Afghanistan's China syndrome

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 December, 2003, 12:00am

Fuelling a surge in trade, mainland corporations and entrepreneurs are going to Kabul to cash in on the rebuilding of a war-torn nation

When Afghan President Hamid Karzai puts pen to paper, there is a good chance the document will be made in China.

The mainland is one of the main suppliers of stationery to Afghanistan's government. As part of a US$150 million aid package pledged by Beijing last year, Chinese-made paper is supplied to 80,000 civil servants across the country, including those working in the presidential palace.

But there is more to China's role in Afghanistan than just paper.

Chinese food has become quite the rage, Chinese products have flooded the marketplace, Chinese corporations have bagged road-building and telecoms contracts, and the Chinese government is providing assistance for major projects in irrigation and health.

'China is Afghanistan's second- biggest trading partner after Japan,' says Chinese diplomat Ji Tao. 'Fifty per cent of the goods you see in the bazaar, from shoes to computers, are made in China.'

China and Afghanistan share only a 92km mountainous border in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, but that has not stopped traders wearing a trail between the two nations. Relations go back to the Buddhist period, when the 7th-century monk Xuan Zang stopped here on his way to India.

In his classic Journey to the West, he mentions the famous Bamiyan Buddhas which were recently destroyed by the Taleban, and describes the region's ruler as 'very intelligent, very brave, and with influence and authority over dozens of small kingdoms'.

For Mr Ji, the fact that Islamists still exercise considerable influence in Kabul is not a matter of concern. Last week, for instance, cries of 'Death to the communists!' rang out in the constitutional Loya Jirga assembly after Islamic warlords were criticised.

'I don't see any problem between China and Afghanistan,' says Mr Ji. 'The hostility to so-called communist parties was due to the fact that the former Soviet Union interfered in the country's internal affairs.

'But every Afghan leader I meet says the same thing: with China, we have no bad memories, only friendship,' he adds. Nor apparently has the strong American and Nato military presence given sleepless nights to Chinese diplomats. 'China was also a victim of terrorism,' Mr Ji says.

'In the past, in Xinjiang around 200 attacks were mounted by Islamic radicals trained in Afghanistan. So at the moment we share a common interest with the US in the fight against terrorism.'

It was the thought of the Americans that brought Li Ping to the Afghan capital to work as a waitress at Kabul's first Chinese restaurant, which opened just over a year ago.

'I felt that if the Americans are here, it can't be such a bad place,' Ms Li says. The eatery, simply called 'Chinese Restaurant', was opened by entrepreneur Wang Wentian from Zhejiang.

Mr Wang, who also owns a restaurant in Dubai, first visited Kabul to open a building supplies shop.

'But after I saw Kabul, I became more ambitious. The best hotel was selling a small bottle of water for US$8, the choice of food was restricted to chicken, beef and rice. So I thought a restaurant had a good chance of success.'

The Afghan trade minister is Mr Wang's business partner. In exchange for providing the premises in the heart of the city, he took a 25 per cent share.

Mr Wang's investment has amounted to US$160,000, and until recently profits averaged US$24,000 a month. Even after taking away his Afghan partner's share, he has recovered his investment in less than nine months.

Mr Wang has brought in four women and six men from China to work in his restaurant, paying them much more than they would earn back home. He can afford to - he sells a standard bottle of Australian shiraz wine for US$22, steamed duck for $15, bird's nest soup for $12.

Mr Wang remains upbeat about Afghanistan. He will soon add a karaoke bar to his restaurant. And he plans to open a branch of his building supplies shop in the eastern city of Herat.

But the women working for Mr Wang have a different dilemma - Afghan men. Ms Li soon realised that despite the American presence, Kabul was different.

'It's impossible to go out, the men just don't leave you alone,' she wails. 'Even if you go in a veil with your face covered, they can make out from the eyes that you're Chinese.'

The city's economic revival has attracted another kind of small entrepreneur - the call girl. Chinese, Filipino and Laotian women have set up business in Kabul, charging up to US$100 per night.