China Local/Global

China Local/Global

China has become a global power, but there is too little debate about how this has happened and what it means. Many argue that China exports its developmental model and imposes it on other countries. But Chinese players also extend their influence by working through local actors and institutions while adapting and assimilating local and traditional forms, norms, and practices.

With a generous multiyear grant from the Ford Foundation, Carnegie has launched an innovative body of research on Chinese engagement strategies in seven regions of the world—Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, the Pacific, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Through a mix of research and strategic convening, this project explores these complex dynamics, including the ways Chinese firms are adapting to local labor laws in Latin America, Chinese banks and funds are exploring traditional Islamic financial and credit products in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and Chinese actors are helping local workers upgrade their skills in Central Asia. These adaptive Chinese strategies that accommodate and work within local realities are mostly ignored by Western policymakers in particular.

Ultimately, the project aims to significantly broaden understanding and debate about China’s role in the world and to generate innovative policy ideas. These could enable local players to better channel Chinese energies to support their societies and economies; provide lessons for Western engagement around the world, especially in developing countries; help China’s own policy community learn from the diversity of Chinese experience; and potentially reduce frictions.

Evan A. Feigenbaum
Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


There has been a sea change in China’s economic involvement in Central Asia. Large-scale transport and electricity projects funded by Chinese government loans have dried up. Hydrocarbon exports to China continue, but they are not the focus of most new projects. Instead, there are a growing number of industrial projects that seek to make value-added products that can be exported. These projects are increasingly staffed by Central Asians who receive technical training from Chinese firms.

This change has been primarily driven by Central Asian states. The region’s governments have long pushed for industrial capacity building, including the upskilling of local workers. In addition, debt concerns in Kyrgyzstan in particular have made Chinese loans less attractive and less prevalent. This trend has coincided with Chinese policy banks’ embrace of more conservative lending policies globally for infrastructure projects.

Chinese firms have begun adapting to these demands. They have steadily increased their proportions of local hires by training Central Asian workers both onsite and in China to address skills shortages. They have tried to engage local communities to earn a social license for their overseas operations. The Chinese government is now following suit. It is developing more formal cooperation agreements on industrialization and upskilling in addition to pre-existing, ad-hoc arrangements by individual companies.

So far, the outcomes have been mixed. Many Chinese firms in Central Asia are employing more locals. Yet the more closely integrated these Chinese firms become with the region’s economies, the more they must deal with, or be co-opted by, localized corruption and political fights. Newly available polling data shows that public sentiments toward China are becoming more negative.

Chinese companies are flexibly adapting to this environment of heightened expectations in a variety of ways. The views that outside observers in Washington and elsewhere harbor of China’s infrastructure investments through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia are outdated and do not reflect how much Chinese firms and eventually the Chinese government have adapted to meet local needs. Any Western-proposed alternative to the BRI needs to take these considerations into account.


Chinese companies’ overseas operations first and foremost seek to generate profits, yet they must also reflect and advance (or be seen to advance) the broad policy goals of the Chinese government. As a former chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank of China) wrote in 2015, “[Chinese companies are] the implementers at the pointy end of the broad policy direction. [The Belt and Road Initiative] BRI is completely reliant on the positive participation of [Chinese] companies.”1 As a result, Chinese firms abroad find themselves managing competing priorities.

One of those priorities is adapting to the demands of the countries in which they do business. In Central Asia, national governments, local politicians, and local communities now demand more from their international commercial partners. The governments and citizens of Central Asian countries want more jobs, exports, government revenue, and Chinese support for local community projects and skills training. To continue operating in the region without disruptions, Chinese firms simply cannot ignore these local demands. Consequently, Chinese firms in Central Asia have been responding by, for example, localizing their workforces, facilitating local economic development near major investment projects, and trying to create links with local communities.

Dirk van der Kley
Dirk van der Kley is a research fellow at the School of Regulation and Global Governance at Australian National University.

But many Central Asians’ strong distrust of foreign, and particularly Chinese, firms and their misgivings about their own governments have made this task more difficult. The more that Chinese companies involve themselves in Central Asian communities, the more enmeshed they have become to local problems like corruption or local political fights.

The Chinese government’s three main strategic and political interests in Central Asia have been largely consistent over time. China hopes to ensure a stable flow of hydrocarbons, to ensure the region is as economically and politically stable as possible, and to secure tacit cooperation (or at least a lack of criticism) from regional actors with China’s political agenda. Kazakhstan in particular has faced more pressure in the last five years from China as Kazakh authorities deal with local anger at the Chinese government’s forced detentions of ethnic minorities (especially Uyghurs) in the Xinjiang region.

Yet Chinese firms’ economic and commercial roles in Central Asia have changed much more rapidly. Prior to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, China had three main economic roles in the region. First, China funded and built roads, power plants, and electrical grids in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Second, Chinese firms invested in oil and gas assets in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, while hydrocarbon exports to China have ballooned since the 1990s. And third, China began importing moderate levels of unprocessed metals from Kazakhstan and cotton from Uzbekistan.

While hydrocarbons still dominate Central Asian exports to China, Beijing’s emphasis has shifted over the last five years to helping the region’s economies industrialize. Gone are the large infrastructure loans that characterized China’s earlier economic engagement in Central Asia. Indeed, the last major loan deal for Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, the major regional recipients of Chinese lending, was signed in 2014. Instead, Chinese firms now are trying to build factories, develop processing facilities for raw materials, and modernize local agricultural operations and facilities. These efforts are part and parcel of a strategic push to help four of the five Central Asian countries (all except for Turkmenistan, which remains too economically and politically isolated) to develop export industries that employ locals and improve the skills of local workers.

Multiple trend lines are driving these changes. First, Central Asian states have learned how to push both the Chinese government and Chinese companies to meet their needs. They increasingly insist on programs and stipulations to hire and upskill more local workers, and government officials in the region have begun coordinating with Chinese companies and the Chinese government to formulate joint development plans. Today, unlike before, they seek investment instead of government-to-government loans.

Second, China’s central government and its two leading policy banks—the China Development Bank (CDB) and the Exim Bank of China—have encouraged this move toward investment and away from large, debt-funded infrastructure projects.

Third, Chinese firms are adapting to this new environment. An ever-growing number of Chinese companies are investing abroad due to overseas market opportunities, cutthroat competition at home, industrial overcapacity, rising wages for Chinese workers, and stricter environmental regulations in China.

A few of these Chinese firms have ended up pursuing opportunities in Central Asia. As a result, more Chinese companies are acting and investing in ways that broaden Chinese economic engagement from the handful of big, loan-financed projects that characterized the earlier phase of Chinese commercial ventures in the region. This pattern of Chinese companies—big and small, public and private—searching for market opportunities in a less competitive part of the world has been a steady long-term trend, not the result of some Chinese government edict to enter Central Asian markets.

Chinese investment alone cannot upgrade the skills of local labor forces and transform these countries’ economies. For example, China’s ambassador to Tajikistan claimed in a January 2020 interview that Chinese firms employed over 7,000 locals in the country prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.2 By comparison, it is estimated that between 400,000 and 1 million Tajik citizens live in Russia; many of them work there and send back remittances, which make up a major element of the Tajik economy.3 So, while China is making a modest difference to employment and skills training in certain sectors of Tajikistan’s economy, the Russian economy is vital to the Tajik economy because it directly employs at least hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrants in Russia itself. Even so, such employment arrangements in Russia are not necessarily offering Tajik migrant laborers new skills or improving Tajikistan’s underlying base of human capital.

The roles of Chinese firms operating in Central Asia are changing as they face evolving demands from local government officials and citizens in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. These firms have employed various strategies and tactics to navigate the region’s business environments as Central Asian governments, communities, and commercial partners increasingly ask more of their actual and potential Chinese partners.

Central Asia’s Changing Economic Landscape

China’s economic engagement in Central Asia has progressed in roughly four phases, with developments in one phase sometimes overlapping with the next.

  • Phase 1: From the late 1990s to 2014, Chinese engagement focused principally on state-backed investments in hydrocarbon and mineral extraction in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. This engagement later shifted to hydrocarbon pipeline construction to move gas and oil to China. But these investments have slowed dramatically since around 2014.
  • Phase 2: From 2006 to 2014, Chinese policy banks lent funds to the governments of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for transportation, power generation, and electrical grid projects. Some projects have continued to be built since 2014, but no new major loan agreements have been signed since then.
  • Phase 3: Since the late 2000s, there has been a steadily growing number of Chinese companies, often private firms, making small investments in a range of diversified industries in Central Asia beyond the hydrocarbons sector and related industries and services. Most of these Chinese investors have been driven by difficult business conditions in China and a relative lack of competition in Central Asia.
  • Phase 4: Since around 2012–2013, Central Asia has seen a proliferation of projects that could be described as industrial capacity building. In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for example, such projects have involved hydrocarbon processing. In Tajikistan, by contrast, the focus has been on textiles, modernizing agriculture, and cement and glass factories. In Kyrgyzstan, Chinese firms have invested in oil refineries, cement factories, and mineral mining. There appears to be an upper ceiling on the number of Chinese firms willing to invest in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, likely due to their limited market size and challenging business environments. Figure 1 shows that Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) flows into Kyrgyzstan have remained consistent since 2013 (except for a drop in 2020 likely caused by the coronavirus pandemic).4 Figure 2 shows a similar consistency for Chinese FDI flows into Tajikistan since 2015 (with a similar pandemic-related drop in 2020).5 The steady flow of FDI contrasts with the lack of new infrastructure-related deals financed by loans from Chinese policy banks in those two countries.

The first Chinese companies with the capacity to invest abroad were the national state-owned oil companies. China’s downstream supply of hydrocarbons was limited, while demand was booming. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan both had potentially large, yet poorly mapped, hydrocarbon deposits.6 Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were looking to use hydrocarbons to power their economies after the collapse of the Soviet Union, yielding a confluence of shared interests. China’s national oil companies and smaller operators, underwritten by cheap financing from the Chinese government, invested in hydrocarbon exploration and extraction in the region through both greenfield and brownfield investments.

China’s first big hydrocarbons play in the region came in 1997 when the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) purchased a 60.3 percent stake in one of Kazakhstan’s significant hydrocarbon companies, AktobeMunaiGas.7 That same year, China and Kazakhstan signed an intergovernmental agreement for an oil pipeline, which became operational in 2006.8 This set off several other investments, such as CNPC’s acquisition of PetroKazakhstan in 2005.9 A set of three gas pipelines from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China began transporting gas in 2009.10

Niva Yau
Niva Yau is a resident researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek and a fellow at the Eurasia Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

The next phase of China-spurred economic activity in Central Asia was set off in 2006 when Tajikistan, the region’s poorest country with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of around $400 that year, signed loan deals with China to finance road projects, electrical grids, and a hydropower plant.11 Not all of these initial Chinese-Tajik deals progressed, but the Exim Bank of China’s loan disbursements were at their highest between 2007 and 2009.12 The most recent large deals (over $100 million) were signed in 2014, but these projects already have been completed.13 One deal worth $79 million was signed in 2017, but that one is relatively small compared to Tajikistan’s total $1.2 billion in debt to the Exim Bank of China.14 Before the coronavirus pandemic, Tajikistan’s debt to China was gradually decreasing as it paid back the old loans (see figure 3).15 Dushanbe has since continued to borrow from elsewhere, so China’s share of Tajikistan’s overall debt load, contrary to popular perceptions, decreased from 53.6 percent in 2016 to 35.6 percent in July 2020.16 China suspended Tajikistan’s loan repayments due to the effects of the pandemic in the second half of 2020, so that trend has momentarily slowed.17

Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, signed its first big loan deal with the Exim Bank of China in 2009 and its last one in 2015.18 The most recent deal was the North-South Alternative Road in Kyrgyzstan, a project that is still being constructed with a target completion date of late 2021. The Exim Bank of China has continued to disburse money as part of that project. However, Kyrgyzstan’s total debt to the Exim Bank of China basically has remained flat for the last four years (see figure 4), so it is likely that the country’s loan repayments are roughly similar to the ongoing disbursements for the road project.19 During the pandemic, Kyrgyzstan borrowed not from Beijing but from the International Monetary Fund to meet its immediate budgetary shortfalls.20

The Exim Bank of China is the main Chinese government lender to both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But there are other small sources of funds. It was reported in 2015 that the National Bank of Tajikistan would have a line of credit of up to $500 million from the CDB.21 Documents from Tajikistan’s Ministry of Finance show that the country’s national bank had only borrowed $10 million by 2016 and that the debt owed has since fallen to $2 million.22 Between 2013 and 2015, the CDB and the People’s Bank of China made five separate lending pledges to Tajik state-owned bank Amonatbonk with a cumulative value of around $91 million.23 It remains unclear if this money has been disbursed. It could be hidden as it is not a direct loan to the Tajikistan government. Either way, the amount is small compared to lending by the Exim Bank of China. And there have been no large lending pledges to the Tajikistan government or government-related entities by lenders other than the Exim Bank of China since 2015. In Kyrgyzstan, lenders apart from the Exim Bank of China have made loan pledges (though it remains unclear if they were actually disbursed) to Kyrgyz banks, but these pledges are in the order of tens of millions of dollars versus over $1.5 billion actually disbursed by the Exim Bank of China.24

Just two companies have constructed the bulk of these important infrastructure projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) built the roads, and TBEA, a company formerly known as Tebian Electric Apparatus, built the electrical grids and power plants. Many of these projects had long been planned, but neither state had been able to finance them on their own.

While Chinese policy banks have largely stopped funding new infrastructure projects in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Chinese firms at times still construct this type of infrastructure in Central Asia. Some firms win tenders from multilateral banks. For example, the Hunan Road and Bridge Construction Group started building a road in Tajikistan in 2021 funded by the Asian Development Bank, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Fund for International Development, and the government of Tajikistan.25 China and Kazakhstan have agreed to a total of fifty-five projects, some of which involve electricity and transportation infrastructure. Some of these will likely attract Chinese policy bank funding, but they are a relatively small part of an agreement that focuses mainly on industrial capacity building.26

In the late 2000s, a handful of other Chinese investors started opening businesses in Central Asia. But these firms were spread across a diverse range of industries. In general, these companies sought to escape increasingly competitive conditions, and often significant industrial overcapacity, in China. Central Asia offered markets with less intense competition, notwithstanding the region’s difficult business environments.27 There was also the attraction of lower labor costs and tax incentives from some recipient governments.

These companies represented the first wave of Chinese investors in Central Asia who drove a new phase of economic activity due to overcapacity and difficult conditions in China. Under Xi, China’s central leadership strived to move the country’s industrial overcapacity overseas as part of the BRI, which was launched in 2013. But even before then, the Chinese government had encouraged the country’s policy banks and commercial banks to provide cheap financing for overseas investments as part of the Go Out policy.

The BRI led to much clearer policy-related communication between the governments of China and Central Asia.28 For example, in December 2014, during a visit to Kazakhstan by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the countries reached an $18 billion agreement on industrial cooperation, although it is unclear how much follow-through there has been.29 Nearly 300 Chinese business leaders joined Li on the trip, and the government of Kazakhstan prepared a list of almost eighty project proposals for their Chinese counterparts to consider.30 China and Kazakhstan established a $2 billion fund in 2015 to kick-start planning for industrial tech transfers from China to Kazakhstan.31 By 2019, more than fifty of the projects had received a stamp of approval, and at least fifteen of them already have been completed (though some of the completed projects began before 2013).32

Table 1 below demonstrates that, while there are transportation and power station projects on the list, its focus on industry is very clear.33If mineral processing, hydrocarbon processing, manufacturing, chemical production, and agroindustrial ventures are considered industrial projects, then these projects account for 72.6 percent of the value of the projects in the intergovernmental agreement.

The funding model varies by project. Some will be direct investments by Chinese players, often through joint ventures. For others, Chinese policy banks will lend money to Kazakh state-affiliated entities, including for some of the electricity and transportation projects (but these will be smaller as a percentage of GDP than previous such projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). The CDB, for instance, lent $2 billion to a subsidiary of Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna, to help bankroll a $2.6 billion plastics factory being built in Atyrau, a city in western Kazakhstan.34 In this case, the parties involved used a build-transfer (BT) model, in which the Chinese companies involved are building the project and hand it over to the Kazakh partner to operate. Sometimes the Chinese company involved operates a project for a time before handing it back over. In this instance, a Kazakh state-run company will operate the plant once the Chinese construction firm finishes building it. It is one of multiple such BT projects that Chinese investors have undertaken in the country. BT projects appeal to both the government of Kazakhstan and Chinese companies investing or operating in the country. For Kazakhstan, the benefit is that such deals usually help build industries that the country historically has not had and ones that Kazakh firms themselves simply would not have the capacity to build indigenously. For their part, Chinese companies must build the projects but are absolved of the need to deal with the hassles and obstacles that often arise when operating a business in Kazakhstan. Available evidence suggests that the Chinese government and Chinese firms deepening their involvement in Kazakhstan have been responding to strong pull factors from the country itself. In January 2014, then Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev described industrial plans for 2030 and 2050 in which he outlined a roadmap for continued economic growth. One of the key strategies was to “develop new industries with an emphasis on expanding [the] export-oriented non-energy sector.”35 These plans are on top of Kazakhstan’s dedicated industrialization plans from 2010–2014 and 2015–2019, which sought to expand manufacturing and processing facilities for natural resources. 36 In November 2014 (when planning for Li’s December trip would have already been underway), the government of Kazakhstan announced the Nurly Zhol program for industrial development, a national program for economic renewal that sought to attract businesses in sectors like transport; energy; and industries such as food and chemical manufacturing, engineering, and others. These areas of emphasis coincide closely with what Chinese firms have offered since around 2015.

Following Kazakhstan’s success with China, neighboring countries sought to follow its lead. During a December 2015 visit to Beijing, then Kyrgyz prime minister Temir Sariyev declared his intent for Kyrgyzstan to become another Central Asian destination for Chinese industrial production capacity.37 Six months later, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Bishkek, then Kyrgyz foreign minister Erlan Abdyldaev said that forty projects had been submitted to China for consideration.38 Few, if any, of these Kyrgyz-proposed investments involving China ever materialized.

Tajikistan, meanwhile, never publicly laid out a list of specific projects, but the term “industrial capacity” started to appear in Dushanbe’s bilateral statements with Beijing in 2017.39 This reflects an underlying Tajik interest in emulating its neighbors: the idea of cooperating to build new industries in Tajikistan had been mentioned even before 2017.

In certain sectors, Chinese investors have helped establish export industries for Tajikistan. Gold mining in Tajikistan, for example, rose within a seven-year period from 2.4 metric tons to 8.1 metric tons in 2019, with a great deal of this production apparently stemming from a single Chinese-Tajik joint venture.40 Likewise, in a five-year stretch, Tajikistan went from importing most of its cement to exporting a surplus of domestically produced wares.41 By 2018, the country produced almost 4 million metric tons of cement and exported 1.4 million—a striking reversal and growth of the country’s indigenous industry.42 Chinese firms made the vast majority of this cement in factories in Tajikistan.

Overall, China plays a sizable, but not dominant, role in Tajikistan’s export markets. Estimates vary by agency, but Tajikistan’s three largest exports are metal ores, aluminum, and cotton.43 As outlined above, Chinese firms are heavily involved in metal ore extraction. Aluminum exports are dominated by a Tajik state-owned firm called Talco. Despite announcements from Chinese firms about ostensible deals with Talco, there is little evidence that they have materialized in practice.44 Chinese firms do some processing of cotton but are not heavily invested in the farming of cotton yet.45

This Chinese investment may not be enough to enhance Tajikistan’s overall export profile, as exports are equivalent to only 12.3 percent of the country’s GDP (a relatively low figure).46 By comparison, Kazakhstan’s exports are equivalent to 36.4 percent of GDP in current U.S. dollars.47 Tajikistan is known to be highly corrupt and still depends on a relatively closed economic model, so the country will likely struggle to grow jobs and increase its people’s incomes, despite these useful Chinese-invested projects.48

Then there is Uzbekistan, a country whose experience has differed somewhat from the rest of Central Asia. Under its late leader, Islam Karimov, who governed from the last stages of Soviet rule through the country’s early decades of independence until his death in 2016, the country had a closed economy and a repressive political system. On Karimov’s watch, China’s economic role in Uzbekistan remained small. But under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power in December 2016, Uzbekistan has become more open economically. This shift marked the start of China’s growing involvement in the Uzbek economy beyond its limited reach into hydrocarbons.

During Mirziyoyev’s rule in Uzbekistan, Chinese companies have largely cherry-picked projects off an informal list of sectors of interest to the government of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan’s 2035 development strategy argues that the country needs to modernize and increase the export capacity of its agricultural and textile sectors, with a particular need to develop processing technologies.49 Thus, Uzbekistan declared in late 2019 that it would stop exporting raw cotton in 2020 and instead stimulate its own domestic textile industry.50

A Chinese conglomerate based in the province of Jiangsu, the Jinsheng Group, invested in a textile factory in Uzbekistan that became operational in 2017. With an annual output of 22,000 metric tons of cotton yarn, 95 percent of this factory’s products are exported, and half of them are sold to China.51 Foshan-based Xin Zhong Yuan Ceramics began a $150 million ceramics production line in Uzbekistan in 2017.52 As a company statement explaining the investment noted, “Uzbekistan has relatively cheap raw ceramic materials and energy [costs].” The statement added that “the local consumer market is very large.”53

In March 2021, Beijing and Tashkent took an initial step toward a more formal governmental framework for channeling Chinese investment into industrial cooperation with Uzbekistan. During a virtual meeting, both governments committed to deepening cooperation on trade, investment, and industrial capacity building.54

In the same meeting, the two sides discussed collaborating more in the “chemical, electrical, textile, leather . . . , and building materials industries.”55 They struck an agreement to draw major Chinese companies to Uzbekistan, and the government of Uzbekistan put together forty project ideas for prospective Chinese investors to consider.56 These efforts are similar to some of those underway in Kazakhstan, as Chinese companies have worked with both countries’ governments to develop a pipeline of potential projects in line with Kazakhstan’s national development plans. As with Kazakhstan, China’s policy banks have pledged money to the government of Uzbekistan since 2015 for transport and power plant projects, but these are small amounts compared to the largest loan—valued at $1.2 billion and signed in 2017—from the CDB to Uzbekneftegaz for the Oltin Yo’l gas-to-liquid processing plant.57

The stated goals of all four of these Central Asian states are the same: to leverage collaboration with China to attract investment that can help develop local export industries. The Chinese government claims to want to help them achieve this objective. But there have been wide disparities among the four countries in terms of attaining this goal and producing real export industries. Chinese companies, not state bureaucrats or policy bankers, need to develop and realize these projects. Unsurprisingly, the region’s largest economies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have attracted more interest.

Chinese Companies’ Quest for a Social License in Central Asia

As the economies of Central Asia have evolved, the Chinese companies active in the region have had to adapt accordingly. Like Chinese firms operating elsewhere in the world, Chinese companies with operations in Central Asia are seeking to win over communities in the region, or at least defuse local opposition to their presence. Negative sentiments toward China in Central Asia are not ubiquitous, but they are becoming more common.

Central Asia Barometer is a Bishkek-based nonprofit that engages in applied social science research. It conducts large-scale sentiment surveys in the region twice each year. One key question is how respondents feel in general about China. In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan (this question is not asked in Tajikistan), the most common response to this question is “somewhat favorable.” Yet in all three countries, when asked about China, the share of people giving a favorable answer has dropped noticeably in recent years (see figures 5, 6, and 7).58

This trend of increasingly negative sentiments toward China is a problem for Chinese companies operating in Central Asia. Many of them have run into local opposition and protests that delay their projects. As Chinese firms’ presence and local stature have grown, some have adjusted to the downsides of negative public opinion by seeking to nurture a form of social license (or public buy-in) to operate, not just government approval.

However, achieving a social license is difficult. Widespread corruption in Central Asia often seeps into Chinese projects, influencing government approval processes and local hiring decisions, so much so that the Chinese projects come to reflect the problems writ large in each of these countries. Worsening matters is the opacity of the Chinese government and the Central Asian states themselves. Without credible alternative sources of information, whisper campaigns run wild, fueling perceptions of corruption that now tend to follow all Chinese firms in the region, even ones that have been trying to keep their operations clean.

The challenge is particularly tricky in Kyrgyzstan, where most major Chinese projects in the country have, at some point, been delayed or stopped by social protests. Long-standing negative sentiments toward foreign mining projects have contributed to some of the problems Chinese firms have faced in Kyrgyzstan.59

To deal with the Kyrgyz people’s antipathy, and sometimes hostility, for China and foreign investors, Kyrgyzstan has legislated to promote corporate social responsibility. The government introduced a law that requires all mining companies to pay 2 percent of revenue to local communities.60 The revenue from the law has become a new part of a narrative contest over the lack of public trust that pervades the country.61 The authors conducted seventeen semi-structured interviews in November 2020 with locals who live near Chinese projects in Kyrgyzstan. The locals had mixed perceptions as to whether Chinese firms were providing benefits to their communities.

Take the example of the Full Gold Mining Company, a local firm founded by a Chinese state-owned enterprise called Lingbao Gold. Some former employees pointed out the firm does offer some benefits to local employees, while others were more critical of the company. One Kyrgyz former employee of Full Gold Mining argued, “the company provided its staff with free coal for [heating their homes in] winter and sold coal at cheap prices to village residents. We also do not have road issues because the Chinese workers repair and restore the roads.”62 Yet a current company employee claimed that the company is “not implementing [its responsibility to pay 2 percent of revenue to local communities], because the company [allegedly] gave a bribe to Kyrgyz officials.”63 The same interviewee added, “In my opinion, Full Gold Mining brings zero benefits to the community except providing local people with jobs.”

While specific allegations can be difficult to prove, there are perceptions among Kyrgyz workers that bribes are necessary to gain work at some Chinese firms. To be fair, interviewees from companies like CRBC and Altynken did not mention such behavior.64 By contrast, bribes are reportedly needed to get hired at other Chinese companies in Kyrgyzstan. One interviewee claimed, “My older brother was employed at the oil refinery [in Kara Balta] . . . He was employed through an acquaintance and [allegedly] gave a $300 bribe” to win the job.65 Three additional Kyrgyz local interviewees in Kara Balta also alleged that a bribe was necessary merely to get a job at the refinery.66

According to another interviewee in Kara Balta, bribes also can reportedly be demanded by “higher positioned local [Kyrgyz] workers who threaten [to fire] lower positioned workers.”67 Meanwhile, a former employee of the Full Gold Mining Company claimed that “you can only get a job through corruption or relatives.”68 These alleged practices are not unique to Chinese firms or Chinese-invested local companies in Kyrgyzstan. If policy research on the subject is any indication, bribery reportedly can be required for employment in Kyrgyz organizations too.69

In Tajikistan, the autocratic and repressive government tightly controls most aspects of civic life, so public expressions of dissatisfaction with Chinese companies rarely occur. As in Kyrgyzstan, Chinese companies have gone to great lengths, sometimes in conjunction with the Chinese Embassy and other Chinese government bodies, to be seen as having a social license to operate by offering benefits to local individuals and communities.

But that license, such as it is, seems to be driven more by pressure from the government of Tajikistan than by civil society groups. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce’s 2020 country-by-country investment guide states, “Tajik society pays attention to whether foreign enterprises are performing social responsibilities in their projects in Tajikistan. Sometimes government officials in Tajikistan will directly make requests to enterprises.”70 Table 2 shows examples of how Chinese firms have sought to accommodate these requests from Dushanbe.

Unlike in Kyrgyzstan, the authors did not interview employees of Chinese companies in Tajikistan for security reasons—it is simply too politically sensitive to talk directly to employees of these firms. Tajikistan also has a highly corrupt government—it was ranked 149 out of 180 countries on the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index.79 (By comparison, Kyrgyzstan ranked 124, Kazakhstan was 94, and Uzbekistan was 146.)

So it is plausible that many of the corruption issues (or perceptions of corruption) faced by Chinese firms in Kyrgyzstan are also faced by firms in Tajikistan. Numerous Chinese firms have struggled to manage corruption in Tajikistan’s business environment.80 As one Chinese observer with local knowledge of Tajikistan said in a 2017 interview with the South China Morning Post, “You know how Tajik shoot pigeons? . . . They scatter some food on the ground and then wait around the corner with a shotgun. When pigeons come, they just blast away from a short distance. That’s the dire situation facing Chinese businessmen here.”

China’s growing economic involvement in Uzbekistan is more recent than in the rest of the region. Perhaps this has led to more positive views toward Chinese investment in the country. One recent survey by Central Asia Barometer shows that 60 percent of people in Uzbekistan believe that Chinese investment will have “some” or a “great deal” of benefits for the country, down from 75 percent of respondents in 2019.81 By comparison, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have had much more negative views toward Chinese investment (see table 3).

The bottom line is that Chinese firms operating across Central Asia face anti-China sentiment. According to a database on regional protests compiled by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs based in Washington, DC, there have been ninety-seven known anti-China protests since 2018 in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.82 In Kazakhstan, in particular, the human rights atrocities committed against Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs in neighboring Xinjiang have led to protests by civil society organizations that have prompted a crackdown by Kazakh authorities. This crushing of protests has only exacerbated negative public opinion toward China. These developments, in turn, have had a direct impact on some government decisions. For example, early plans to permit the leasing of Kazakh agricultural land to foreign farmers, which were widely interpreted as a basis for expanded Chinese economic activity in the country, were canceled in the wake of protests.83

Chinese Firms’ Push to Hire Locals and Invest in Human Capital

In response, Chinese firms have come up with ways to try to navigate these anti-China sentiments in Central Asia while seeking to satisfy local government officials’ demands for these firms to add more economic value in the region. After years of importing Chinese labor for certain projects, almost all large Chinese companies in Central Asia have made significant efforts to localize their workforces.

Chinese localization practices across the region are not uniform. But localization of hiring, human capital development, and the upskilling of Central Asian workers is happening in Chinese enterprises. Almost all major Chinese firms have now shown a desire to localize their Central Asian workforces. The difference among these firms is the speed at which they are doing so.

In earlier research, one of the paper’s co-authors investigated relative levels of local hiring at major Chinese investment projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Table 4 below builds on the results of that inquiry.84

There are many more Chinese firms in Kazakhstan than there are elsewhere in the region, so it is difficult to capture the full scope and intensity of localization efforts at all the major Chinese project sites in the country. Despite this, there is strong evidence that some larger Chinese firms have already localized their workforces. CNPC, which is the largest Chinese investor in Kazakhstan, claims that 97 percent of its workforce in the country is localized.105 Employees for the two major Chinese telecoms players—ZTE and Huawei—told one of the authors in research interviews that over 80 percent of workers for their business operations in Kazakhstan were locals.106

Table 5 shows completed and partially constructed projects valued over $100 million on China and Kazakhstan’s list of projects from the China-Kazakhstan Intergovernmental Framework Agreement (which means that some earlier large hydrocarbon projects are not included). For most of those projects, public statements have been released claiming that they hire mostly locals. These examples show that Chinese firms are localizing their workforces to adapt to local pressure and to take advantage of lower wages for local workers.

Regionwide Pressure From Governments and Social Actors

Government officials throughout Central Asia—along with trade unions and civic activists in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan—have ratcheted up the pressure for Chinese firms to localize their workforces. Central Asian governments try to encourage local hires by writing local hiring obligations into project contracts, legislating the proportion of local hires for all or some foreign-funded projects, and placing caps on foreign worker permits. In the past, there have been questions about government officials’ willingness or capacity to enforce such measures, though there are some signs of heightened vigilance.

The government of Kazakhstan is becoming noticeably stricter on enforcement. Kazakhstan is reducing its quota of foreign workers and increasing inspections for those flouting the rules.137 In 2019, the quota for foreign workers was set to 49,000, and it was reduced to 29,000 in 2020.138 A guide from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce on doing business in Kazakhstan states:

The government of Kazakhstan continues to increase inspections of enterprises that employ foreign labor. Severe disciplinary measures were taken by companies that violated regulations. In 2019, a Chinese-funded enterprise which was undertaking a highway renovation project in Kazakhstan violated relevant laws and regulations of Kazakhstan. Many Chinese employees held business visas and travel visas. This resulted in the company receiving a fine and employees being deported.139

In Kazakhstan, protests over Chinese economic projects have more often been directed at the government of Kazakhstan rather than at the Chinese companies involved. Thus, Kazakhstan’s government feels pressure to proactively demonstrate that Chinese firms are not flouting laws. Kazakh officials, due to public pressure, occasionally prevent certain activities that would benefit Chinese businesses, such as leasing farmland to foreigners.

Tajik law states that foreign workers may not exceed 30 percent of the total workforce of a given company, and a quota system is also in place. In 2019, the quota was 7,500.140 It remains unclear, perhaps even unlikely, that Tajikistan strictly enforces the quota. However, the enforcement of the 30 percent law has changed. Relying on Chinese Embassy reports from Dushanbe, the top firm for insuring Chinese overseas projects, Sinosure, wrote in its 2015 Tajikistan country report that, since 2014, Tajik officials have informally stipulated that four out of every five hires be local workers.141 Since 2016, this informal figure has been increased to 90 percent, according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce’s 2020 country report.142

Large-scale infrastructure projects and industrial projects have sometimes been exempt from labor requirements. Yet, as Table 4 above shows, most Chinese industrial projects in Tajikistan are serious about localization. Large infrastructure projects have dried up, so labor exemptions for those projects are not so consequential now. One major infrastructure project called Dushanbe-2, a combined heat and power plant, has continued to be operated by TBEA after construction was completed in 2016. According to a TBEA executive, three-quarters of the plant’s employees are local workers.143 Even after building in some margin for error, TBEA has made considerable strides from the days when less than 10 percent of its more than 1,000 employees at its first project in the country in 2009 were locals.144

There are localization laws in Kyrgyzstan too, but the pressure to localize comes not just from the state but directly from local actors.145 Virtually every large-scale Chinese commercial venture in Kyrgyzstan has been stymied to some degree by delay-inducing protests. In most cases, the Chinese investors are firms with deep experience in China but are new (at least when they first arrive) to overseas investing, particularly in the rough-and-tumble world of Kyrgyz social mobilization and civic action.

