Archive for the ‘Caravan’ Category

A new piece for the latest issue of Caravan magazine, an excellent Indian publication that I would highly recommend. The piece is an evolution of a blogpost that we did for the China in Central Asia site a while ago, and of course part of the bigger project on the subject that Alex and myself are working on with Sue Anne helping us document it visually.

Horse to Water

China’s first faltering steps towards building trade links with Uzbekistan


At the 2012 Uzbekistan Tashkent China Xinjiang Business and Trade Fair, an Uzbek visitor photographs a scale model of a Chinese cotton-picking machine.

On a flight from Beijing to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Sue Anne Tay, the photographer with whom I visited Tashkent in May last year, ran into a group of businessmen from China’s Xinjiang region. They were on a government-sponsored trip to the “Uzbekistan Tashkent China Xinjiang Business and Trade Fair” in Tashkent, to help build relations between Xinjiang and the neighbouring countries as part of an economic strategy laid out by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. As he put it, China wants to “make Xinjiang a gateway for mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries”.

Unfortunately for this group of businessmen, they had to take a circuitous route to get through this gate. Because of a lack of direct flights from Urumqi to Tashkent at the time, they had been forced to re-route rather inconveniently through Beijing—a five-hour flight south-east followed by a six-hour flight west. In retrospect, the businessmen’s long trip was emblematic of difficulties they later faced in Tashkent.

We ran into them the next evening at a market in a small park behind a statue of Amir Timur, the 14th-century Asian emperor, in the centre of Tashkent. In the cool evening, traders, painters and other craftsmen had gathered to ply their wares to tourists. Some of the Chinese businessmen were getting their portraits drawn, frustrating the Soviet-trained draftsmen by constantly shifting to smoke cigarettes.

One businessman was intrigued by stalls set up near the artists. A forthright man with a flattop haircut typical of many middle-aged Chinese traders who have little time for the niceties of fashion, he had come to Tashkent to sell his food products to local traders. He was a natural leader, with the robust confidence of someone from a tough frontier province, which made his fascination at the outdoor market with faux vintage Soviet cameras all the more odd. Turning them over in his hands, he remarked on how authentic they were; I couldn’t help but think they had been made, like so many things in this world, in China. Using broken English, gestures, and my assistance as a Chinese–English translator, he proudly bargained down the cost of two cameras to $15.

Two days later, at the expo, this gentleman and the other Chinese businessmen were the sellers, trying to win over Uzbek customers for their products. Sponsored by the Xinjiang government, the expo was part of the Chinese autonomous region’s strategy to develop its economic ties with Central Asia. The companies represented all had operations in Xinjiang, though quite a few were from other provinces in China, such as Guangdong. This was also part of the central government’s strategy: richer eastern provinces were to give financial and other aid to their poorer counterparts and participate in the strategy of turning Xinjiang into a Eurasian gateway.

The expo, held in an exhibition hall in the northwestern corner of Tashkent, was underwhelming—a smattering of stalls were arranged in the centre of a much larger, imposing space, giving visitors the impression of being in a hangar. Sellers displayed everything from high-end power generation machinery and cotton-picking machines to uniforms (with a focus on the oil industry and military outfits), Uighur clothing, spices, sauces, car engine parts and electronics. Some exhibitors had carefully considered where they were travelling to—at one of the clothing stalls a sign proudly boasted that they sold ‘Turky Style clothing’, the unfortunate typo belying an attempt to tap into the Turkish-Uzbek ethnic connection. Another stall had a Chinese woman dressed up in what was supposed to be traditional ethnic Uighur attire, wearing a hat with what looked like a feather duster attached to it, as she tried to sell pillows, rugs, slippers and other homemade wool products. Compounding the hall’s feeling of emptiness was the thin crowd.

At one of the few stalls that were attracting a crowd, a Guangdong merchant selling electronics told me that his company “had been asked to invest in Xinjiang by the Guangdong government”. Having attended the expo before, he had an obvious edge over others and had had the foresight to bring along a Uighur salesman from his Urumqi office. Given Uighur and Uzbek are mutually intelligible languages, both spoken by Turkic peoples, the Uighur salesman was able to talk to curious locals and pitch them products. He proudly announced that the products on offer were all made in Xinjiang by Uighur workers, and told visitors to disregard the Guangdong branding. As proof, he pointed to the picture on a computer tablet box: a Google Android figure donning a hat of a style common to both Uighurs and Uzbeks.

