As a source of raw metals, Tajikistan has become a destination for thousands of low-skill Chinese laborers. How Beijing regards these workers has charged into view during the coronavirus pandemic. Spoiler alert: They are not a priority.
Chinese workers at a mine in northern Tajikistan had been demanding passage home for weeks before learning that a Chinese national in the country had contracted COVID-19. Rumors then spread that two had died. On May 20, around 100 of the miners rioted, reportedly fearful they would not receive adequate treatment in Tajikistan if they, too, were infected. Authorities suppressed them with force. Many Chinese workers are stranded.
Contrast their treatment with the fuss made over a Chinese engineer in Turkmenistan: On May 1, China’s envoy to Ashgabat, Sun Weidong, called Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov to ask that a Chinese medivac plane be permitted to land and fetch the engineer, who had suffered a detached retina. He was evacuated for surgery in Tianjin.
It often appears that Chinese diplomats elsewhere in Central Asia are more concerned with their nationals’ health and well-being. For months, embassy press releases from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have described efforts to distribute protective equipment and medicine to Chinese businessmen, teachers, engineers and students. The Chinese Embassy in Tajikistan, by comparison, has been more reticent. Judging by the outpost’s few statements, only a handful of students and teachers have received such packages. A package of aid did finally arrive for the miners, reported China Securities Journal on May 20, the day they resorted to rioting.
Still, for those lucky enough to be posted anywhere but Tajikistan, Central Asia is no workers’ paradise.
On May 1, state-owned China National Chemical Engineering Group Corporation revealed to Xinhua that it had since March 21 prohibited employees from entering or leaving the site of a $2.6 billion plastics factory under construction in Atyrau. Some workers have toiled over 200 days without a break, helping the company stay on schedule to open this year.
Efforts to fulfill quotas regardless of the pandemic have been reported in Turkmenistan, as well. The local subsidiary of China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation, or Sinopec, has kept 35 staff working on a drilling project without breaks, the company said on May 6. Next door in Uzbekistan on May 3, state-owned China Railway Tunnel Group opened a 3,657-meter shaft for a new coal mine in the southern Surxondaryo region. Chinese workers found a way to enter Uzbekistan, manager Wang Jian told Xinhua, even though commercial flights between the countries had been suspended.
China National Petroleum Corporation, the state-owned oil and gas giant, has been keeping busy after a series of devastating storms hit the region in early May. Though Turkmen state media altogether ignored the destruction, CNPC announced it had worked quickly to repair damaged facilities and took credit for repairing parts of the Turkmen energy grid that had failed during a storm.
In Uzbekistan, CNPC said its teams had worked overtime to ensure pipelines and gas fields were unharmed during the inclement weather.
Despite the storms and the pandemic, CNPC likewise said it had met its quota to construct 39 drills in Uzbekistan’s south since March. A irrigation project being built by Xinjiang Tianye Water Saving Irrigation System Company has even pushed growth at a cotton plantation in Syr Darya province ahead of schedule, reported China News Service on May 22.
- After suspending work for four weeks due to the coronavirus, state-owned China Xinxing Construction Group resumed work May 3 on the Nur-Sultan ring road and the Qalbatau-Ust-Kamenogorsk highway, reported Xinhua.
- More Chinese-built turbine blades have arrived at the 100-megawatt Zhanatas wind power project north of Shymkent, keeping the second phase of the project, due to be completed by the end of the year, on track.
- On May 12, CNPC’s Pipeline Engineering Company and Alashankou Daodu Pipeline Company inked a design contract for the new China-Kazakhstan liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) pipeline, announced the China Gas Association, a Beijing-based industry group. The new conduit is designed to end reliance for LPG transportation on trucks and cargo trains.
- Chinese foods are also returning to Central Asian markets. After Kazakhstan lifted a month-long ban on Chinese fruits, 26 tons of apples from Xinjiang crossed into the country on May 1. Another 25 tons of apples from Gansu Province entered Uzbekistan on May 18. And for the first time a batch of frozen shrimp from Zhejiang province, worth $75,200, entered Kazakhstan on May 26.
- Bus manufacturer Yutong on May 9 signed a deal to export 760 more natural gas-powered buses to Shymkent and Atyrau, adding to the 2,000 Yutong buses already operating in Kazakhstan.
- Demand for Chinese-made cars is growing in Uzbekistan. Changan-based Oshan has pledged to begin assembling SUVs, pickup trucks and commercial vehicles in Uzbekistan’s Navoi Free Economic Zone to target the Uzbek domestic market, local media reported.
- Sinopec said its subsidiary in Kazakhstan, North China Petroleum Engineering Underground, had signed a contract on May 4 to work with Kazakh-Chinese oil services joint venture Batys-Munai as drilling contractors serving Kazakhstan state-run KazMunayGas.
- More trade between China and Turkmenistan should be expected in the coming months. On May 20, the first cargo train arrived in Turkmenistan from China. Initiated by Kazakhstan’s state railway, the train departed Jinannan, in China’s east, passed through Khorgos on the Chinese-Kazakh border and crossed into Turkmenistan at Bolashak near the Caspian coast before arriving outside the Turkmen capital. The Chinese Embassy in Ashgabat said the trip took eight days.
- Trade is not picking up for everything, however. China has told its chief Central Asian gas suppliers – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – that it will reduce purchases and that the three should expect to split the losses among themselves, S&P Global Platts reported on May 5. Kazakhstan is the best positioned of the three to make up the loss; as oil prices fell in Europe, it shifted sales to China, exporting 230,000 tons in May after shipping only 50,000 in April, TASS reported May 18.
Hardly a day passes without a press release about more Chinese aid arriving in Central Asia, often on military aircraft, to help fight the pandemic.
Returning to Tajikistan, to offer just one example in the region: The country received aid shipments in May from the People’s Liberation Army, the central government in Beijing, the Xinjiang provincial government, and charity groups in Qingdao, the embassy reported.
A group of Chinese doctors from Shaanxi arrived in Dushanbe on a May 24 charter for an eight-day visit sponsored by the Communist Party, during which they would help train Tajik medics. When they departed, said Chinese state news, they received a personal letter of thanks from the president’s son, Rustam Emomali. He had, after all, invited them.
Niva Yau researches China in Central Asian affairs at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek.