. "In this environment, when you have China — the second-largest economy in the world — stepping up to the plate and saying, 'We're prepared to help you,' at a time when others are shy of coming into Pakistan, I think that more than offsets the fears that some may have."
The late Qureshi complained that China's big construction projects rely on Chinese workers and Pakistani migrants.
In recent years, China has faced similar criticisms when it has made large investments in other developing nations, including a number of African states.
Another Sindhi leader, Abdul Khalique Junejo, is spearheading opposition to the latest Chinese effort: a 1 million-acre industrial megacity called Zulfiqarabad, a pet project of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
"President Zardari may be saying that it will be a global project and there will be development, there will be employment, but for whom?" Junejo asks. "It will not be for Sindhis."
Junejo is furiously writing letters and organizing peaceful protests. But the peace has been shattered. Last month's bomb blast near the consulate in Karachi injured two people. And Junejo hints that the violence may become widespread.
"If they ignore all these things, and go ahead with this project, then the resistance may take many shapes," he says.
In the late 1990s, China built the billion-dollar Gwader port in Baluchistan, a troubled province in southwest Pakistan that borders Iran and Afghanistan. But the port has hardly brought riches to the region. Locals blamed China, for bringing its own workers — some of whom were attacked and killed.
China Controversies Grow
In Sindh, the Zulfiqarabad megacity has just broken ground — and prompted a local boycott of Chinese goods.
"China project unacceptable," protesters chanted at a recent rally in Karachi. "Let your voices be heard all the way to China," they screamed.
Tanvir Ahmad Khan, a former Pakistani foreign secretary, says activists' demands are unrealistic. For example, the idea that no outsiders — foreigners or people from other Pakistani provinces — should be able to do business there.
"This would mean that there should never be a development project in Sindh," he says. "That Sindh should be consigned to a medieval economy forever and ever."
On Aug. 14, Pakistan's Independence Day, a much smaller controversy erupted over China, the maker of the miniature Pakistani flags people waved in the street.
Some Pakistanis were upset the Chinese got their flag color slightly wrong — and that the flags weren't made in Pakistan in the first place.
Outrage over "Made in China" is nothing new in America; take this year's Olympic uniforms, for example. But this may be the first such row — perhaps of many to come — as China expands its influence in Pakistan.