Most others vendors had failed to bring someone who could communicate with locals; instead, the men sat around waiting for proceedings to end. At a stand trying to woo Uzbek companies to buy plots inside a new mall outside Xinjiang’s Kashgar city, one of the men who had had his picture drawn the night before was sitting with two of his colleagues. Bored and with no business prospects, they fiddled with mobile phones and remarked on how they, too, had been encouraged to come to Tashkent by the Guangdong government. (Although the trip had government sponsorship, they resentfully noted, they had to pay a fee to join.) It was only upon arrival that they realised Uzbekistan was an underdeveloped and poor market that was unlikely to have many companies eager to set up operations in China. “The Uzbek market is too small and low-income compared to the vast opportunities we have in Xinjiang,” said Tan Chao, a manufacturer of uniforms.

Dealing in goods of a vastly different scale, those manning the machinery companies’ stalls were less surprised by the slow foot traffic. At one stand, Liu Zhao, a cheery representative from a Siemens subsidiary that builds power stations, showed off a large model of a power substation. It had cost them somewhere in the region of 10,000 RMB (Rs 84,000) to ship the ping-pong table-sized model to Tashkent, a fraction of the money the company would make if it sold one, but he did not seem very optimistic about securing a sale. While my Chinese failed me as he went through the technical specifics of the project, he smiled pleasantly as he told me that people in Uzbekistan didn’t need products like the ones his company was offering, because “these people are at a very different stage of development”.

Soon after lunch, a local school was dismissed and there was a sudden influx of Uzbek children into the hall. The stall that particularly appealed to them was the one run by a company that made cotton-picking machines, a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned military aviation firm AVIC, which was hoping to tap the Uzbek cotton market, one of the top five in the world. But even the recent news that Xinjiang had set a cotton producing record was not helping their sales with locals, who apparently preferred American equipment. This left the Chinese businessmen to fight off eager children drawn not out of some financial stake in cotton, but rather by a large toy automobile that the company had sent along. The harassed vendors shooed away the children as they eagerly tried to play with the car, which was roughly the size of a microwave oven. Neither vendor spoke any Russian or Uzbek, but they had learned enough to say something approximating “no sale” to the young and old Uzbeks who pestered them to buy the model.

In the mid-afternoon, Duan Weiming, one of the clothiers, made a modest sale of some Western suits and received a down payment of a few hundred thousand in Uzbek som. Striding around gleefully with huge bundles of cash, he proclaimed that, given its lack of value, he would have no choice but to blow it all while he was in Uzbekistan—the Uzbek som is officially worth 1,800 per US dollar, but unofficially trades at around 2,800. When asked what he planned to spend it on, he responded, “Dinner, drinks and karaoke.” By 4 pm that day, the group at the expo concluded that the day was basically a write-off and that it was time to go home. Rounding everyone up, they hopped on a tour bus and went back to their hotel, enervated by the prospect of sitting through another day in the empty auditorium.

A few days later, over lunch with an Uzbek businessman whose company had helped sponsor the expo, we got a sense of how successful the whole enterprise had been. “Not very, to be honest, but better than last time,” he said. “More Chinese are coming.” A former government employee, he had seen the economic possibilities of China’s booming, dynamic manufacturing capabilities and had chosen to end a flourishing civil service career at a young age to go into business, with a focus on China. Though at the forefront of Sino-Uzbek relations, he was not optimistic about Xinjiang as the gateway for Central Asia. The province made low quality products and traders were, in fact, simply agents from elsewhere in China, he told us. But he admitted that the greater problem was the difficult business environment in Uzbekistan in general. Awkward red tape, worthless currency conversions and a political environment that took very careful manoeuvering meant that it did not matter how many trade fairs were held. “You can take a horse to water,” he told us, “but you cannot make it drink.” And with that his phone rang, dragging him off to do more business with China.

