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Seeing the Invisible: Documenting and Interpreting China’s Cultural Presence in Uzbekistan (Part 2)

22 Nov 2020

Alexey Ulko

Setting himself the task of “researching ‘the politics and aesthetics of the visual representation of China-Uzbek relations’…” Alex Ulko continues to reflect on the “complexity and contradictions” permeating the relationship between China and countries within Central Asia. This follows from Part 1 as another collection of photographs, thoughts and observations – his ongoing inquiry which seeks to piece together a “disjointed and fragmented” picture of the lines running from China through and around Uzbekistan.


Peter Frankopan writes in his excellent, but somewhat sketchy, book The New Silk Roads (2018): “talking about improving connections is one thing; funding them is quite another.” It is a fair point to make as many previous ideas foreseeing the Great Silk Road’s revival, in one way or another, were based mostly on wishful thinking rather than on pragmatic strategies. My major experience dealing with one of such concepts was obtained while working for the International Institute for Central Asian Studies, established in Samarkand in 1995 as a result of UNESCO’s Silk Roads Project: Integral Studies of the Silk Roads, the Roads of Dialogue 1988-1997. Described by Federico Mayor, the UNESCO Director-General at the time, as “a bold and ambitious venture set to reopen doors to the past thus shedding new light on the present”, the project was very much a product of its time.

As the Cold War drew to a close and the Berlin Wall came down, many Central Asian scholars and politicians alike embraced a romantic, meta-modernist vision of the region’s future reunited with its glorious past. The Great Silk Road was seen as an essentialist template that had united people from China to Europe once, and so could be made to work again – of course, in a new geopolitical context. It promised to put Central Asia back to where it once apparently belonged: in the very centre of the intercontinental dialogue. The leaders of Uzbekistan were particularly keen to play the key role in this process. If Central Asia was the heart and soul of the world and the Great Silk Road its backbone, then Uzbekistan was its heart. Samarkand was, of course, the iconic Silk Road city and it made perfect sense to make it the home of a new institution that would symbolise the new-found zest for transcultural and transboundary cooperation in the region.

IICAS Member States (from the internet)

The IICAS was founded by ten member states with a mission to bring Central Asian historical and cultural issues to the international community’s attention. It was supposed to become an international academic hub, strengthening collaboration between local scholars and their foreign colleagues through a multidisciplinary study of the region. However, the vision of a prosperous, transparent and dynamic Central Asia never quite materialised. Central Asian states could never find a solid common background, and for over twenty years Uzbekistan mounted itself on a perch of political self-isolation, quarrelling with all its neighbours and being very much part of the problem, not the solution. Although the Silk Roads’ dream still continues, its implementation now almost entirely depends on China and Chinese capital as there are few volunteers who are ready to invest in the region.  

Even China can be quite choosy. It stopped paying its agreed fee to support the IICAS after several short years without any explanation. Ostensibly, this duty was transferred to a poorer government academic body. Most likely, the Chinese authorities simply felt that an open multicultural institution supporting a range of international projects along the Great Silk Road did not quite meet the objectives of the Chinese cultural and political strategy within the region. 


The Damansky Island Battle (Alex Ulko)

Lei Feng, the Chinese national hero by Shen Jingdong (from the internet)

One of my first conscious memories of China was the Chinese military threat. Of course, in the Soviet days no reliable information about it was available, but the public awareness of the Damansky Island conflict was there – albeit very vague and almost entirely based on rumours. The boys in class shared “confidential” information about eighteen infantry lines, rolling in waves on our defensive positions and being wiped out one by one by our secret weapon. Some said it was laser guns, others suggested generators of infrared rays were involved, but nobody could say which year it was. It seemed very recent at the time, but only much later did I learn that the armed conflict had taken place just a couple of days after I was born, in March 1969. The small Damansky Island in the Ussuri River was finally yielded to China in 1991 and is now known as Zhenbao Island (珍寶島). The commander of the Russian forces killed in action was a colonel Leonov, with an unusual first name: Demokrat. We know little about him, apart from the fact that he was born to a border guard officer in Baku in 1926, when the world Communist revolution still seemed so near.


