As Afghanistan Falls to Taliban, Chinese Entrepreneurs Are Eager to Rush In

Where the U.S. sees defeat, they see an opportunity to strike gold.

Aug 25 2021, 12:41pm

Just as a swift Taliban takeover plunged Afghanistan into a new round of chaos, a Chinese salesman smelled a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get rich. 

The 32-year-old, who only gave his surname Liu to avoid repercussions at work, makes some $30,000 a year at an electric engineering company in Beijing. Liu dreams of one day living a comfortable life in his own house, but the ballooning property prices and the intense competition in the Chinese capital are making that future look almost impossible. 

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When the fall of Kabul hit the news, Liu found his potential turnaround. In a more stable Afghanistan governed by the unrivaled Taliban, Liu speculated, an explosion in new construction would lead to skyrocketing demand for power systems. He imagines moving to Afghanistan for a few years, and making more than ten times his current income. 

“Now there is only one party, it won’t become too messy,” Liu told VICE World News. “If the Taliban rules the country on its own, infrastructure building will be a focus. I want to go get a slice of that.”

While the calls for help from Afghan women fearing a return to Islamic fundamentalism, the desperate attempts of fleeing at the Kabul airport, and the collapsing economy have dominated international coverage of Afghanistan, Chinese state media are telling a different story that at times paints a rosy picture of the country’s future in the absence of the United States. 

The narrative that focuses on future development but skips the Taliban’s past atrocities has spurred a misplaced sense of optimism and an investment hype among some Chinese as they look to profit from what they believe to be warming ties between Beijing and its poor, war-ravaged neighbor. 

VICE World News spoke with half a dozen Chinese men who are exploring ways of making money in Afghanistan by trading goods ranging from electronics to plastic packaging to fertilizers. Complaining about the intense competition in China, they are placing their hopes in the country now controlled by a much-feared militant group. 

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“The Taliban needs China’s construction. Afghanistan is a key point connecting China’s Belt and Road project to the Middle East,” a businessman in his 30s who only identified himself as Dahong for his safety, told VICE World News. Dahong wanted to export the plastic packaging produced in his hometown in eastern China. “They need each other. The future is full of hope.” 

Another businessman, in his 40s and whose surname is Cao, said he was interested in bringing his lighting products and fertilizer business to China’s far western neighbor. The markets in most Asian countries are already saturated, he said, but Afghanistan was an untapped market waiting to be exploited. 

Cao imagined himself living an austere life in Afghanistan, but he is willing to put up with that in order to make more money for his child. A native of northeastern China, Cao spent three years studying in China’s Xinjiang region, and he heard Afghan food was similar to what he used to have there. 

“With the risk comes higher profits. We need to get ready to go there when the situation improves, to fill in the blank,” Cao said. “From the news, I feel the Taliban is no longer that terrible. I want to make a bet that the Taliban is becoming nicer.” 

CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTER WANG YI PICTURED WITH MULLAH ABDUL GHANI BARADAR OF THE TALIBAN in July. PHOTO: LI RAN/XINHUA VIA GETTY IMAGES

The aspiring entrepreneurs all expressed confidence in the Taliban’s support for Chinese businesses, citing the seemingly friendly contact between the group and Beijing. Weeks before the Kabul takeover, China’s foreign minister held a talk with a Taliban leader in China. Beijing was also one of the first governments to show a willingness to support Afghanistan’s development after the Taliban swept to power this month. 

The friendly gestures prompted a wave of online speculation about upcoming Chinese investments in Afghanistan. On social platforms like Weibo and Douyin, investment influencers made lists of the so-called “Afghan-themed stocks” such as construction firms located near China’s northwestern border, and touted Afghanistan’s estimated trillions of dollars worth of minerals ready for extraction. 

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Shares of the infrastructure companies surged, even as they denied any plans to expand into Afghanistan. Xinjiang Communications Construction Group, which runs projects in Ukraine and Tajikistan, had its shares rise by the daily limit of 10 percent three days in a row following the Taliban takeover. 

“We understand there’s no plan to invest in Afghanistan right now,” one investor wrote to the company on a stock exchange messaging board last week. “But in the future, is there any hope to actively cooperate with China’s foreign policy in reconstructing Afghanistan, and help lift the miserable Afghans out of poverty as well as improve their quality of life?”

“We have the same hope as you for Afghanistan to achieve peace soon, and for its people to live stable, happy lives,” the company replied. 

Chinese businesses have only a scarce presence in Afghanistan. By 2019, China had about $420 million in direct investments in Afghanistan, compared to $4.8 billion in neighboring Pakistan, according to the latest data available from the Ministry of Commerce. 

During the tumultuous time following the Taliban takeover, China Town Kabul, a private trade company that runs manufacturing plants and sells Chinese goods, dominated Chinese media coverage as a rare Chinese outpost that has remained in Afghanistan. 

“By the time everything has been built, what will be left for you?”

China Town Kabul has been supplying Chinese goods in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of China Town Kabul

China Town Kabul has temporarily halted operations, but its businessmen have been giving upbeat predictions about Afghanistan’s future, which they said would give Chinese manufacturers an absolute advantage over those from the Western powers. 

“This is a very good time for Chinese businesses to enter Afghanistan,” Tang Tao, a representative at China Town Kabul, told VICE World News a week after the Taliban takeover. The call via messaging app WeChat kept getting cut due to the poor internet connection in Kabul. 

