Tajikistan: China’s Advance Causing Increasing Unease among Tajiks
Economic and diplomatic ties between Tajikistan and China are flourishing. But as Dushanbe invites more Chinese workers in, and unemployment forces more Tajiks out, suspicion is turning into resentment. Many Tajiks worry that the relentless Chinese economic push into Central Asia is endangering Tajikistan’s sovereignty.
China’s rise to prominence as Tajikistan’s second largest foreign investor has been sudden; trade increased eightfold from 2007-10, according to official Tajik statistics. Last year trade turnover stood at $685 million, accounting for 17.8 percent of Tajikistan’s foreign imports and exports. The investment can be seen in new roads and tunnels and low-quality commercial goods bearing colorful Chinese characters.
The Labor Migration Service, a state agency, says there are currently 82,000 Chinese workers in Tajikistan, up from 3,000 in 2006. Their presence is a sore point for many Tajiks who cannot find work in their own country.
Two recent events have heightened resentment. On January 12, Tajikistan’s lower house of parliament ratified an agreement with Beijing to demarcate their shared border, ending a 130-year dispute dating back to the Tsarist era. Tajikistan ceded 1,142 square kilometers of remote, mountainous land, or roughly 1 percent of its territory. Days later, on January 18, Dushanbe announced plans to bring 1,500 Chinese farmers to Khatlon Province to begin cultivating rice on 2,000 hectares of land.
Dushanbe hailed the border deal as a “diplomatic victory.”
“At first China insisted on the transfer of 28,500 square kilometers and in the end we ceded 1,100. If we hadn’t decided to transfer the land [at this time], we would not have been able to resist China’s pressure,” Suhrob Sharipov, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies, which is closely linked to the president’s office, told journalists. Foreign Minister Khamrokon Zarifi called the transfer a “crucial development in relations with China.” He denied allegations that Beijing had coerced Dushanbe. Yet many suspect other concessions, such as making room for the rice farmers, were part of the deal. A few days after parliament approved the transfer, the Tajik defense minister led a delegation of military officials to Beijing, news agencies reported.
Critics argue, without presenting evidence, that the ceded land could contain large deposits of gold, uranium and other metals. Zarifi denies the land is mineral-rich.
Officials hope the move will help Dushanbe’s ability to settle tricky, potentially hazardous border disputes with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Sections of the frontier with Uzbekistan are mined; a valley that is in dispute with Kyrgyzstan experienced several days of fighting between Tajik security forces and alleged Islamic militants last fall.
For many Tajiks, the land concession is a distant concern. But in a country where only 6 percent of the territory is arable and unemployment so widespread that as many as a million men migrate abroad in search of work, the leasing of land to Chinese farmers is deeply unpopular. “Our people don't have enough land and many have to go to Russia to find work, yet we invite foreigners to work here. It makes no sense," said a Dushanbe resident worried about the Chinese “occupation.” Others note that Tajik farmers do not have enough land for themselves.
In May 2008, the Dushanbe-based Sharq Research Center found that 82 percent of Tajiks has a positive view of China. Just 3 percent feared Chinese influence. Since the recent territory and farming deals, however, “attitudes are changing,” Sharq director Muzaffar Olimov told EurasiaNet.org. “We have seen an increase in the number of people who dislike Chinese policy in the region.”
In 1999, when Askar Akayev’s government in Kyrgyzstan ceded land to China, a public outcry and attempted impeachment ensued. Proposals to lease a million hectares of Kazakh land to China in December 2009 stirred powerful public opposition there. In Tajikistan, an unusual level public discontent has appeared on social networking websites and in informal conversations. But it has not yet manifested itself publicly in Tajikistan. “We are in danger of losing not only our national land,” a Khujand resident said, “but more importantly, our national identity.”
The Tajik government in its dealings with China seems powerless, a man in Dushanbe said, echoing a widely held fear that nothing can stop Beijing’s advance: “The Chinese have already grabbed some Tajik land, and now they are renting more. Why stop? Our government cannot resist Chinese influence in the long term.”