The newcomers among these Chinese investors initially tend to bring their own staff from China to Kyrgyzstan, and they invariably meet severe local pushback. A case in point is the Taldy-Bulak Gold Mine, located southwest of Bishkek. The Zijin Mining Group (a diversified, Fujian-based mining company partly owned by a Chinese county government) holds a 60-percent stake, while a Kyrgyz state-run firm called KyrgyzAltyn holds the remainder: the joint venture company that runs the project is called Altynken).146

Disputes at the project site were frequent in the early 2010s. Notably, in October 2012, a fight with local residents drove Chinese workers from the site for a time.147 Local political and union representatives claimed that the company did not meet its contractual obligation to hire half local workers during construction.148 This incident set off alarm bells for the Chinese company. Subsequently, according to a company executive, the company gradually hired more locals and improved its training for Kyrgyz employees.149

There are other indications that the company has followed through. A 2016 report by Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, says that nine out of every ten of the project’s 1,000-plus workers are local hires.150 While these disagreements have not subsided, union representatives are now more intent on winning concessions on wages and working conditions for local workers, as the number of local hires has markedly improved.151

Uzbekistan is the missing link in this story, in part because China is a much newer player at scale in its economy (outside of hydrocarbon exports). Chinese governmental reports state Uzbekistan’s foreign worker quota is not centralized. In practice, permits have to be approved by local governments of individual Uzbek states, an approach that leads to regional variation.152 Like in Tajikistan, there are provisions for international agreements to circumvent local laws.153 There has been no obvious push for localization as seen elsewhere in the region. But given the localization trends across Central Asia, patterns of localization could be replicated in Uzbekistan too.

Lower Wages

Wages for local workers throughout Central Asia tend to be lower than those for imported Chinese workers. In certain cases, this tendency has been a driver for increased localization. The effect of cheaper wages is most pronounced in the poorer Central Asian countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) where wages are lowest, but this principle applies to the wealthier Central Asian countries too (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan).

Chinese firms face higher secondary costs associated with employing Chinese workers, such as “visa processing [costs], hardship allowances, and subsidized travel to and from China.”154 The costs for foreign worker permits alone in Uzbekistan are $2,000 per employee per year, although the Chinese Ministry of Commerce states that some firms get exemptions.155 That said, foreign work permits in Tajikistan only cost $300 per person per year.156 Some Chinese companies may try to cut corners, but doing so could conceivably mean the added cost of payoffs. Total ancillary costs are significant when compared to average salaries in all Central Asian states (see tables 6 and 7 below).157

It is hard to directly compare the salaries of Chinese workers with those of local workers on the same project due to the opaque nature of many Chinese companies operating in Central Asia. However, there are two data points indicating that Chinese workers are generally more expensive than locals. First, the authors looked (in mid-September 2021) at the average wages offered in job ads for roles in Central Asia for Chinese workers on the popular job website Liepin. Most roles had a salary range attached. For each country, the averaged lower and upper bounds of the salary range for the Chinese job ads were many multiples higher than the average wages in that Central Asian country.

Despite this general pattern, there are caveats that help explain this apparent wage gap. Lower-paying jobs for Chinese workers may be advertised in places other than Liepin. Chinese firms also may pay more than the average wage to their local staff. Furthermore, Chinese workers probably occupy more skilled roles than locals. Nonetheless, the wages for the job ads for Chinese workers in the region are astronomically high compared to average local wages. It is logical that Chinese companies operating in the region would want to lower their labor costs.

This insight leads to the second piece of evidence: Chinese companies openly say that they want to hire more locals because they are cheaper. One such firm is the Tajik-Sino Mining Company, a major Chinese investor in Tajikistan; it is developing lead and zinc deposits in the northwestern province of Sughd. In one public statement, a company representative said the firm is seeking to curtail its labor overhead by hiring a smaller share of Chinese workers in its local operations even beyond the levels stipulated by law:162

One of [the] Tajik-Sino Mining Company’s core competitive advantages is the cost of its labor. [The company] has consistently kept the ratio of Chinese to Tajik workers at three (Chinese) to seven (Tajik), which is required by the Tajik government. However, since 2016, Tajik-Sino Mining is incrementally limiting the number of Chinese employees [beyond these requirements]. The company hopes that, through three to five years of hard work, the ratio of Chinese workers to Tajiks will be limited to one to nine. Right now, the monthly salary level of Tajik workers employed by the Tajik-Sino Mining Company does not exceed $300. The company hopes to control expenditures at a stable level through adjustments to the ratios of Chinese to Tajik workers and the total number of employees while increasing labor productivity.

Another major Chinese investor, the Zijin Mining Group, holds stakes in both Kyrgyz and Tajik mines. Zijin also has seen cost benefits from hiring more local labor in these two countries. In 2015, the firm’s chief executive officer underscored that high “labor costs” in China helped explain the firm’s decision to move business overseas:163

Along with rising labor costs domestically [in China] and the shortage of resources, the cost of mining development has been on the rise. In order to maintain the core competitiveness of Zijin and build a leading global mining enterprise, we simply have to choose to “go out” (zou chuqu).

Upskilling and Management Challenges Amid Chinese Localization

Even as Chinese companies aim to hire more locals throughout Central Asia, achieving this goal has been difficult. Three major structural challenges are some of the main culprits: a lack of skilled workers in Central Asia, significant cultural and linguistic barriers to training and entry for Central Asian workers, and difficulties with integrating locals into management positions without upskilling.

But Chinese firms recognize these issues and have transitioned from exhibiting an earlier penchant for standoffish engagement to making new investments in upskilling local workers through a host of technical training, knowledge transfers, and language programs that seek to overcome these problems.

Skills Shortages

Soviet-era industrialization in Central Asia relied heavily on highly skilled Russian engineers who were sent to the region and subsidies to prop up Central Asian industries that would otherwise have been uncompetitive. But this model fell apart when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Brain drain and skills shortages across many industries were severe, as most countries in the region deindustrialized between 1991 and 2015.

The Chinese Ministry of Commerce’s guide to doing business in Kazakhstan highlights this challenge for prospective Chinese investors, arguing that “the professional skills of industrial workers in Kazakhstan are low, and there are big problems with low efficiency and difficulties with retention. The shortage of professional technicians and high-quality talent still needs to be improved.”164 Similarly, Sinosure writes, “Tajikistan’s local labor force has relatively low technical capability and cannot meet the requirements for important positions. This has created many difficulties for Chinese-funded firms’ commercial activities in Tajikistan.”165

Brain drain poses its own challenges because so many of the skilled workers of Central Asia have already left the region for jobs in Russia. Kyrgyzstan saw approximately 454,000 workers leave for Russia for work in 2019, as did approximately 1.2 million Tajik workers, 2.1 million people from Uzbekistan, and 136,000 laborers from Kazakhstan (though precise estimates vary widely for all countries and the coronavirus pandemic had a big impact in 2020).166

As Chinese firms have sought to localize their operations, they have had to increase training opportunities to upskill their local workforces. So far, only companies have provided dedicated technical training. But China’s foreign minister said in a May 2021 meeting with his five Central Asian counterparts that the Chinese government will set up a vocational training center in each country called a “Luban Workshop” (named after a legendary Chinese craftsman) within the next three years.167 The scale of these government-led workshops remains unknown, but this approach could develop into the vocational equivalent of Confucius Institutes.

Current company training programs are a response to the immediate demand for skilled technical workers on Chinese projects in Central Asia, not least from the region’s government officials, who want to address skilled labor shortages and reindustrialize their economies. Overall, these programs seem to be quite successful so far at creating a workforce skilled at job-specific tasks. The principal avenues to such upskilling have included offering on-the-job training and apprenticeships, training employees in China, or a combination of the two.

But on-the-job training does not take place only to meet Central Asian government localization quotas or to control wage costs. It can also be necessary when a company imports Chinese technologies and equipment. A documentary by the Chinese broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) claims that 95 percent of the technologies supplied for modernizing an oil refinery in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan, were made in China. (The documentary was filmed on site and interviewed Chinese and Kazakh technicians.)183 As the vice president of an aluminum-processing plant in Pavlodar built by a Chinese firm told CCTV, he frequently goes to China because “technology keeps updating and there is a need to catch up.”184 Similarly, according to the documentary, 90 percent of the technologies at the hydropower station in Moynak, Kazakhstan, are also Chinese-made.185 As a result, the Kazakh chief operator of Moynak underwent training at Chinese hydropower stations on the Tianwan River.186 The China International Water and Electric Corporation told CCTV that the company has sent about forty Kazakh workers to China for training.187

It is difficult to say if companies in certain industries are more likely to send their staff to China for training. Table 8 above shows a snapshot of companies from many industries that have sent Central Asian staff to China. At an anecdotal level, it seems the more technically difficult the tasks, the more likely that employees will have to go to China to gain familiarity with complex equipment. BT projects, too, seem to require staff to go to China because the Chinese firms involved hand over all technical operations as soon as construction is complete, so there are few opportunities in such cases for on-the-job training.

The rate at which local staff from Central Asia are promoted into the management ranks of Chinese firms is company-dependent. In some cases, there are clear ceilings. One interviewee working for a large firm in Kazakhstan stated, “in our company, we have examples of promoting locals from engineering positions to management positions. But always there is a senior manager from China overseeing his job. The promotion could be very quick if the local can speak Chinese.”188 In another Chinese firm in Kazakhstan, a local employee stated that promotion for locals happens “up to the level of deputy director,” but, by implication, not much further up the chain.189 In January 2018, an employee of China National Gold Group in Kyrgyzstan told one of the authors that management positions are mainly given to Chinese staff but added that “senior engineering and administrative positions go to locals if they have experience.”190

It is possible to expect there will be more local managers at Chinese firms in Central Asia in the future. Tajikistan is already implicitly requiring 50 percent of management positions to be held by locals, according to a 2015 report from Sinosure.191 As other Central Asian governments and firms’ efforts to control wage costs both drive worker localization, sheer numbers will mean some locals end up in management positions. But there is still a way to go until Chinese firms operating in the region have predominantly localized management.

Cultural and Language Barriers

Linguistic differences remain a barrier for Chinese firms that aim to upskill workers in Central Asia, albeit less so in some companies than others. A worker in one of Huawei’s Central Asian offices said the typical language of communication was, in fact, English—not Chinese, Russian, or Kazakh—and that most Chinese and local workers all spoke English well.192 Meanwhile, a ZTE employee in Kazakhstan told the authors, “Maybe sometimes the English level of Chinese [workers] is not so good, but basically it is not a big problem.”193

At the other end of the spectrum, an interviewee at a large Chinese project in Kyrgyzstan told one of the authors in January 2018 that language barriers have caused confrontations between Chinese and local staff when there are not enough interpreters to go around.194 There is also evidence that language difficulties have hampered work at the oil refinery in Kara Balta. The general manager acknowledged that language barriers had played a role in the delays that have at times plagued the refinery, a view corroborated by other interviewees as well.195

While language barriers remain a problem at certain companies, the bigger staffing challenge continues to be finding skilled technical workers. This is a problem for almost all companies. Both authors have encountered Central Asians who speak Chinese well but cannot find a job with Chinese firms because the firms need technical skills rather than language skills. Translators and interpreters alone are not going to help meet localization goals. Numerous companies offer language training to their existing staff rather than hiring Chinese-speaking Central Asians because they value the skills and experience of the workers they already have.

Overall, Central Asian governments are serious about industrializing their economies and upskilling their workforces. Chinese companies and, increasingly, economic policy coordination with the Chinese government are the best external option to make that happen for Central Asian governments, notwithstanding the long-standing structural impediments that countries in the region face.