A short letter from the road for a new outlet, the excellent Indian magazine Caravan that I have only recently discovered. Written with Alex, it is part of our work on China in Central Asia, though focused rather more heavily on the Chinese side of the border. A lot more of this to come, including a few longer pieces that will take a bit longer to get out. The picture is courtesy the lovely Miss Tay.

Letters from: Xinjiang


Along the road to China’s closest strategic partner

by Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen | Published September 1, 2012

A Kyrgyz guide takes his horse for a drink in Lake Karakul, roughly halfway between Kashgar, in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, and the Pakistan border. By Sue Anne Tay

On paper, the Karakoram Highway stretches from Kashgar in China’s far western province of Xinjiang to Islamabad. In reality, it unfolds like a ribbon across China’s westernmost border before its tarmac comes to an abrupt halt at the Khunjerab Pass on Pakistan’s border – the highest spot on the world’s highest paved international highway. China scholars often point out that domestic concerns colour Beijing’s foreign relations, but the multifarious stops and diverse communities along the Karakoram reveal that China’s domestic concerns are anything but uniform.

Our journey starts in Ürümqi, a grubby metropolis of more than 2.3 million people that looks like many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities. Large boulevards cluttered with imposing buildings are filled with frenetic construction as the city rushes to erect more shopping malls to appease insatiable local consumers. As the capital of an autonomous region which is China’s largest political subdivision, and home to a substantial portion of China’s natural wealth, it is also a draw for poor fortune-seekers from neighbouring provinces. A taxi driver from the adjacent province of Gansu boasted how opportunities in Ürümqi are plentiful, with girlfriends to match—one for each day of the week.

The driver who picked us up in Kashgar, about 1,000 km south of Ürümqi, had a very different story to tell. A local Uyghur who had developed a substantial business in the region, he complained instead about the ineptitude of the local police as he pointed to the visibly heavy security around the airport. Kashgar distinguishes itself as majority Uyghur—the Turkic ethnic group that claims to be the original inhabitants of the territory that is Xinjiang. Traditional Uyghur culture and history is perceivable at every turn. The Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, sits on the edge of what is left of Kashgar’s old town, a warren of mud-brick houses reminiscent of Kabul or the dusty trading centres of Central Asia.

But the Han presence in the city is becoming increasingly visible. In the wake of violent clashes between Han and Uyghur that claimed more than 200 lives in 2009, the government in Beijing called for a reordering of its strategy towards the underdeveloped region. Part of this was the designation of Kashgar as a Special Economic Zone in May 2010, and the command that more prosperous provinces in China aid in developing Xinjiang. Shanghai, for example, is responsible for four areas within Kashgar Prefecture. But the most visible aspect of this partnership can be found on the first part of the Karakoram Highway on the way out of Kashgar. Immense construction sites with names of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) companies fill either side of the road with large billboards advertising the modern wonders to come. One high-class establishment advertises a luxury experience complete with an English butler service. Another artful rendering of a shopping mecca under construction was surrounded by a list of the famous Western brands soon to be on offer.

Our Uyghur driver was a younger chap still trying to find his way in the world, preoccupied with the demographic shift likely to come with the construction. According to his figures, some 600,000 Han were expected to flood in, overwhelming the Uyghur population and changing the face of Kashgar. The reality of such numbers is impossible to confirm, but watching carts pulled by donkeys hauling farmers and their wares to and from the city in front of these billboards, there is a sense of the rapid, monumental change underway. For Han moving out here to escape poverty in China’s interior or the crowded southern provinces, this change represents a new beginning. For our Uyghur driver, it is an ominous symbol of cultural erasure.

According to Chinese officials, the end goal of this construction is far less menacing than it seems. The current policy, they say, is directed at connecting one of China’s less developed regions to the country’s regional neighbours—the hope being that trade will bring prosperity and soothe some of the tensions so often on display between the various communities in the province. This means revitalising Kashgar’s historical role as a key trade hub on the old Silk Road, 35 years after the Karakoram Highway opened up a direct route to Pakistan.

