An ethnographic approach to geopolitics: CPEC and the making of Chinese realities in northern Pakistan

Principal Supervisor: Professor Sanjay Srivastava

Co-Supervisor:  Professor Marie Lall

Project Description   Since President Xi Jinping announced China’s plans to implement the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, there has been interest in how the project is transforming relations between countries, regions and the global balance of power. These developments have been subject to significant analysis from high-level geopolitical commentators, focusing on China’s international ambitions and the changing shape of global connectivity. The BRI has matured and promises and plans have become concrete realities. This proposed research is a response to the maturing BRI as it embeds in the daily lives of ordinary people. The research will focus on the socio-cultural and environmental impact of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – one of the six ‘corridors’ of BRI, connecting the Xinjiang province of China to the Deep-Sea Gwadar port in Pakistan.   This research provides an ethnographic account of the impact new infrastructure, modes of connectivity and technology as roads, rails, fibre optics and power projects are having in Gilgit Baltistan – the northern gateway of the CPEC in Pakistan. These infrastructural initiatives have obvious material effects but also influence language, discourse and imagination. CPEC is a symbol of national identity, ambition and a desire to be connected to the globalised world whilst being underpinned by the idea of limitless growth and resource extraction within an environment that is vulnerable to the effects of climate change.   Gilgit Baltistan is a rich site for this study where CPEC interventions have been swift and profound. Historically, the region has been subject to various state-making projects, including the intensification of irrigation systems and road building projects introduced in the 19th and 20th century. A central road allowed a legible and secure passage to Kashgar and tackled competing Russian and Chinese influence. In the postcolonial era, the famous Karakoram Highway dates to the China-Pakistan agreements in the 1950s and continues to be developed as part of CPEC.   While colonial rhetoric focused on civilising, on-going interventions are focusing on modernising. Commercialisation of land and modern infrastructure have become nationalistic symbols of pride achieved through the cooperation of China and Pakistan. However, as a result of Gilgit Baltistan’s constitutional liminality and a lack of civil rights, security and surveillance mechanisms under the rhetoric of the CPEC have been implemented, solidifying the marginality of its inhabitants (Karrar & Mostowlansky, 2018).      Rationale:   Most CPEC discourse has focused on macro-economic or geostrategic analyses. There is a dearth of literature that provides an ethnographic account of how ‘CPEC’ is affecting the lives of people. Furthermore, there has been no ethnography on the impact of CPEC  focusing on the views of marginalised groups – particularly pastoralists, women, and the youth.   CPEC is implemented through a complex international network of interest groups rather than raw Chinese will. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), Aga Khan Network and the former Department for International Development (DFID) have been key to CPEC’s intervention. Working through the development sector entails finding – or even creating – a ‘deficit’ that interventions are designed to overcome. Development sector discourse often aligns itself to morally approved global trends. In CPEC’s case, the formation of ’nature solutions’ and nature reserves that are environmentally sustainable but prevent local communities from using land for pastoral practices have become integral to counter the damaging effects of construction.   James Ferguson claimed that developers create “country profiles” on which agencies based their interventions. While Ferguson’s Lesotho was represented as being a subsistence peasant society untouched by modern economic development (Ferguson and Lohman, 1994), CPEC’s northern Pakistan is primarily inhabited by nomads in the way of development. Anthropology allows for an ethnographic study that highlights that everyday interventions have continued to influence the people of the region and using essentialised representations does not accurately represent the on-going challenges.

Aims & Objectives: –   Critically analyse the discursive and practical implementations of the CPECUnderstand the impact of development interventions on transhumant pastoralists, women, and the youthProvide suggestions and policy interventions to conceive and implement development projects under the CPEC      

Methodology: –   Participant observation shall be used to explore the on-ground impact of CPEC on local communities.   Structured and semi-structured interviews shall be conducted to incorporate the opinions of government officials, contractors, and development sector officers.   The research will also draw on Chinese, Russian and British archives, reports, and maps that formed the rationales for development interventions 19th century onwards (British Library, SOAS, National Archives of Pakistan and online).   Audio-visual documentation shall be used for the documentation and dissemination of the findings of the research.
Significance: –   The research is of significance as it highlights the evolving subjectivity of previously essentialised people (particularly in Pakistan) to highlight how their challenges lie beyond abstract representations and solutions.  Secondly, the research focuses on the impact of new kinds of development intervention on the lives of women and youth who have historically been underrepresented.    

Timescale: –   Year 1: Literature review, project development, drafting fieldwork plan Year 2: Fieldwork, audio-visual documentation, writing dissertation draft, attending  one academic conference Year 3: Writing dissertation, dissemination of findings, attending one conference, Organising two conferences    

Dissemination Plans: –   Attending at least two conferences Organise conference/public engagement on the CPEC at SOAS and UCL IOE; and LUMS University, Lahore, Pakistan. Photo essay (A chronological account of road building in the Karakorams) – ideally with an application to the SOAS Haimendorf Award to support fieldwork costs. Short documentary on the impact of CPEC Organise exhibition on archival photographs on road building in Gilgit Baltistan (using the archives of David and Emily Lorimer at SOAS who created an extensive photographic record of the region in the 1930s)  
Subject Areas/Keywords   Pakistan; Anthropology; Infrastructure; Belt and Road; Development

Key References:

Karrar, H. & T. Mostowlansky. 2018. Assembling marginality in northern Pakistan. Political Geography, 63, pp. 65-74.   Kreutzmann, H. 2020. Hunza matters: Ordering and bordering between ancient and new silk roads. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.   Lall, M. & T. Saeed. 2020. Youth and the national narrative: Education, terrorism and the security state in Pakistan. London: Bloomsbury.   Simpson, E. 2022. Highways to the end of the world: Roads, Roadmen and Power in South Asia. London: Hurst Publishers.  

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principal Supervisor:        Professor Sanjay Srivastava Email:

Co-Supervisor:       Professor Marie Lall Email:

Further information about PhDs at SOAS University of London is available from: 

Applicants interested in this award will need to ensure they submit an application for a PhD to the Economics Department for either Economics, Development Economics or International Development.  

Further information about PhDs at SOAS university of London is available from:  

There is a two-step procedure for applying.  

  • Step one, apply for your PhD Programme and be sure to mention that you are applying for the Bloomsbury PhD Studentship 

Guidance for applying to a Research Programme and information on makes a complete application can be found here for How to Apply.  

If you have any enquiries please contact us below 


Telephone: 44 (0)207 074 5090 

Closing date for applications is: 
3rd March 2023