Initial Lessons on Chinese Localization in Central Asia

The countries of Central Asia, even the poorer ones, are more than capable of exercising agency in their economic interactions with Beijing and Chinese firms. For the Chinese government, the specifics of these commercial interactions are not nearly as important as signaling that Central Asia is stable, a source of exportable hydrocarbons, and increasingly aligned politically with Beijing. This alignment includes trying to win Central Asian support for alternatives to U.S. financial and technology monopolies. Central Asian states have had a measure of power within these broad strategic and political parameters to negotiate the specific shape and terms of their economic engagement with China.

For Central Asian governments, meanwhile, getting China to build basic infrastructure is no longer the main priority. Instead, these governments want Chinese firms to provide the region with opportunities to reindustrialize, receive transferred knowledge and skills, and build up their human capital. This reality is often lost on U.S. and European policymakers. Many of them are now promoting alternative infrastructure finance schemes, such as U.S. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better World, to compete with China’s BRI—without recognizing the degree to which Chinese policies and practices have shifted from hard infrastructure to developing human capital, upskilling workers, and otherwise meeting the needs, where feasible, of Central Asian states. Partly in response to the demand signals that Central Asian governments and communities are sending to Chinese firms, Chinese actors are now increasingly focused on providing jobs, nurturing export-led industries, and bolstering Central Asian budgetary coffers with greater tax revenues. Any cooperative or competitive strategy from Washington, Brussels, Tokyo, or elsewhere should recognize that this is now a key part of Chinese activities in the region and thus a positive source of leverage for Beijing.

In this sense, Central Asian countries are not being taken for a ride by a predatory Chinese government or corporate sector. They are well aware of the risks and opportunities of economic engagement with Beijing, but they have tried to leverage these openings to meet their own growth, labor, innovation, and development needs. Government officials across the region are hungry for transformation, not incremental change that does not close the gap with more developed countries. And they are insisting that even Chinese firms leave more of the value added from their regional investment projects in Central Asia itself.

Central Asian countries have learned that they themselves need to press for economic development goals to be incorporated into contracts and reinforce their expectations of Chinese investors. Ultimately, however, while Chinese firms can provide financial and technical support and while China can open its market to value-added Central Asian exports, these governments will have to overcome the internal challenges their economies have long faced by pursuing bolder and deeper structural reforms. This is a reality that any major foreign investor, Chinese or otherwise, must still reckon with.

Meanwhile, Chinese investors still face deep local mistrust in Central Asia. The attitudes of the region’s people toward China are becoming more negative, and there are public perceptions that Central Asian governments make overly generous concessions to their Chinese partners. These currents of dissatisfaction have made Kyrgyzstan an especially difficult destination for Chinese investment. But despite this dislike and mistrust, China will remain a major economic presence in the region, especially if viable alternatives do not materialize.

About the Authors

Dirk van der Kley is a research fellow at the School of Regulation and Global Governance at Australian National University. He specializes in the theory of geoeconomics, international economic sanctions, the Chinese government’s international economic policy, and the effects of industrial policy on geopolitics.

Niva Yau is a resident researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek and a fellow at the Eurasia Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. Her work focuses on China’s foreign policy, trade, and security in its western neighborhood, including Central Asia and Afghanistan.


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2 Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Zhu Tajikesitan Dashi Liu Bin Jieshou Ta ‘Shangye Yu Zhengzhi’ Bao Zhuanfang” [Ambassador Liu Bin to Tajikistan Accepts an Exclusive Interview With Tajikistan’s ‘Business and Politics’ Newspaper], January 10, 2020, t1730920.shtml.

3 Catherine Putz, “Russia Ratifies Agreement With Tajikistan on Labor Migrants,” Diplomat, January 3, 2020,

4 Kyrgyzstan’s FDI statistics are often reevaluated upward after initial publication. In the authors’ experience, the trend lines remain the same, so these figures (while likely subject to revision in the future) will exhibit similar patterns. See National Statistical Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic, “ Postupleniye Pryamykh Inostrannykh Investitsiy po Stranam” [ Foreign Direct Investment Inflow by Country], last accessed October 3, 2021,

5 National Bank of Tajikistan, “Pryamyye Inostrannyye Investitsii v Respubliku Tadzhikistan po Stranam”[Foreign Direct Investment in the Republic of Tajikistan by Country], last accessed September 14, 2021,

6 Katherine Hardin, “Kazakhstan’s Energy Sector Since Independence: Two Decades of Growth and Challenges Ahead?” Atlantic Council, Hardin.pdf; and Guy Chazan, “Turkmenistan Gas Field Is One of World’s Largest,” Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2008,

7 China National Petroleum Corporation, “Major Events: 1991–2001,” last accessed September 14, 2021,

8 “Kazakhstan-China Oil Pipeline Opens to Operation,” Xinhua, July 12, 2006, web/20160303174209/

9 Andrew Browne, “CNPC Seals Purchase of PetroKazakhstan,” Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2005,

10 Chris Rickleton, “Turkmenistan: Big on Gas, Short on Options,” EurasiaNet, January 22, 2021,

11 World Bank, “GDP Per Capita (Current US$)—Tajikistan,” last accessed September 14, 2021,

12 In 2007, Tajikistan’s debt to the Exim Bank of China grew by $216 million, and it grew by $277 million in 2009. In no other year did Tajikistan’s debt to the Exim Bank of China grow by more than $200 million. The data for this calculation comes from several documents. For 2006–2013, see Tajikistan Ministry of Finance, “Otchet o Sostoyanii Gosudarstvennogo Dolga na 2013 God” [Report on Public Debt 2013], 10, 14, otchet%20o%20gos%20dolg%202013.pdf. For 2014–2018, see Tajikistan Ministry of Finance, “Otchet o Sostoyanii Gosudarstvennogo Dolga na 2018 God” [Report on Public Debt 2018], 20, 26, For 2019–2020, see Tajikistan Ministry of Finance, “Otchet o Sostoyanii Gosudarstvennogo Dolga na 2020 God” [Report on Public Debt 2020], 19, 25, downloads/otchet_2020.pdf.

13 The assessment that Chinese government lending to the government of Tajikistan has dried up is informed by two data points. First, Tajikistan’s debt to China has been decreasing (see figure 3 in this paper), which indicates that no new major projects are being funded. Second, the AidData database shows only one Exim Bank of China loan signed by Tajikistan’s government after 2014 (the database stops at 2017)—a project for power transmission lines from Rogun Hydropower Plant to Dushanbe valued at $79 million (546 million renminbi) [AidData project ID: 53787]. According to AidData, this project has been completed and was small in value compared to the $1.2 billion dollars in debt Tajikistan owes to the Exim Bank of China. The authors are not aware of any large current project being primarily financed by Chinese government lending to the government of Tajikistan. See College of William and Mary AidData, “Global Chinese Development Finance Dataset,” version 2.0, AidData, September 2021,

14 “China to Allocate $79 Mln to Tajikistan for Rehabilitation of High-Voltage Electrical Transmission Line,” AkiPress, September 4, 2017,

15 The data in this figure comes from several documents. For 2006–2013, see Tajikistan Ministry of Finance, “Otchet o Sostoyanii Gosudarstvennogo Dolga na 2013 God” [Report on Public Debt 2013], 10, 14, For 2014–2018, see Tajikistan Ministry of Finance, “Otchet o Sostoyanii Gosudarstvennogo Dolga na 2018 God” [Report on Public Debt 2018], 20, 26, web/20210913173450/ For 2019–2020, see Tajikistan Ministry of Finance, “Otchet o Sostoyanii Gosudarstvennogo Dolga na 2020 God” [Report on Public Debt 2020], 19, 25, otchet_2020.pdf.

16 In 2016, Tajikistan’s debt to the Exim Bank of China was about $1.2 billion out of a total debt burden of around $2.3 billion (53.6 percent). In July 2020, Tajikistan’s debt to the Exim Bank of China was $1.2 billion out of a total debt burden of $3.2 billion (35.6 percent). The data in this calculation comes from several documents. For 2006–2013, see Tajikistan Ministry of Finance, “Otchet o Sostoyanii Gosudarstvennogo Dolga na 2013 God” [Report on Public Debt 2013], 10, 14. For 2014–2018, see Tajikistan Ministry of Finance, “Otchet o Sostoyanii Gosudarstvennogo Dolga na 2018 God” [Report on Public Debt 2018], 23, 26. For 2019–2020, see Tajikistan Ministry of Finance, “Otchet o Sostoyanii Gosudarstvennogo Dolga na 2020 God” [Report on Public Debt 2020], 19, 25.

17 Payrav Chorshanbiev, “Tadzhikistan Prosit Strany-kreditory o Vremennoy Priostanovke Vyplaty Dolgov” [Tajikistan Asks Creditor Countries to Temporarily Suspend Payment of Debts], January 4, 2021, Asia Plus,

18 The assessment that Chinese government lending to the government of Kyrgyzstan has dried up is informed by two data points. First, Kyrgyzstan’s debt to China has seen minute decreases, while a project from 2014 is still being built (see figure 4 in this paper), which indicates that no new major projects are being funded. Second, The AidData database contains no Exim Bank of China loan signed by the government of Kyrgyzstan after 2015 (the database stops at 2017). The authors are not aware of any large current project being primarily financed by Chinese government lending to the government of Kyrgyzstan. See College of William and Mary AidData, “Global Chinese Development Finance Dataset.”

19 Kyrgyzstan Ministry of Finance, “Struktura Gosudarstvennogo Vneshnego Dolga KR na 2021 God— Novosti Vedomstva—Ministerstvo Finansov Kyrgyzskoy Respubliki” [Structure of the External Public Debt of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2021—Department News—Kyrgyzstan Ministry of Finance], August 9, 2021,

20 Dirk van der Kley, “COVID and the New Debt Dynamics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” EurasiaNet, October 2020,

21 Payrav Chorshanbiev, “National Bank Is Trying to Obtain the Weakening of Dollar With the Help of Chinese Loan,” Asia Plus, August 20, 2015, economic/20150820/national-bank-trying-obtain-weakening-dollar-help-chinese-loan.

22 Tajikistan Ministry of Finance, “Otchet o Sostoyanii Gosudarstvennogo Dolga na 2020 God” [Report on Public Debt 2020], 25.

23 This was collated from the AidData database. The relevant project IDs within the database for each respective lending pledge are 72549, 40488, 72544, 69997, and 72802. See College of William and Mary AidData, “Global Chinese Development Finance Dataset.”

24 Ibid.

25 “Chinese Company Starts Building a Road Bypassing Roghun Dam,” Asia Plus, April 15, 2021,

26 “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance With The Legislation of Kazakhstan,” Kazakh Invest, September 10, 2019,

27 Dirk van der Kley, “An Organisational Approach to the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, 2006 to 2016” (PhD dissertation, Australian National University, 2020), 130.

28 Niva Yau, “Operational Reality of the Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia,” in China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia: Ambitions, Risks and Realities Special Issue 2, 2020, OSCE Academy, http://

29 “Li Keqiang ‘Xuanfeng’ Fangwen Hasakesītăn, Weile Zhe Jian Shì” [The Li Keqiang ‘Tornado’ Visits Kazakhstan for This Reason], Beijing News (republished on government website), November 4, 2016,

30 Wang Xinyi, “Zhongha Hezuo Shengji 79 ge Xiangmu Zhu Woguo Guosheng Channeng Zhuanyi” [China and Kazakhstan Upgrade Cooperation on 79 Projects to Help China Transfer Industrial Overcapacity], National Business Daily, December 28, 2014, articles/2014-12-28/886844.html.

