Crossroads Asia

A Closer Look at the Growing Chinese Presence in Uzbekistan

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Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

A Closer Look at the Growing Chinese Presence in Uzbekistan

Both Chinese expats and Uzbek locals have nuanced views of China’s growing involvement in Uzbekistan.

A Closer Look at the Growing Chinese Presence in Uzbekistan
Credit: Depositphotos

As China persists in expanding its economic and political involvement in Central Asia, a growing Chinese presence is increasingly noticeable on the streets of Tashkent as well. Chinese-branded automobiles, construction equipment, hotels, restaurants, shops, and other enterprises have become ubiquitous. Simultaneously, the number of Chinese nationals residing and working in Uzbekistan has grown. The country has been viewed as a safer and more stable option among Chinese nationals, especially since 2016 when a new government came to power in Uzbekistan. The introduction of a visa-free regime in 2020 further accelerated the influx of Chinese entrepreneurs and tourists. This trend raises questions about the underlying motivations for Chinese individuals and entrepreneurs to pursue work and business opportunities in Uzbekistan, as well as the nature of their experiences while living and working in the country.

Experiences of Chinese Expats

To explore the experiences of Chinese expats in Uzbekistan, considering both the positive and negative aspects of their lives, our research included interviews, content analysis on online forums, and an anonymous survey. The results reveal a mixture of satisfaction and challenges faced by Chinese residents in the country.

According to available data, over 1,800 Chinese enterprises were operating in Uzbekistan in 2021, and by August 2022, this figure had increased to more than 2,000. As China eased its strict zero-COVID policy and began engaging again with the global community, this number grew. In 2023, the presence of Chinese businesses is expected to expand even further.

At the same time, demand for Chinese engineers and specialists in the region has also increased. Uzbekistan is regarded as a more favorable partner for China in the area, with the local population demonstrating greater friendliness toward Chinese nationals. In contrast to other countries in Central Asia, in Uzbekistan there has been an absence of significant anti-China protests.

“So far, the people here are the friendliest in Central Asia. Especially after going to Kazakhstan, this is heaven in comparison. The police on the road won’t bother you either. I haven’t had any problems going out in the middle of the night or without a passport,” said a young Chinese businessman in his early 30s, who moved to the region a couple of years ago, during an interview. 

A majority of Chinese expats expressed satisfaction with their lives in Uzbekistan, mainly attributing it to the friendliness and hospitality of the local population. However, they also faced several challenges, such as the language barrier, local regulations, and cultural differences.

“I’ve been living here for less than a year. I did not know about Uzbekistan before I came here. The biggest challenges for me here are language barriers, rather unclear and burdensome local regulations, and meager infrastructure. Carrying cash and lack of online shopping infrastructure is rather inconvenient for me. Life is rather boring here for Chinese people,” said a young Chinese woman, who recently moved to Uzbekistan to work at the overseas branch of a large Chinese company. 

Respondents shared their first impressions of Uzbekistan, which were mainly positive. They noted the friendly nature of the people, the affordable and delicious food, and the safety and cleanliness of the streets. A contrast between the bustling capital city, Tashkent, and the more rural areas was also highlighted. The pace of life was described as slow and peaceful, reminiscent of China several decades ago.

“I have travelled all over Uzbekistan, from Karakalpak in the west to Andijan in the east. The capital of this country has basically reached the level of development in China in the late 1990s,” shared a middle-aged Chinese man in his 40s, responding to a question about his impression of Uzbekistan on a Quora-like Chinese online forum,

Almost all respondents said they had not experienced discrimination in Uzbekistan. However, there were some who mentioned challenges in doing business in the country due to differences in regulations, taxation, and financial systems. Some respondents also complained about government interference in private businesses, corruption, and a lack of efficiency in government agencies.

“I think doing business here is difficult for Chinese people. Because the regulations are difficult here. The taxes and fees are high, and the customs charges are sometimes unreasonable. The main problem is the communication barriers and the difference in the way of thinking. Most Chinese people are more diligent than the locals here, i.e. Chinese government agencies and units have on-duty personnel on holidays to deal with some emergency affairs, which is somewhat different from here,” said a young Chinese man in his late 20s during an interview, expressing his thoughts on the challenges faced by Chinese entrepreneurs in Uzbekistan

Language and cultural barriers were the most commonly mentioned difficulties faced by Chinese migrants in Uzbekistan. Other issues included the underdeveloped infrastructure for online shopping, payment, and postal services; higher prices for manufactured goods and clothing; and corruption. Some respondents also mentioned poor road conditions and the difference in living conditions compared to China, especially in terms of urban development.

