On June 21, Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Development of Information Technologies and Communications and China’s CITIC Group and Henan Costar Group signed an agreement on the implementation of Uzbekistan’s “Safe City” project. The project will take Uzbekistan’s surveillance capabilities to a new level and have long-term implications. China’s Huawei, lately subject to U.S. sanctions and at the heart of deepening tensions between the United States and China, is the main participant in the project, offering “advanced technology and innovative solutions.”
The recent agreement involves a $300 million investment from the CITIC Group, China’s state-owned investment company. Henan Costar Group — a photonics company that manufactures and supplies optical and electromechanical products such as city monitoring systems — will likely manufacture monitoring systems in Uzbekistan. Huawei will likely be involved in integrating the monitoring systems, providing analytical support, and managing information coming from the systems.
The announced investment is a part of a $1 billion agreement President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed during his trip to China in late April to participate in the second Belt and Road Forum. Tashkent entered into an agreement with Huawei and CITIC Guoan Information Technology to develop Uzbekistan’s digital infrastructure by way of the “Safe City” and “Smart City” projects.
A billion-dollar investment is significant funding for Uzbekistan. The investment is planned to be fully realized by the end of 2020, which is a short period of time. When realized, the digital infrastructure project will become China’s second largest investment project in Uzbekistan, behind a 2012 $2 billion gas project by China National Petroleum Corporation that transits Turkmen and Uzbek natural gas to China.
The latest billion-dollar agreement will cover projects beyond city surveillance systems, including the development of electronic governance, IT, and telemedicine. Huawei and the Ministry also agreed to study the possibilities of introducing the company’s 5G technologies with Uzbekistan’s two state-owned phone companies.
Huawei is not new to Uzbekistan. Most recently, the Tashkent police department tested surveillance technology most likely provided by China. Huawei worked with Bukhara region to test face recognition technology. Huawei’s implementation of “Safe City” elsewhere gives some early indications on what the Uzbekistan project will yield for the country. For example, Huawei’s “Safe City” project in Nairobi, Kenya, “has put in place a new communications network that links 1,800 surveillance cameras with 195 police bureaus and 7,600 police officers.” In neighboring Tajikistan, that country’s Safe City project will reportedly soon be equipped with facial recognition technology from Huawei, which stood up the project following a 2013 agreement.
China’s massive investment in Uzbekistan’s digital infrastructure has long-term implications on several levels. Increased surveillance and video monitoring technology can enhance the capabilities of law enforcement, while also putting the police under surveillance in their response to incidents. This could contribute to greater accountability among the security services and improved safety for the public. At the same time, privacy concerns and the political and strategic implications of China’s dominance in this sector and adjacent telecommunication and technology sectors are also worth considering. Uzbekistan, with the region’s largest population, is a significant market for Huawei in Central Asia — one that, if a success, could be held up as a showcase of the company’s systems.