31 “China Pledges $2 Bln for ‘Capacity Cooperation’ Fund With Kazakhstan—Xinhua,”Reuters, December 15, 2015,

32 Eugene Simonov, “Half of China’s Investment in Kazakhstan Is in Oil and Gas,” Third Pole, November 7, 2019,; and Niva Yau, “Tracing the Chinese Footprints in Kazakhstan’s Oil and Gas Industry,” December 12, 2020, Diplomat,

33 The project list is taken from the joint China-Kazakhstan project list. The original list categorized the projects into different industries, but it did not separate between extracting and processing raw materials. So the original would categorize a project for mineral extraction and mineral processing as the same. This obscured some of the detail that could be discerned from the list. The authors of this paper devised a new set of categories and made judgment calls about which projects belonged in which categories. See Kazakh Invest, “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance with The Legislation of Kazakhstan.”

34 “Polipropilen Zhdem k 2022 Godu” [We Will Have to Wait Until 2022 for Polypropylene], Priikaspiskaya Komyna, August 28, 2020,

35 Nursultan Nazarbayev, “‘Kazakhstan 2050’ Strategy,” public address, Kazakhstan Financial Monitoring Agency, January 17, 2014,

36 “Technological Upgrade, Investment Inflow, Innovation Boom, or How Kazakhstan Made an Industrial Breakthrough,” Office of the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, December 12, 2019, Please also see a slideshow of Kazakhstan’s industrialization roadmap from 2015 to 2019. Slide 11 shows the program objectives. Objective 1 is to increase the value add and effectiveness in natural resources processing industries. Objective 2 is to accelerate manufacturing development. See BMF Group LLP, “Kazakhstan Industrialization Roadmap 2015–2019,” October 18, 2014,

37 “Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Zhengfu he Ji’erjisi Gongheguo Zhengfu Lianhe Gongbao (Quanwen)”[Joint Communiqué Between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic (Full Text)], CPC News, December 16, 2015, n1/2015/1216/c64094-27938147.html.

38 “MID KR: Kyrgyzskiye Tovary Budut Eksportirovat’sya v Kitay” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic: Kyrgyz Goods Will Be Exported to China], Sputnik, May 22, 2016, https://ru.sputnik .kg/economy/20160522/1025532159.html.

39 A 2019 joint statement between China and Tajikistan states, “The two sides are willing to strengthen industrial capacity and investment cooperation, and support domestic enterprises to invest and build industrial parks.” See “Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo he Tajikesitan Gongheguo Guanyu Jinyibu Shenhua Quanmian Zhanlve Huoban Guanxi de Lianhe Shengming (Quanwen)” [Joint Statement of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Tajikistan on Further Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (Full Text)], Chinese Consulate in Sydney, June 16, 2019, A 2017 joint statement states, “China and Tajikistan have made positive progress in industrial capacity and investment cooperation . . . China supports the construction of industrial parks in Tajikistan and will promote joint production between Chinese enterprises and Tajikistan.” See “Zhongguo he Tajikesitan Guanyu Jianli Quanmian Zhanlve Huoban Guanxi de Lianhe Shengming” [Joint Statement Between China and Tajikistan on Establishing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership], State Council Information Office, August 31, 2017, Xi Jinping published an article in a Tajikistan newspaper during his 2014 visit to Central Asia. It did not mention industrial capacity building. See “Xi Jinping Zai Tajikesitan Meiti Fabiao Shuming Wenzhang” [Xi Jinping Published a Signed Article in Tajikistan’s Media], September 10, 2014, Chinese Embassy in Croatia, The 2013 joint statement during Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s visit to China did not mention industrial capacity. See “Zhongta Guanyu< Jianli Zhanlve Huoban Guanxi de Lianhe Xuanyan (Quanwen)” [China-Tajikistan Joint Declaration on Establishing a Strategic Partnership (Full Text)], State Council Information Office, July 23, 2014,

40 “V Tadzhikistane Uvelichili Proizvodstvo Zolota” [Gold Production Increased in Tajikistan], Asia Plus, Janurary 23, 2013,; “V Tadzhikistane Planiruyut Uvelichit’ Dobychu Zolota” [Tajikistan Plans to Increase Gold Production], Sputnik, February 10, 2020, Tajikistan-uvelichit-dobychi-zolota-1030692347.html; and Dirk van der Kley, “China Diversifies in Central Asia,” EurasiaNet, November 23, 2020,

41 Dirk van der Kley, “China Shifts Polluting Cement to Tajikistan,” China Dialogue, August 8, 2016,

42 “Potential Air Pollutant Exempted From Paying Income Tax,” Asia Plus, October 3, 2019,

43 “Torgovyye Partnery Respubliki Tadzhikistan” [Trade Partners of the Republic of Tajikistan], Tajikistan Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, last accessed September 16, 2021, menu/28?l=ru.

44 “China’s CMEC to Take Over Stakes in Tajik Aluminum Company in Exchange of an Investment of US$545 Million,” Alcircle, December 6, 2019,

45 “Feature: Chinese Textile Company Brings New Life to Tajikistan’s Cotton Industry,” Xinhua, June 13, 2019,

46 International Monetary Fund, “Republic of Tajikistan,” IMF Country Report No. 20/151, May 2020,

47 World Bank World Integrated Trade Solution, “Kazakhstan Trade Statistics,” World Bank, last accessed September 14, 2021,

48 Transparency International, “Transparency Perception Index 2020,” last accessed September 30, 2021,

49 “Draft Development Strategy of Uzbekistan 2035 Is Presented,” Uzbekistan’s Embassy in Malaysia, December 5, 2018, uzbekistan_2035_is_presented.html.

50 “Uzbekistan to Cease Exporting Raw Cotton in 2020,”, December 28, 2019, news/2019/12/28/uzbekistan-to-cease-exporting-raw-cotton-in-2020.

51 “Wufang Nengfou Chenggong Xishou Guoji Channeng” [Can Uzbekistan Successfully Attract International Industrial Capacity], China Cotton Textiles Association, last accessed September 15, 2021,

52 “Xin Zhong Yuan Jituan Jinjun Wuzibiekesitan, Touzi Feilvbin!” [Xin Zhong Yuan Group Enters Uzbekistan and Invests in the Philippines!], Xin Zhong Yuan Ceramics, October 27, 2017, https://

53 Ibid.

54 “The Current State and Prospects of Cooperation With China Considered,” Uz Daily, March 31, 2021,

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 This information was derived from the AidData database. The relevant project IDs within the database for this project is 53686. The relevant project IDs within the database for the transport and power plant projects are 54144, 54146, and 54385. See College of William and Mary AidData, “Global Chinese Development Finance Dataset.”

58 Central Asia Barometer provided this data directly to the authors. To access the raw data from the organization’s older surveys, see Central Asia Barometer, “Databases,” Central Asia Barometer, last accessed October 11, 2021,

59 Saipira Furstenberg and Kemel Toktomushev, “Understanding Gold Mining and Social Conflicts in Kyrgyzstan,” University of Central Asia Working Paper no. 63, 2021, papers.cfm?abstract_id=3896275.

60 David Gullette and Asel Kalybekova, “Agreement Under Pressure Gold Mining and Protests in the Kyrgyz Republic,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, September 2014, 11, id-moe/10927.pdf.

61 Furstenberg and Toktomushev, “Understanding Gold Mining and Social Conflicts in Kyrgyzstan,” 12.

62 Author interview with former Full Gold Mining employee, November 2020.

63 Author interview with current Full Gold Mining employee, November 2020.

64 Author interviews with two current CRBC employees, one ex-employee from Altynken, and a separate local community member who lives near an Altynken project, November 2020.

65 Author interview with local resident in Kyrgyzstan, November 2020.

66 Author interviews with three local residents, November 2020.

67 Author interview with family member of former Kara Balta oil refinery employee, November 2020.

68 Author interview with former Full Gold Mining employee, November 2020.

69 Kelly M. McMann, Corruption as a Last Resort: Adapting to the Market in Central Asia (Cornell University Press, New York: 2014), 35–56,

70 “Duiwai Touzi Hezuo Guobie (Diqu) Zhinan Tajikesitan (2020 Ban)” [Foreign Investment and Cooperation Guide by Country (Region) Tajikistan (2020 Edition)], Chinese Ministry of Commerce, May 2020, 74,

71 Tibet Summit Resources, “Gongsi Xiashu Zi Gongsi——Tazhong Kuangye Youxian Gongsi,” [The Company’s Subsidiary: Sino-Tajik Mining Company], Tibet Summit Resources, February 25, 2015,

72 Tibet Summit Resources, “Gongsi Jianjie” [Company Introduction], Tibet Summit Resources, September 26, 2016,

73 Zijin Mining Group, “2014 Niandu Shehui Zeren Baogao” [2014 Social Responsibility Report] March 21, 2015, 25, f21efe2243924ca3903e3afb4837b525.pdf; and Zijin Mining Group, “2016 Niandu Shehui Zeren Baogao” [2016 Social Responsibility Report], 28, .html?file=/upload/file/2017/04/12/1363a2c7c451440d8d21d7b884b7bf53.pdf.

74 Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Zhu Tajikesitan Dashi Liu Bin Jieshou Ta ‘Shangye Yu Zhengzhi’ Bao Zhuanfang” [Ambassador Liu Bin to Tajikistan Accepts an Exclusive Interview with Tajikistan’s ‘Business and Politics’ Newspaper].

75 “Zhu Tajikesitan Dashi Yue Bin Jiu Zhongta Gongjian ‘Yidai Yilu’ Jieshou Ta ‘Aweisita’ Tongxunshe Caifang” [Ambassador Yue Bin in Tajikistan Accepts an Interview With Tajikistan’s ‘Avesta’ News Agency on China’s and Tajikistan’s Joint Construction of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’], March 14, 2018,; and “Tajikesitan Banshichu Tazhong Xiangmubu Canyu Dangdi Jiuzai Huodong” [The Tajikistan Office and the Tajikistan Project Department Engaged in Local Disaster Relief Efforts], November 12, 2013, crbc/293/info/2013/1840.html.

76 Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Zhu Tajikesitan Dashi Liu Bin Jieshou Ta ‘Shangye Yu Zhengzhi’ Bao Zhuanfang” [Ambassador Liu Bin to Tajikistan Accepts an Exclusive Interview with Tajikistan’s ‘Business and Politics’ Newspaper].

77 Xinhua, “Feature: Chinese Textile Company Brings New Life to Tajikistan’s Cotton Industry.”

78 Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Zhu Tajikesitan Dashi Liu Bin Jieshou Ta ‘Shangye Yu Zhengzhi’ Bao Zhuanfang” [Ambassador Liu Bin to Tajikistan Accepts an Exclusive Interview with Tajikistan’s ‘Business and Politics’ Newspaper].

79 Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2020.”

80 Kristin Huang, “Why Chinese Investors Are Struggling to Gain a Foothold in Tajikistan,” South China Morning Post, October 7, 2017, why-chinese-investors-are-struggling-gain-foothold.

81 David Trilling, “Poll Shows Uzbeks, Like Neighbors, Growing Leery of Chinese Investments,” EurasiaNet, October 22, 2020,

82 Edward Lemon and Bradley Jardine, “How China Can Tighten Its Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia,” South China Morning Post, October 14, 2020, article/3105286/how-china-can-tighten-its-belt-and-road-initiative-central-asia.

83 “Kazakhstan’s Land Reform Protests Explained,” BBC News, April 28, 2016, news/world-asia-36163103.

