Struggling to rebuild, Kabul is the next target for adventurous mainland firms as Beijing tries to expand its sphere of influence, writes Maseeh Rahman
Only a few years ago, anyone proposing a fibre optic network that would crisscross Afghanistan to create a 'national information highway' might have been accused of hallucinating on some of the country's vast stocks of export-quality opium.
But a few weeks ago the mainland telecommunications equipment company ZTE began construction of a network that would not only connect most of Afghanistan's provinces but also link the landlocked nation to four neighbouring countries - Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
For China's newly appointed envoy in Kabul, Yang Houlan, the ceremony to launch the 3,131km, US$64 million, World Bank- funded project was a big event, his first major public function after presenting his credentials to Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month.
'The project will help boost Afghanistan's economy and facilitate the daily lives of people,' Mr Yang said. 'The Chinese government will continue to support Chinese companies in actively joining this country's reconstruction.'
Hundreds of mainland entrepreneurs and companies are doing business in Afghanistan, in sectors as varied as telecoms, irrigation, construction, wool and leather processing, trading, building supplies, hospitals and restaurants.
'Around 1,000 businessmen from China are currently in the country, not just in Kabul but also in Herat in the west, Jalalabad in the east, Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and even in Kandahar in the south,' said a Chinese diplomat.
Markets across the country are full of Chinese goods, from garments and gym equipment to televisions and motorcycles.
Jin Xin came to Kabul four years ago from Qingdao in Shandong province, leaving a small business back home manufacturing aluminium doors and windows.
'After 25 years of war, every- thing has to be reconstructed in Afghanistan,' Mr Jin said. 'Chinese businessmen recognise the opportunities here and want to contribute to the rebuilding.' Mr Jin and his wife, Zhuang Liying, opened a restaurant, named Hong Kong, on a busy road in the heart of town but business wasn't good. Foreigners resident in Kabul are the main customers of the city's more upmarket eateries and the Hong Kong Restaurant did not clear the security requirements of the diplomatic missions. Mr Jin soon realised his mistake and shifted the restaurant into a high-walled bungalow on a heavily guarded street opposite the Pakistan embassy in the diplomatic quarter.
'Like life in Kabul, business is unpredictable,' he said. 'Sometimes we're full, sometimes we're kept waiting for customers. But the biggest problem is corruption - everyone from government officials to police keep demanding bribes. It's not like in China.'
Mr Jin has nevertheless diversified his business and recently set up a factory employing 50 workers to make aluminium doors and windows and stainless steel railings for Kabul's growing construction sector.
It's another gamble, though. After more than four boom years, the capital's real-estate business went into a slump last year. Fears about the return of the Taleban have contributed to the downturn, although building goes on despite a 30 per cent fall in property prices.
Mr Jin is keeping his options open. 'Everything depends on the political situation here,' he said. 'If it becomes stable, I will invest more and stay for another four years. But if conditions deteriorate, I will have to leave.' Mr Jin rents a couple of rooms in his establishment to visiting mainland businessmen. S. L. Chuang has just arrived from Beijing to investigate a resource many feel could dramatically transform Afghanistan - copper mining.
Multinational companies are waking up to the prospect of exploring for minerals in the mountainous, northern part of the country. Mr Chuang does not want to identify the Beijing company he represents but is convinced that if the Kabul government co-operates, there is great potential for mining and exporting copper.
'There is opportunity, and if you want to make money you have to take risks,' he said, 'as long as the return is good.'
Duan Haijun is not concerned about the financial return his work in Afghanistan will bring. He is the director of the China Railway Shisiju Group Corporation's ambitious project for building Kabul's ultra-modern, 10-storey Jamhuriyat (Democracy) Hospital.
'The money for constructing the hospital comes from the Chinese government,' he said. 'I've got 80 people from China, including 15 engineers, working on the project, and we plan to finish construction in August next year.
'All the construction material comes from China. Once the building is ready, China will supply even the hospital equipment. It will be the best hospital in Kabul.'