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“The Taliban is anti-American and anti-Western, so who can it rely on to develop the society? It has to rely on some Eastern powers,” the 36-year-old said, adding that Taliban rulers, just like the toppled government under President Ashraf Ghani, will face a need to feed nearly 40 million people. “If we don’t do it, someone else will do it.” 

Tang said China Town Kabul was working on a series of manufacturing projects, from steelmaking to clothing and diaper production. Thanks to the intensive media coverage recently, the company is drawing an overwhelming amount of interest from its home country. Tang said more than 300 people had contacted the team in the past week to ask about opportunities in Afghanistan and ways to travel to the country. 

Tang said the enthusiasm is justified. “If you don’t come now, when do you plan to come?” he said. “By the time everything has been built, what will be left for you? The meat has been taken; are you just going to drink the soup?” 

But in contrast to the somewhat chaotic passion expressed by private entrepreneurs, the Chinese government is not taking concrete actions to encourage Chinese businesses to move to Taliban-led Afghanistan. 

The Taliban regime brings the Chinese government as much—if not more—risk than opportunities. Although it might welcome the U.S. leaving the neighborhood, the Taliban’s expected austere, autocratic rule could fuel extremism in Central Asia and cause great instability among the countries where China has massive investments, such as Tajikistan and Pakistan, experts say. Beijing has also long been concerned about the Taliban supporting militants in its Xinjiang region, where Muslim minorities have suffered from harsh crackdowns. 

“It’s so important for the leverage that China has to be able to say that they're ready to move in economically. That's the selling point to the Taliban.”

Despite having been engaged with the Taliban for years, Beijing remains skeptical that the group is able to keep its word and protect Chinese projects, workers and other interests. 

China’s infrastructure drive in Afghanistan itself has stumbled badly. In 2004, a group of gunmen killed 11 Chinese road construction workers as they slept in their tents. Hired by a state-owned company, the workers from rural China had arrived in Afghanistan only days earlier, eyeing a daily wage of about $13, according to Chinese media reports. 

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The Afghan government blamed the incident on people associated with the militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but exactly who had ordered the attack and why remain unclear. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, offered money to the slain workers’ grieving, impoverished families and exempted their children from paying tuition. 

“People used to think that in Afghanistan, Chinese people were the safest among all foreigners, but they were wrong,” said a report in a magazine run by the state-owned Xinhua news agency. 

A Taliban fighters arrives for Friday Islamic prayers at the Pul-I-Khishti Mosque in Kabul on Aug. 20. Photo: MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES

Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who researches China’s relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan, said such attacks had taught the Chinese government that in such an unstable region, merely dealing with the people at the top was not enough to ensure security on the ground.  

More recent attacks have erupted in Pakistan, a close ally of China. Last week, a suicide bombing targeting Chinese engineers killed two children and injured three others. The Balochistan Liberation Army, a separatist militant group, claimed responsibility. 

Last month, a bomb blast killed 13 people, including nine Chinese workers who were on a bus heading towards a dam construction site. The Pakistani government later blamed Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies for the attack. 

Given this history, Small said Beijing would unlikely find it worth the risk to allow its people to tap the Afghan market, at least in the near term. 

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“If you just have people wandering around the place, up to their own thing, and they get kidnapped, it's still on the government to deal with it,” Small said. “It becomes an embarrassment. It’s a huge headache.” 

Security concerns are partly why Beijing’s flagship projects in Afghanistan, including a $3-billion lease for a Chinese state-owned company to mine at Mes Aynak, with one of the world’s biggest copper deposits, have been stalled for years. 

The risks are in some ways exacerbated by the U.S. withdrawal, which left the unrivaled, unpredictable Taliban running the country. But despite that, Beijing has to dangle economic offers at the Taliban, so the group might refrain from causing more trouble for China. 

“It's so important for the leverage that China has to be able to say that they're ready to move in economically. That's the selling point to the Taliban,” Small said. “They don’t want to tell the story that the Chinese are terrified of investing in Afghanistan because everyone thinks it is horribly insecure and they're not going to have enough faith in the country for several years.” 

As a result, official media have largely pinned the blame for the reports of abuses and desperate calls for help from Afghanistan on the U.S. instead of on the Taliban. The narrative has prompted backlash from those who regard the Taliban as a terrorist group, but it did convince some others that the Taliban takeover would put an end to the chaos caused by the U.S. and usher in a new era in China-Afghanistan relations. 

It’s unclear when Chinese people will be allowed to travel to Afghanistan under the new government, but the businessmen said they would love to visit as soon as possible so they could get ahead.  

Tang, the employee at China Town Kabul, said he arrived in Kabul last summer on his first-ever trip abroad. He said he had no regrets, and decided not to take the repatriation flight offered by the Chinese government in July so he could push through with the solar power contract he was working on. 

Tang said he is confident that the Taliban will make Afghanistan’s economy a priority under its rule. After all, senior Taliban members had visited China Town Kabul and asked Chinese workers to resume their business “to set an example for the others.” 

“No matter if it’s the Ghani government or the Taliban, they need to develop. They need to eat,” Tang said. “Development is always the trend.”

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.

Tagged:

china, Taliban, world politics, worldnews, world conflict

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