A new piece for 东方早报 (Oriental Morning Post) the Chinese paper I occasionally write for, this time focused on difficulties that corporate China has encountered recently in Central Asia. As usual, the Chinese is on top, with what I submitted in English below.
潘睿凡 英国伦敦国际激进主义 研究中心副研究员 （李鸣燕 译）
Corporate China’s Challenges and Opportunities in Central Asia
Last month news came out of Kyrgyzstan that a local dispute at a Chinese owned gold mine had escalated to the point that staff had to be evacuated and operations shut down. This is not the first time that Chinese companies have had trouble in Kyrgyzstan. It is not in fact the first time that Chinese companies have had trouble in Central Asia more generally. Doubtless this is a problem that is considered far down the list of priorities for the new leadership in Zhongnanhai, but it has the potential to have a direct impact on China domestically. Unless Chinese companies get Central Asia right, it is going to be very difficult for the May 2010 work plan to develop Xinjiang to be effectively implemented.
In September this year at the second international China Eurasian Expo in Urumqi, Premier Wen Jiabao highlighted the important link that Xinjiang is between China and Eurasia. In particular he highlighted how ‘Xinjiang’s reform, opening-up and development will not only benefit people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang, but also bring more development opportunities to Eurasian countries.’ Saying this at the Expo before senior leaders from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan highlighted the importance of these relationships in developing Xinjiang.
Far from major sealanes and modern trading routes, it has always been obvious that the solution to developing Xinjiang lies in developing its links with the countries it borders. Opening up these links is something that will further help strengthen China’s connections with Europe, opening up roadways to directly link Chinese producers with European markets.
And the government has actively encouraged this. Using money from Export-Import Bank loans and deploying state owned firms it has built roads and is building rail infrastructure both in Xinjiang and Central Asia. It has further encouraged state owned companies to invest in the area, taking advantage of the rich natural resources that can be found. And the groundwork laid by state owned firms has been built on by Xinjiang companies and traders seeking new markets that have now been opened up to them. In my travels across the region, I found Chinese traders, goods and workers – many of them with strong connections back to Xinjiang, highlighting how they were helping expand Xinjiang’s economy.
But now this growth is increasingly encountering difficulties. The recent trouble in Kyrgyzstan is not the first of its kind, and in the past Chinese companies have had other problems regionally. Partially this is because Central Asia is a difficult environment to work in, but there is also a problem of local perceptions. In talking to locals in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan I was endlessly surprised by the negative reactions and beliefs they would have towards Chinese companies. People would tell me stories about how Chinese workers were stealing jobs, women and eating all the animals in sight. More seriously, they would tell me how Chinese firms underpay or pay late, offer bad jobs to locals and treat staff badly. Whether true or not, the general perception is that Chinese firms are in Central Asia to simply take raw materials and commodities back to China, while they flood the markets with low quality products.
The picture that results is a negative one that leads to difficulties like those currently being experienced in Kyrgyzstan. Admittedly, I was told by locals that most foreign firms encounter similar issues in Kyrgyzstan, but the difference is that these other companies are not playing a role in directly helping a part of their home nations develop. This is the key difference for Chinese firms in Central Asia versus European ones: for the European ones it is merely another distant market, for Chinese ones, it is a market next door that is important to develop if the policy to develop Xinjiang is to be achieved.
This is also why this story is something that is important for policymakers in Beijing. Unless something is done to improve China’s image in Central Asia, then the overall strategy of developing Xinjiang’s links with its border regions will be undermined.
What is needed is a clearer strategic approach to China’s engagement with Central Asia. China cannot solely rely on Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summits and a slow economic policy that spreads out from Xinjiang. This approach is already causing some friction on the ground and this will only get worse. If China wants to establish a cooperative economic relationship with its Central Asian neighbours, then some efforts need to be made into establishing how to help these economies develop and not simply focus on extracting national benefit from them.
This is not an easy path to take, and Beijing’s new policymakers have an already crowded plate. But unless some effort is taken to forge an actual policy towards Central Asia, China will find its regional development strategy with Xinjiang falling down too. And this would be something that would have a hugely negative effect on any grander strategy to develop the country and help it move beyond the growing economic stagnation.