84 Dirk van der Kley, “Chinese Companies’ Localization in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” Problems of Post-Communism 67 (2020): 241–250,

85 Eleonora Beishenbek, “V Kara-Balte Zapushchen Krupnyi NPZ ‘Dzhunda’” [Major Oil Refinery ‘Zhongda’ Launched in Kara Balta], Radio Azattyk, September 10, 2013,

86 “‘Zavod ‘Dzhunda’—Tri Goda Uspeshnoi Raboty!” [‘Zhongda’ Factory—Three Years of Successful Work!], Knews, July 7, 2016,

87 Ibid.

88 Kubanichbek Holdoshev, “‘Altynken’ Obeshchaet Zolotuiu Osen” [Altynken Promises a Golden Autumn], Radio Azattyk, June 17, 2014,

89 Sanzhar Eraliev, “‘Altynken.’ Protivostoyaniye Prodolzhayetsya” [‘Altynken.’ The Confrontation Continues”], Radio Azattyk, January 12, 2016,

90 Author interview with a former employee of the company, November 2020.

91 Author interview with a company employee, November 2018.

92 Author interview with a company employee, November 2018.

93 Tilav Rasul-Zade, “Tadzhikistan: Puteshestvie po Ruinam, Ili Chto Tvoritsia v Zarnisore?” [Tajikistan: Traveling Through the Ruins, What’s Going on in Zarnisore?], Fergana News, June 4, 2014, http://

94 “Xizang Zhufeng 600338” [Tibet Summit 600338], Shanghai Stock Exchange Roadshow, last accessed September 15, 2021, stockCode=600338.

95 Ibid.

96 Nargis Khamrabaeva, “Rabochiye SP «Zarafshon» Protestuyut” [Workers of JV ‘Zarafshon’ Protest], Asia Plus, September 12, 2011,

97 Zarina Ergasheva, “Sokrovishcha Tajikistana: Zhurnalist Sputnik Otpravilas Dobyvat Zoloto” [Treasures of Tajikistan: Sputnik Journalist Goes Gold Mining], Sputnik, October 30, 2015,

98 “Lianjiu Silu Jianshe ‘Zhen Gongfu’—Zhongguo Shifu he Yang Tudi de Gushi” [Practicing ‘Real Kung Fu’ in Building the Silk Road: The Stories of Chinese Experts and Their Foreign Apprentices], Xinhua, August 21, 2016,

99 For the key moment, watch the following video from the 2:00 mark until the end. “Zhongguo Qiye Bangzhu Tajikesitan Gongyehua Daidong Dangdi Jiuye” [Chinese Companies Help Tajikistan’s Industrialization to Drive Local Employment], Phoenix Television, April 2, 2020, http://history.ifeng .com/c/7vL4R8JFuyW.

100 Ibid.

101 “Na Stroyashchemsya v Sogde Krupneyshem v Regione Tsemzavode Zaversheno 60% Rabot” [At theLargest Cement Plant in the Region Under Construction in Sughd, 60% of the Work Is Completed],Asia Plus, June 13, 2015,

102 “Otkrytiye Tsementnogo Zavoda OOO «Khuaksin Gayur-Sugdtsement» v Babadzhan Gafurovskom Rayone,” [Opening of the Cement Plant “Huaksin Gayur-Sugdcement” LLC in the Babajan Gafurov District] Press Service of the President of Tajikistan, March 23, 2016,

103 Based on the author’s January 2016 site visit during construction.

104 “Tongxun: Mianhua Nuan Shen Hezuo Nuan Xin——Zai Tajikesitan Zhongguo Fangzhi Qiye Tuidong Jianshe Minxin Gongcheng” [Dispatch: Cotton Warms the Body and Cooperation Warms the Heart: Chinese Textile Enterprises Promote the Construction of Popular Projects in Tajikistan], Xinhua, June 10, 2019,

105 “Huanjing Yu Shequ” [Environment and Community], China National Petroleum Corporation, last accessed September 15, 2021,

106 Two author interviews with Kazakh nationals working for these firms, 2017 and 2018.

107 Abdul Kerimkhanov, “Chinese Company Genertec Invests $1.1 Billion in Kazakhstan’s Auto Industry,”Azernews, December 12, 2018,

108 Ibid.

109 The project values were obtained from the project list provided by Kazakh Invest. See Kazakh Invest, “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance With The Legislation of Kazakhstan.”

110 “Na Zavody v Kyzylordinskoy Oblasti Trudoustroyat Mestnykh Spetsialistov” [Plants in Kyzylorda Region Will Employ Local Specialists], Zakon, November 21, 2018, 4946910-na-zavody-v-kyzylordinskoy-oblasti.html.

111 The project values were obtained from the project list provided by Kazakh Invest. See Kazakh Invest, “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance With The Legislation of Kazakhstan.”

112 China National Petroleum Corporation, “Phase II Renovation Project of Shymkent Refinery Becomes Operational,” China National Petroleum Corporation, September 30, 2018, en/nr2018/201810/bb4875b60501426ebee7752d856544a6.shtml.

113 China National Petroleum Corporation, “Gongcheng Jianshe Youxian Gongsi PKOP Lianchang Jianshe Jishi” [Construction Timeline of PKOP Refinery by Sinopec Engineering Incorporation Co., Ltd.], China National Petroleum Corporation, March 30, 2021, system/2021/03/30/030028464.shtml.

114 Ibid.

115 The project values were obtained from the project list provided by Kazakh Invest. See Kazakh Invest, “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance With The Legislation of Kazakhstan.”

116 Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan Economic and Commercial Office, “Wangjiangong Can Chuxi Gezhouba Xili Shuini Youxian Gongsi 2500 Dun/Ri Shu Liao Shuini Shengchanxian Jungong Yishi” [Minister Counselor Wang Jian Attended the Opening Ceremony of Gezhouba Xili Cement’s 2,500 Tons/Day Clinker Cement Production Line], Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan Economic and Commercial Office, October 21, 2019,

117 The project values were obtained from the project list provided by Kazakh Invest. See Kazakh Invest, “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance With The Legislation of Kazakhstan.”

118 “Huantai Nengyuan Kapshagay 100MWp Guangfu Dianzhan Bing Wang Yunying” [Universal Energy’sKapshagay 100MWp Photovoltaic Power Station Connected to Grid for Operation], Universal Energy, September 3, 2019,

119 Nazrin Gadimova, “China, Kazakhstan Inaugurate Solar Farm in Almaty Province,” Caspian News, September 5, 2019,

120 The project values were obtained from the project list provided by Kazakh Invest. See Kazakh Invest, “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance With The Legislation of Kazakhstan.”

121 The Chinese investor in Asia Steel Pipe Corporation is a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation. See “Pri Podderzhke «Kazakh Invest» Podpisan Investkontrakt s «Asia Steel Pipe Corporation» po Stroitel’stvu Zavoda po Proizvodstvu Stal’nykh Svarnykh Trub Bol’shogo Diametra” [With the Support of Kazakh Invest, an Investment Contract Was Signed With Asia Steel Pipe Corporation for the Construction of a Plant for the Production of Large Diameter Welded Steel Pipes], Kazakh Invest, April 12, 2018,

122 Author interview with an employee at the firm, 2018.

123 Kazakh Invest, “Pri Podderzhke «Kazakh Invest» Podpisan Investkontrakt s «Asia Steel Pipe Corporation»po Stroitel’stvu Zavoda po Proizvodstvu Stal’nykh Svarnykh Trub Bol’shogo Diametra” [With the Support of Kazakh Invest, an Investment Contract Was Signed With Asia Steel Pipe Corporation for the Construction of a Plant for the Production of Large Diameter Welded Steel Pipes].

124 “CGN to Take Stake in Kazakh U Mining Company,” World Mining News, January 5, 2021,

125 “V AO «UMZ» Proshli Obshchestvennyye Slushaniya, Posvyashchennyye Proizvodstvu TVS” [Public Hearings Dedicated to the Production of Fuel Assemblies Held at UMP JSC], Ulba Joint Stock Company, last accessed July 7, 2021,

126 Kazakh Invest, “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance With the Legislation of Kazakhstan.”

127 “‘Yidai Yilu” Zhuli Hasakesitan Shixian Gongye Yuanjing” [‘BRI’ Helps Kazakhstan Realize Its Strategic Vision], Sina Technology, January 8, 2020,; and Nazrin Gadimova, “Kazakhstan To Open First Polypropylene Plant In 2021,” Caspian News, August 26, 2020,

128 “‘Yidai Yilu” Zhuli Hasakesitan Shixian Gongye Yuanjing” [‘BRI’ Helps Kazakhstan Realize Its Strategic Vision], Sina Technology.

129 Gadimova, “Kazakhstan to Open First Polypropylene Plant in 2021.”

130 The project values were obtained from the project list provided by Kazakh Invest. See Kazakh Invest, “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance With The Legislation of Kazakhstan.”

131 For Kazakh Invest values, see Kazakh Invest, “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance With The Legislation of Kazakhstan”; “Zhanatas Wind-Power Station,”Zhanatas Wind-Power Station LLP, last accessed September 15, 2021,; and “EBRD, AIIB, ICBC and GCF Provide US$95.3 Million for Wind Farm in Kazakhstan,” European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, October 26, 2020,

132 Zhanatas Wind-Power Station LLP, “Zhanatas Wind-Power Station”; and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, “EBRD, AIIB, ICBC and GCF Provide US$ 95.3 Million for Wind Farm in Kazakhstan.”

133 “Financing Agreement Signed on Zhanatas Wind Farm Project in Kazakhstan,” China Economic Net, October 28, 2020,

134 Zhanatas Wind-Power Station LLP, “Zhanatas Wind Power Plant Project Environmental and Social Analysis,” Zhanatas Wind-Power Station LLP, November 2019, 6,

135 Ibid.

136 The project values were obtained from the project list provided by Kazakh Invest. See Kazakh Invest, “Construction of Kazakh-Chinese Investment Projects Will Be Carried Out in Accordance With The Legislation of Kazakhstan.”

137 Chinese Ministry of Commerce, “Duiwai Touzi Hezuo Guobie (Diqu) Zhinan Tajikesitan (2020 Ban)”[Foreign Investment and Cooperation Guide by Country (Region) Tajikistan (2020 Edition)].

138 Ibid, 32.

139 Ibid, 64.

140 Ibid, 49–50.

141 Sinosure, “Guobie Touzi Jingying Bianli Hua Zhuangkuang Baogao (2015)” [Individual Country Reports on Ease of Investment and Doing Business (2015)], 2015, 126,

142 Chinese Ministry of Commerce, “Duiwai Touzi Hezuo Guobie (Diqu) Zhinan Tajikesitan (2020 Ban)” [Foreign Investment and Cooperation Guide by Country (Region) Tajikistan (2020 Edition)], 49.

143 Xinhua, “Tongxun: Mianhua Nuan Shen Hezuo Nuan Xin—Zai Tajikesitan Zhongguo Fangzhi Qiye Tuidong Jianshe Minxin Gongcheng” [Dispatch: Cotton Warms the Body and Cooperation Warms the Heart: Chinese Textile Enterprises Promote the Construction of Popular Projects in Tajikistan].