As we continued along the highway, the presence of China’s regional neighbours became more visible. Opal, a small hamlet about 60 km southwest of Kashgar, is a dusty crossroads with fruit-sellers and donkey carts whose main claim to celebrity is the mausoleum of Mahmud al-Kashgari, the Turkic languages’ own Samuel Johnson. Born in Kashgar in 1005 AD, al-Kashgari studied in Baghdad and drew up not only the first Turkic dictionary, but also the first known map of the areas inhabited by Turkic peoples. Today he rests down a beaten track off Opal’s main thoroughfare. His statue stands in front of a weather-beaten museum. The grim-faced Uyghur guard looked up from her knitting to tell us not to take pictures as we enjoyed its limited pleasures. Al-Kashgari’s mausoleum is a whitewashed 1980s renovation watching over a vast mud cemetery with the Kunlun Mountains barely visible in the distance veiled by a sudden dust storm.

Along the side of the road leaving Opal, set apart from the desolate landscape of scrub and red-clay mountains and near one of the occasional open-pit mines that reveal the natural wealth of the province, a group of coal miners watched as one of them packed up to leave. Their faces were haggard and stained with soot. One burly Qinghai-native complained about the bad working conditions as a Yunnanese family gathered their belongings for a bus ride to Kashgar and then on to Ürümqi, where they hoped better times awaited them. Our Uyghur driver, too, had thoughts of leaving. He had been trying to find a way to move to Turkey, he told us, where he hoped that the chance of a common ethnicity would help open doors for him.

About halfway between Kashgar and the Pakistan border, we came across Lake Karakul. On its banks, a hut owned by local Kyrgyz herders provided some refuge from the howling wind. Our driver had heard stories that the Kyrgyz in this area were known to have helped authorities find a group of wanted Uyghurs who sought to cross the mountainous borders that surround the lake.

Further down the road in Tashkurgan, he told us a similar story about the local Tajik community, highlighting how tense relations can be between the various ethnic groups in this part of China. On the Chinese side nearer the country’s border with Tajikistan, this Persian-Tajik community speaks a different language to their ethnic brethren across the border.

Our driver became tenser the closer we got to the border regions. The area is very ethnically diverse, and the languages used are neither Mandarin nor his native Uyghur. Security is also a more visible concern, with regular army posts visibly stamping Beijing’s dominance. The notably empty town Karasu marks the Chinese side of the Kulma Pass, the way into Tajikistan. A brand-new customs post sits awaiting business with plastic still covering most of the furniture inside the building.

At Daptar, our driver was hesitant to stop. Another Pamir village, it is home to the last civilian inhabitants on the Chinese side of the Afghan border. Off in the distance, a ‘V’ in the mountains denotes where the Wakhan Corridor runs into Afghanistan. Locals were clearly on high alert given their location and the road that leads to the border with Afghanistan is a poor brother to the spotless and new Karakoram Highway. Here the highway is festooned with cameras, tracking the progress of all non-military vehicles. In the vicinity and visible from the road, large stone writing on the sides of hills instructs in Mandarin, “Protect the border; protect the country; protect the people.”

The Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway comes to an abrupt halt at the Khunjerab Pass, at the top of a hillock, leading to a more dilapidated path on the Pakistani side. White markers define the border and an imposing arch emblazoned with the Communist Party of China symbol straddles the road. On a previous visit there, a gaggle of Chinese domestic tourists eagerly took photographs of one another. One middle-aged woman decided she wanted to explore Pakistan for herself. An agitated young private from Hubei in distant central China whom we had been chatting with frantically ordered her back. But she waved him off with “mei guanxi (no worries)”, eager to explore for herself. Having noted disappointedly that the Pakistani guards were not leaving their hut that day, she returned to Chinese soil.

The locals tell stories of those who try to cross the border permanently, how they often lose their way in the snow amongst isolated peaks. At more than 4,000 metres, the border itself seems more porous than it likely is. Long empty valleys lead to rugged, snow-capped mountains with no clear fence to demarcate one side from the other. Recently, there has been a spike in Chinese concerns about security across the border, something reflected in our Uyghur driver’s attitude as we got closer. He became quieter and more visibly tense, only really calming down when we got back to Tashkurgan and sat down to dinner. Back here at a strategic peak in the middle of a valley leading to Pakistan, it was easier to objectively consider our journey along the Karakoram Highway, through the patchwork of peoples along the route binding two close allies together. The nations it brings together may be ‘higher than the mountains’ but for those living in the valleys, the differences remain strong.