“Although Uzbekistan has developed rapidly in recent years, it is still lagging behind. The capital Tashkent is not even as good as any second-tier city in China. Similar to Kashgar, not even as good as Urumqi,” said one Chinese businessman during an interview. (Kashgar and Urumqi are cities in China’s Xinjiang region.)

Regarding their reasons for coming to Uzbekistan, the respondents mentioned higher salaries for working in an overseas branch of their company, language skills (such as speaking Russian), and curiosity about Central Asian culture. Some respondents also mentioned that many Chinese people did not have much awareness about Uzbekistan before arriving in the country, and their understanding of it was mainly based on internet research.

“The reason why I came here is because of the company’s requirements. Plus, there is a subsidy for working abroad and the salary is higher for us. The only information I knew before coming to Uzbekistan was that it is one of the four countries in Central Asia, and has a good relationship with China,” said a young Chinese engineer who has recently come to Uzbekistan. (Editor’s Note: Central Asia, by most definitions, encompasses at least five countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.)

In a nutshell, the growing Chinese presence in Uzbekistan can be attributed to a combination of factors, such as favorable relations with their home country, geographical proximity, positive attitudes from local people, and new business opportunities in a developing nation. Despite these incentives, many Chinese expats do not see a long-term future in Uzbekistan due to the challenges associated with integrating into the local society. 

The experiences of Chinese migrants in Uzbekistan paint a complex picture of adaptation and integration. On one hand, they appreciate the friendly reception and hospitality of the local people; on the other hand, they face difficulties related to language, culture, and business practices, which make their integration into Uzbek society challenging.

Nevertheless, Chinese nationals living in Uzbekistan report an overall satisfaction rate of 7 out of 10, with the primary positive aspects being the welcoming attitude of the local population and the sense of security within the country. These findings indicate that the number of Chinese individuals residing in Uzbekistan for extended periods is likely to increase significantly in the coming years, particularly following the end of pandemic era restrictions and policies. 

Local Perspectives on This Trend

On the other side of the spectrum, exploring the attitude of Uzbek people toward the growing Chinese presence in their country is equally important to understand the dynamics of this evolving relationship. A recent survey conducted among local Uzbek citizens sheds light on these views, revealing both opportunities and challenges in the growing China-Uzbekistan relationship, as well as concerns about the balance of power.

In a survey of 100 people, 42 percent indicated that they had noticed a significant increase in the number of Chinese people and enterprises in Uzbekistan this year. The survey further revealed that 89 percent of respondents believe Chinese businesses and investments are creating more job opportunities in Uzbekistan. In addition to the economic advantages, the survey highlighted the extent of China’s influence in Uzbekistan. A significant 81 percent of respondents believe that China now holds a strong degree of economic sway over their country. This finding underscores the growing interdependence between the two nations, which has been the result of bilateral agreements, trade, and investments.

However, the survey also revealed some concerns among the Uzbek population. When asked about their attitude toward the growing number of Chinese people and businesses in Uzbekistan, only 29 percent of respondents reported a neutral stance. In contrast, 48 percent expressed a negative attitude, while 24 percent viewed the trend as positive. This data suggests that while the China-Uzbekistan relationship has its benefits, there is still a level of unease among a considerable portion of the local population.

The Changing Perception of “Made in China” 

One area where perceptions have shifted positively is in regard to products labelled “Made in China.” Such products were historically associated with inferior quality; the survey indicates that attitudes have changed. Now, 67 percent of respondents report a positive perception of “Made in China” products. This shift suggests that Chinese manufacturers have made significant strides in improving their products’ quality, making them more appealing to international consumers. However, it’s worth mentioning that 28 percent of respondents still opt against purchasing “Made in China” products, citing reasons such as past experiences with inferior quality, concerns about safety standards, or a preference for locally produced or alternative brands.

The survey findings depict a nuanced perception of China among the Uzbek population — as a valuable trade partner, but also a potential threat to their country’s sovereignty due to the strong economic influence of China and the situation of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang (based on the content analysis of Uzbek social media space). This complex view underscores the need for the Uzbek government to navigate its relationship with China cautiously and maintain a balance between economic gains and national interests. Uzbekistan must also consider the potential risks associated with deepening its engagement with China and remain mindful of its people’s sentiments. The success of Uzbekistan in managing its relationship with China effectively will be crucial for ensuring long-term stability, independence, and sustainable development.