Tajikistan: Under China’s Economic Thumb by Eurasianet.org

Driving south from Dushanbe, it seems there’s a Chinese investment story at every turn. But as cash pours in from Tajikistan’s powerful neighbor to the East, local concerns are building over Beijing’s opaque plans.

At the top of Chormagzak Pass, 40 minutes from the capital, a lone dump truck roams a roped-off field, the future site of a Chinese-operated cement factory that reportedly will produce 1.5 million tons annually—equaling Tajikistan’s current domestic consumption. Down the valley in Khatlon Province, another massive Chinese-built facility produced 368,000 tons of cement in the first half of this year, three-quarters of all cement produced in Tajikistan.

Watching the dump truck from under a pear tree, farmer Abubakyr Umari, 57, complains the Chinese factories help “special interests” by selling to companies widely believed to connected to senior officials while refusing to sell to locals.

These are the kind of transparency concerns that dog Chinese investment throughout Central Asia.

The cement is useful in Dushanbe, where Chinese workers are throwing up new buildings – ostentatious government structures and slipshod private apartments – every day. The projects are causing some grumbling among locals, who wonder why so many young Tajik men feel compelled to go to Russia to find work when there seem to be construction jobs at home.

Elsewhere in Khatlon Province, Chinese farmers are working abandoned plots to produce food – mostly for the Chinese market – on a 49-year government lease. “They are making themselves a home here,” Umari said, his voice conveying dissatisfaction.

Since 2003, bilateral Chinese-Tajik trade has grown over 6,000 percent, from $32 million to $2 billion annually, the head of Tajikistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry said in January. According to Foreign Ministry statistics, over 85 percent of the goods cross from China to Tajikistan. Back in 2012, the president’s office claimed Beijing had offered $1 billion in investments “in the coming years,” a boast the Chinese are apparently making good on.

That investment would soar further if – as some Tajik analysts are speculating, some with hope, some with horror – Beijing decides to invest in Rogun, a controversial hydroelectric dam that could potentially power much of Central and South Asia. With President Emomali Rakhmon insisting the dam be the tallest in the world, China’s cement factories would have a ready market.

Getting goods from the factories should become easier with the help of a new rail link, funded in part by the Export-Import Bank of China, according to Tajik media. The link will join disconnected Tajikistan’s north and south and may one day extend into China itself. The main road leading from Dushanbe to Khatlon has already been transformed by China Road Bridge Company. Two modern tunnels have helped cut the drive to the southern city of Kulyab by two hours.

“Chinese investment in strategic infrastructure has helped connect our regions with our center, allowing for the development of trade and industry and the growth of employment,” Hudoberdy Kholiknazarov, director of Tajikistan’s state-controlled Institute for Strategic Research, said at a recent gathering of regional officials in Bishkek.

China’s investments in Khatlon bear out that claim. In the president’s home district of Dangara, a 521-hectare Free Economic Zone (FEZ) is emerging as a welcome mat for Chinese entrepreneurs, and a source of jobs for Rakhmon’s political base. Aside from another proposed cement factory in Dangara, Dong Ying Heli Investment, a partner of state-run energy giant China National Petroleum Corporation, has promised to build an oil refinery that will eventually process 1.2 million tons of crude per year. Currently Tajikistan’s refined petroleum needs are mostly met by Russia; domestic oil production is negligible.

Guards at the green-gated FEZ refused a EurasiaNet.org correspondent access to the territory and would not facilitate contact with representatives inside.

While the range of Chinese investments is impressive, the cost is “domination,” said Muzaffar Olimov, director of the independent Sharq Informational-Analytical Center in Dushanbe.

“If our labor force is exported to Russia then our market for investment is cornered by China,” he told EurasiaNet.org.

Olimov fears that Tajikistan could come to resemble China’s Xinjiang Province, home to a disaffected minority “where government has a local face but the [ethnic] Han [Chinese] make all the important decisions.”

The next phase of Chinese economic largess could be construction of the Rogun dam, Olimov believes. Cost estimates for completing the dam run as high as $5 billion. “Who else has money to spend on project like that?”

In the past, Chinese companies have abandoned hydroelectric projects in Tajikistan to appease downstream Uzbekistan. But Rogun is different. “Rogun is a regional project, not a national one. It could power Afghanistan and Pakistan, where China has huge interests. Moreover, now the World Bank has given its approval [to a blueprint for Rogun],” Olimov said.

Officials at the Chinese Embassy in Dushanbe declined to respond to repeated requests for comment. For several days, several times a day, a receptionist would only give EurasiaNet.org a number for a line that was constantly engaged.

But China’s growing presence in Tajikistan is impossible to miss.

At an expat hangout in Dushanbe, two Chinese engineers drinking local beer confirm they are working on construction assignments in town.

“No, not the tea house,” says Hu, smiling, referring to one of several biggest-in-the-world projects arising in the city. Although he will not disclose exactly what his firm is building, he says it is the third time he has visited Tajikistan this year.

“It is nothing special,” Hu says in broken Russian, insisting his Tajik is better. “Many Chinese companies are building here.”

Editor’s note:

Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.