When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Uzbekistan for a summit last September, much Western commentary read like boilerplate: China is taking over Central Asia’s resources, technological development and infrastructure. Forbes described the “mountains of dirt and earth moved by Chinese mining equipment, computer hardware to power the new tech economies made in China, and funding for railroads and highways and bridges mostly all from China.”
But while this picture forms the prevalent account of Chinese investment globally, and may indeed be where the biggest money is, it oversimplifies how Beijing is gaining leverage in Central Asia and misses where Chinese soft power is strongest.
Through my fieldwork in Uzbekistan, and interviews with local stakeholders, I see a much larger, diverse and widespread Chinese presence in the country. China is not only deeply involved in mining, infrastructure and energy; it is also a source of much-needed jobs.
Take the first major China-backed special economic zone in the country. The Pengsheng Industrial Park, a $100 million joint-venture, opened in 2009 near the city of Sirdaryo some 70 kilometers from Tashkent, and hosts up to 16 companies involved in producing everything from ceramic tiles and smartphones for Central Asian markets to raw leather and pet food for China. Chinese media claim the conglomerate mostly hires local workers: Out of 1,500 employees, 1,300 are Uzbeks. Indeed, a promotional video says Pengsheng chose Sirdaryo for its plentiful labor.
Pengsheng “helps to find jobs for our [Uzbekistan’s] youth and helps to export Uzbek goods to world markets,” said Sabokhat Khoshimova, director of the Uzbekistan-China Research Center at the Tashkent University of Oriental Studies, who often works as a translator for visitors to Pengsheng.
Despite the Chinese flags and signs at the gate, the surrounding shops and restaurants cater to Uzbeks. Sirdaryo gave me the same impression; informal interviews confirmed what I could see: no Chinese, not the specialty restaurants or hotels full of Chinese workers one can find in larger cities like Tashkent.
Adjacent to Pengsheng, China’s Shaanxi province is building an agricultural park. It is an outpost of a project that Xi in 2019 ordered built for members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – a regional security bloc – to exchange technical knowhow. Inside the SCO Agricultural Base and the China-Uzbekistan Contemporary Agricultural Technology Model Park, private firms grow flowers, fruits and vegetables for local and Chinese markets, and have reportedly demonstrated how drip-irrigation can be used to grow cotton, Uzbekistan’s most environmentally unsustainable crop.
Five hundred miles to the west, in Karakalpakstan, six Chinese companies are growing and processing licorice root, which they export to China to be used in cosmetics and traditional medicine. Karakalpakstan’s exhausted soils are well-suited to the plant, which thrives in salty earth and can help rejuvenate depleted farmlands.
At KPC Nukus Herbal Technology, the Chinese boss told me the company employs around 100 people, almost all local, and has been working there since 2014. When asked why the firm had chosen Karakalpakstan, he praised the economic incentives, nodded to the favorable soil, and hinted at the humanitarian aspect of bringing development opportunities to a region best known for economic depression and environmental degradation, calling it the spirit of the Belt and Road Initiative. In the name of the BRI, the Chinese government has pushed many Chinese companies to invest in Central Asia, while also negotiating beneficial terms for them.
These visits show how Chinese firms occupy diverse sectors of Uzbekistan’s economy, while creating opportunities for local communities and adapting to local conditions. At the same time, despite the job opportunities, they are battling growing domestic skepticism.
“You can get into Korean, American, and European enterprises, but you can’t get into Chinese ones,” said Shukhrat Ganiev, a human rights activist in Bukhara, describing how Chinese plant managers are notoriously guarded and unwilling to answer questions.
“Just as we conducted inspections in the cotton sector, we should organize inspections of Chinese companies in the same way,” he concluded, referring to an industry that recently opened to observers.
Today, travel anywhere in Uzbekistan and signs of Chinese investment are abundant, if you look for them. But to draw a detailed account of the diversity, and quality, of China’s engagement in Central Asia, we need far more localized, microanalysis drawing on fieldwork and reporting. Macroanalyses based on public data, statistics, as well as media accounts and public opinion surveys, commonly undergird studies of China’s influence on Uzbekistan. However, longer-term engagements in the field – though requiring more time and funding – allow a more nuanced picture of how Chinese companies negotiate their role in Uzbek society and could break down some of the barriers. Only that will help us move beyond cliches to understand how the economic fabric of a rapidly developing country like Uzbekistan is changing.
Frank Maracchione (@Frank_Ouh) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations of the University of Sheffield. This piece presents some of the findings from his PhD project, which explores Uzbekistan’s agency in its relations with the People’s Republic of China.