The project ran into trouble, however, during the initial phase when another Chinese company had the contract. Part of a three-storey clinic collapsed during construction, but China Railway took over the project and the clinic is now bustling with patients.
Mr Duan and his team live in a secure compound on the construction site, with the engineers occasionally dining out at the Hong Kong Restaurant. 'The workers earn twice as much as in China, and we don't feel any danger working here.'
But mainland workers and engineers involved in projects in the provinces face much greater risk. The mainland is restoring the irrigation system on the Shomali Plain, famous for its grapes, just north of Kabul. The first phase of the project was beset with the problem of landmines, but has been successfully completed. The second phase is due to begin.
A mainland company has won the contract for building a highway from a provincial capital southwest of Kabul to Bamiyan, where the Taleban destroyed the two gigantic stone Buddhas. But even before the mainland construction team arrived, the workers' camp was attacked by armed men and four policemen were killed.
The worst tragedy took place in the northern province of Kunduz three years ago, when gunmen burst into a China Railway road construction camp and killed 11 mainland workers.
'The company suffered a big loss but completed the highway project,' the Chinese diplomat said.
When Afghanistan's international donors met in Bonn five years ago, Beijing pledged US$150 million in aid to the country, with which it shares a short border in the Pamyr Mountains.
Under its aid programme, besides the Kabul hospital and the Shomali irrigation project, the mainland is also building a ceremonial hall in the Presidential Palace complex for state functions. Money has also been invested in health and education projects, such as building classrooms and providing computers. The aid package still appears small, especially compared with aid from other countries, which have given much more.
'But it's difficult to determine the full quantum of aid as, in addition to the 2002 package, every year the Chinese government separately provides assistance for projects to nine Afghan ministries, including defence, interior, agriculture, education and culture,' the Chinese diplomat said.
Earlier this year Beijing gave US$2 million worth of equipment - trucks, jeeps, motorcycles, computers - to the Afghan defence ministry. At least 100 government officials, technicians, doctors and army officers have received training in China and every year 30 university graduates get scholarships to mainland universities. There is even a scheme for training Afghan acrobats on the mainland.
'Our policy is clear,' the diplomat said. 'We believe that a stable, developed Afghanistan is in the interests of China.'
Even though Chinese goods are widely available in Afghanistan, the value of trade with the mainland is low - just US$120 million last year. The official Afghan figure is US$400 million, including trade with Hong Kong and Macau. The Chinese embassy in Kabul issues about 10,000 visas every year to Afghans, mostly businessmen who go to Xinjiang , especially for the annual Kashgar Trade Fair.
Afghan exports to China are negligible, mainly comprising traditional items such as gemstones, leather, wool and raw cotton. However, a Macau businessman has invested US$10 million in a factory in western Herat for processing leather and cashmere wool for export to the mainland.
But the most popular gifts from the mainland to Afghanistan are the animals in Kabul Zoo. The zoo was devastated by the civil war. It once had 700 animals, including two tigers, a lion, an elephant and several species of exotic birds. But the mujahedeen killed the tigers for their pelts and made kebabs out of the flamingos and cranes.
They wanted to find out how many bullets it would take to kill an elephant. The answer: 40. A lion was blinded by a grenade and died soon after the fall of the Taleban in November 2001.
China was the only country to give animals to Kabul Zoo the following year - two lions, two grizzly bears, two pigs, two spotted deer and one wolf. But conditions in the zoo were still not good enough to ensure their survival. Some of them died - the male grizzly after swallowing a plastic bottle; the female pig and her piglets of rabies after an attack by street dogs; and the deer after eating plastic bags thrown into their pen by visitors.
Both the female grizzly and the male pig now live alone in their enclosures. The Chinese wolf has mated with an Afghan wolf and produced two cubs.
But the biggest attraction is the pair of lions. 'They're very healthy and have had no problems,' said Abdullatif Shahnouri, the zoo's deputy director. 'Once a week we let loose rabbits and chickens in their enclosure, just to give them some exercise.'
As one visitor to the zoo prepares to be photographed in front of the lions, he exclaims: 'Really, they have lions in China? These are such handsome animals.'