144 “Na Sever Strany po LEP 500 kV «Yug-Sever» v Nachale Noyabrya Nachnet Postupat’ Elektroenergiyas Yuga Respubliki” [From Early November, the North of the Country Will Start Receiving Electricity From the South of the Republic Via the 500 kV South-North Power Lines], Asia Plus, October 28,2009,

145 Kyrgyz Ministry of Justice, “O Poryadke Osushchestvleniya Trudovoy Deyatel’nosti Inostrannymi Grazhdanami i Litsami Bez Grazhdanstva na Territorii Kyrgyzskoy Respubliki” [Regulations on the Procedure for the Implementation of Labor Activities by Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons on the Territory of the Kyrgyz Republic], August 6, 2020,

146 Altynken, “Osnovnaya Informatsiya” [Company Information], Altynken, last accessed September 15, 2021,

147 Liu Linlin, “Violence Rocks Chinese Mine in Kyrgyzstan,” Global Times, October 26, 2012,

148 Kubanichbek Holdoshev, “«Altynken» Obeshchayet Zolotuyu Osen” [Altynken Promises a Golden Autumn], Radio Azattyk, June 17, 2014,

149 “Zhongji Shuangfang Zheng Tuoshan Jiejue Zhongguo Gongren Yu Dangdi Jumin Chongtu” [China and Kyrgyzstan Working Toward Resolution of Chinese Workers Clash With Local Residents], CRI Online, October 26, 2012,

150 Sanzhar Eraliev, “‘Altynken.’ Protivostoyaniye Prodolzhayetsya” [‘Altynken.’ The Confrontation Continues], Radio Azattyk, January 12, 2016,

151 Ibid.

152 Chinese Ministry of Commerce, “Duiwai Touzi Hezuo Guobie (Diqu) Wuzibiekesitan Zhinan (2020 Ban)” [Foreign Investment and Cooperation Guide by Country (Region) Uzbekistan (2020 Edition)], Chinese Ministry of Commerce, May 2020,

153 Chinese Ministry of Commerce, “Duiwai Touzi Hezuo Guobie (Diqu) Wuzibiekesitan Zhinan (2020 Ban)” [Foreign Investment and Cooperation Guide by Country (Region) Uzbekistan (2020 Edition)].

154 van der Kley, “Chinese Companies’ Localization in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.”

155 Chinese Ministry of Commerce, “Duiwai Touzi Hezuo Guobie (Diqu) Wuzibiekesitan Zhinan (2020 Ban)” [Foreign Investment and Cooperation Guide by Country (Region) Uzbekistan (2020 Edition)].

156 Ibid.

157 Two separate searches were conducted on the job-posting website Liepin for each of the countries. The first search was conducted with the search box empty but the country tag selected. This captured every single job in which the job poster had tagged the country location. This search produced the majority of the results (including forty-eight out of the fifty-two jobs in Kazakhstan, for instance). The second search was conducted with the root name for the Chinese-language country names (“hasake” for Hasakesitan, the Chinese name for Kazakhstan, or “Tajike” for Tajikesitan, the Chinese name for Tajikistan). This returned results in which those terms appeared in the job description. Then the authors read through each job description to see if the job was located in a Central Asian country. This yielded a small number of results that did not appear in the tagged search. If a duplicate ad appeared in one country, it was only counted as one position because it appears some job posters posted the same role multiple times on the website. Several roles were advertised in multiple countries. These results were included in the data for each country because it would have skewed the results to remove them from one country and not another. To remove them completely would have meant removing genuine job ads from the results, so they remain included in the calculations. Wages on all jobs were displayed in renminbi. The exchange rate was calculated at 1 renminbi = 0.15 U.S. dollars based on the September 13, 2021, exchange rate. The searches for job ads in Tajikistan occurred on September 11, 2021. The searches for job ads in the other countries occurred on September 13, 2021.

158 The average monthly wage assessment for August 2021, according to Kazakhstan’s National Bureau of Statistics, was 256,455 tenge. It was converted to U.S. dollars by using the exchange rate of 1 U.S. dollar = 426.26 tenge on October 3, 2021. See Kazakhstan Bureau of National Statistics Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms, “Byuro Natsional’noy Statistiki Agentstva po Strategicheskomu Planirovaniyu i Reformam Respubliki Kazakhstan” [Main Socioeconomic Indicators], Kazakhstan Bureau of National Statistics Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms,

159 “Average Salary in Kyrgyzstan for 1st Quarter Makes $225,” Kabar, May 31, 2019,

160 The average monthly wage for an individual in Tajikistan is 1,492.5 Tajikistani somoni. This figure was converted to $131.8 on October 3, 2021, using the conversion rate of 1 U.S. dollar = 11.3 somoni. See “Chto Takoye Srednyaya Nominal’naya Zarplata i Pochemu v Tadzhikistane ona Samaya Nizkaya” [What Is the Average Nominal Wage and Why Is it the Lowest in Tajikistan], Asia Plus, August 14, 2021,

161 The monthly average wage in Uzbekistan in 2,968,475.7 Uzbekistani som. This figure was converted on October 3, 2021, to $277.70 U.S. dollars using the exchange rate of 1 U.S dollar = 10,700 som. This data was downloaded in PDF format from the following website; to access the PDF, click on the corresponding link next to “wages.” See State Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Statistics, “Labor Market,” State Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Statistics, last accessed October 3, 2021,

162 Shanghai Stock Exchange Roadshow, “Xizang Zhufeng 600338” [Tibet Summit 600338].

163 Zhang Jie, “Zijin Kuangye Shuxie Haiwai Zhuan Qi Zai Haiwai 12 ge Guojia Yongyou Qing Mu” [Zijin Writes Its Own Overseas Legend With Projects in 12 Countries], Fujian Daily, August 20, 2015, http://

164 Chinese Ministry of Commerce, “Duiwai Touzi Hezuo Guobie (Diqu) Hasakesitan Zhinan (2020 Ban)”[Foreign Investment and Cooperation Guide by Country (Region) Kazakhstan (2020 Edition)], Chinese Ministry of Commerce, July 2020, 30,

165 Sinosure, “Guobie Touzi Jingying Bianli Hua Zhuangkuang Baogao (2015)” [Individual Country Reports on Ease of Investment and Doing Business (2015)].

166 Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, “Central Asia Migration Tracker,” Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, December 15, 2020,

167 Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Wang Yi Talks About Eight-Point Consensus and Ten Outcomes of ‘China+Central Asia’ Foreign Ministers’ Meeting,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 12, 2021,

168 “Zhongguo Shiyou Gongcheng Jianshe Gongsi Rongru “Yidai Yilu” Zheng Chuang Guoji Yiliu” [ CNPC Integrates Into the Belt and Road Initiative and Strives to Become a World Class Company], Yunnan Web, October 27, 2020,

169 China National Petroleum Corporation, “Hasakesitan Fen Gongsi” [Kazakhstan Subsidiary], China National Petroleum Corporation, last accessed September 15, 2021,

170 “Zhongha Qianshu Zhongya Guandao C Xian Qiye Jian Xieyi” [China and Kazakhstan Companies Signed Agreement on the Central Asia–China Gas Pipeline Line C], China Oil Online, September 29, 2011,

171 China Oil Online, “Zhongha Qianshu Zhongya Guandao C Xian Qiye Jian Xieyi” [China and Kazakhstan Companies Signed Agreement on the Central Asia–China Gas Pipeline Line C].

172 “Guokan Gongsi Zai Zhongdong He Zhongya Zhanxianle “Fu Zeren, Shou Zunjing” de Guoji da Gongsi Lianghao Xingxiang, Shi “Yidai Yilu” Chengwei Heping Youyi Niudai, Gongtong Fanrong Zhi Lu” [SIPC Has Demonstrated a Good Image as a Responsible and Respected International Company in the Middle East and Central Asia, Making the Belt and Road Initiative a Channel of Peace, Friendship, and a Path to Common Prosperity],, May 10, 2017,

173 “Tebian Diangong “Dian Liang” Xia Yeli de Ji’erjisisitan” [TBEA Lights Up Kyrgyzstan’s Summer Nights], Xinhua, June 15, 2019,

174 “Hasake Xueyuan Shuini Shengchan Lilun Ji Caozuo Shijian Peixun Kai Ban” [Kazakh Trainees Start a Training Course on Cement Production Theory and Operation Practice], Beijing Triumph International Engineering, August 16, 2010,

175 “Zhenhua Shiyou Hasakesitan KAM Gongsi Diyi Qi Guanli Renyuan Peixun Ban Kai Ban” [Zhenhua Petroleum Kazakhstan KAM Company’s First Management Training Class Opened], Beijing Petroleum University, September 10, 2010,

176 “Zhouji Youqi Yong Qinghuai Zai Hasakesitan Zuo “You Wendu” de Zhongqi” [Geo-Jade Petroleum Uses Sentiments to Become a Warm Chinese Enterprise in Kazakhstan], Silk Road Observer, October 5, 2017,

177 “Zhongha Gongjian “Yidai Yilu” Mingxing Qiye Zhuli Hasakesitan Difang Fazhan” [China-Kazakhstan Jointly Builds ‘One Belt One Road’ Star Enterprise to Help Kazakhstan’s Local Development], Ministry of Commerce, April 18, 2019,

178 “Jinling Shihua Wei Hasakesitan Peixun Jishu Renyuan” [Sinopec Trains Technicians in Kazakhstan], Sinopec Qilu Petrochemical Company, July 19, 2017, .

179 “[Yuanfang de Jia] Yidai Yilu (331) Hasakasitan Tanfang Biekejiubinku” [Far-Away Home] One Belt One Road (331) Kazakhstan Visiting the Bestyubinsky Reservoir], CCTV, April 3, 2018,

180 “Zai Hasakesitan Xinan Gongye da Zhou Ganshou Huore Zhong Ha Channeng Hezuo” [Feel the Fiery China-Kazakhstan Capacity Cooperation in the Southwestern Industrial State of Kazakhstan], Xinhua, October 29, 2019,

181 “Jierjisi Sitan Zhong Da Shiyou Xiangmu “Yidai Yilu” Gongbi Hua de Shanxi Shoubi” [Shaanxi Crafts at the ‘Belt and Road’ Petroleum Project in Kyrgyzstan], Central Asia Energy, June 13, 2019,; and “Zhongda Shiyou Zhuli Zhongji Nengyuan Hezuo Huli Gongying” [Zhongda Petroleum Assists China and Kyrgyzstan in Energy Cooperation for Mutual Benefit and Win-Win Results], Xinhua, August 10, 2017,

182 “Zai Jierjisisitan, Henan Xiaohuozi Yong “Zhongguoren Chengshi” Shouhuo le Ziji de Aiqing” [In Kyrgyzstan, a Young Chinese Man From Henan Used ‘Chinese Honesty’ to Gain His Love], Asia Star, August 12, 2017,

183 “[Yuanfang de Jia] Yidai Yilu (322) Hasakesitan Xinsilu Zhongguo Qing” [[Far-Away Home] One Belt One Road (322) Kazakhstan, The New Silk Road and China’s Situation], CCTV, March 21, 2018, Watch from the 8:00 to the 9:00 time stamp.

184 Ibid, especially 22:05.

185 “[Yuanfang de Jia] Yidai Yilu (331) Hasakasitan Tanfang Biekejiubinku” [Far-Away Home] One Belt One Road (331) Kazakhstan Visiting the Bestyubinsky Reservoir].

186 Ibid.

187 Ibid.

188 Author interview with a Central Asian employee of a large Chinese tech firm, January 2018.

189 Author interview with a local employee for a Chinese investment in Kazakhstan, January 2018.

190 Author interview with China National Gold Group employee, January 2018.

191 Sinosure, “Guobie Touzi Jingying Bianli Hua Zhuangkuang Baogao (2015)” [Individual Country Reports on the Ease of Investment and Doing Business (2015)].

192 Author interview with a company employee, January 2018.

193 Author interview with a company employee, January 2018.

194 Author interview with a Kyrgyz employee of a Chinese company in Kyrgyzstan, January 2018.

195 “Zhongda Shiyou ‘Yidai Yilu’ Shang de Yi Ke Mingzhu” [Zhongda Oil, a Pearl on the “One Belt One Road”], Central Asia Energy Company, September 15, 2017,; and van der Kley, “Chinese Companies’ Localization in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.”