HUAWEI advert on the road from the Tashkent airport (Alex Ulko)

In the first weeks of autumn 2020, as the heat of summer gave way to cooler weather, European states further restricted Huawei’s role in the construction of their communication networks. More and more countries became convinced that the Chinese company was a security threat. Their mainstream media outlets frequently mentioned that Chinese citizens were required by law to help their country gather intelligence where they could, and the US urged the EU to ban Chinese technology from its future communication networks. Keith Krach, the US Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs said that “there is really no future with Huawei.” While the UK has already officially banned Huawei, it looks like Germany will probably suffocate the company’s operations with bureaucracy. The result will be the same, say European experts, but apparently not in Uzbekistan. The first thing visitors see on their way from the Tashkent International Airport to the city centre is a huge HUAWEI logo. It has replaced the old Soviet neon slogan “Tashkent is the City of Peace and Friendship”. A telling development, indeed.  


Wang Tong hotel in Tashkent (Alex Ulko)

Uzbeks and the Chinese tend to see the world as two distinct groups of people: their own family, relatives, neighbours and friends (their circle of relationships) on one side of an imaginary fence, with everybody else on the other. These cultures identify a much stronger distinction between Us and Them than most European cultures. There are several important distinctions, as far as I can see. Firstly, although Uzbeks make up the majority in Uzbekistan, they are continuously exposed to other cultures, e.g. Russian, as they live along with representatives of these cultures (especially in cities). Uzbek culture is a classical hybrid, while the Chinese one seems much more defined. Many Uzbeks speak some other languages – Russian, Tajik, Kazakh or even English, and when they travel to a neighbouring country or to Russia, they do not feel intensely culturally  isolated. In other words, they are quite used to being the colonial Other in Russia, and feel comfortable with guests, visitors or local non-Uzbeks in Uzbekistan. On the contrary, the Chinese are perceived by many other nations as a huge homogenous group and in many ways, they behave like this. Outside of China, their “In” group becomes abruptly and threateningly small, and it is ethnically determined.

Both cultures, Chinese and Uzbek, are particularist. In other words, they value relationships more than the rules, and focus on the exceptional nature of present circumstances. Interestingly, the research conducted by Fons Trompenaars suggests that Russian culture is also particularist, even more so than Chinese (see Riding the Waves of Culture, 1993). This, of course, is relative. Many people in Uzbekistan lament that the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent independence brought about more corruption and deregulated chaos than what was thought permissible during the Soviet rule. Although this anecdotal evidence proves nothing, it at least tells us something about the perception of the Soviet, Russia-dominated culture vs. Uzbek which is seen by many as much more relationship-driven. It would also be interesting to see what will happen if, in the future, Chinese culture eventually replaces Russian in Central Asia.


“Today, if people in Eurasia were all fans of Chinese pop music or television dramas, or had a more positive image of China, it might be easier for their governments to partner with Beijing on “win-win” initiatives like the BRI,” wrote a Chinese journalist George Gao (not to be confused with George Fu Gao, a prominent virologist and immunologist).

Nikita Makarenko, one of the top Russian-language bloggers in Uzbekistan, rejected the very possibility of this on his Facebook page, saying “China can become as economically strong as it wants. But it will never seriously control the minds and hearts of people on the planet.” In his opinion, China does not produce an attractive and sought-after modern culture and as the result, nobody outside the country really listens to modern Chinese music or watches Chinese cinema. “You go to watch Nolan’s films and listen to Lady Gaga,” says Makarenko.

Left: Cheap Chinese everyday products (Umida Akhmedova)Right: Chinese wholesale shop (Elina Klimova)

This may sound like another bout of Sinophobia based on racial prejudice but the popularity of the more distant and even more esoteric Japanese popular culture – from karate to manga, Kurosawa to yakitori suggests otherwise. One of the commentators noticed, “Japanese people are far more likely to respect my privacy and not try to strike up a random conversation with me. I often find that it’s difficult to just be left alone in China, which is annoying.” However, talking to several Uzbeks now living in China, I have heard some praises of its social culture. Some Uzbeks commented that the Chinese are quite good at creating an atmosphere of informal camaraderie between people, and that they can be outspoken and direct in discussion. One Uzbek girl who had spent several years teaching English in a Chinese school said, “Chinese girls have more opportunities than ever before in education and work, and they always seem to have goals and ambitions of their own, not like back home.”

The quarantine in China (Zarina Anvar)

Yet Makarenko remained unconvinced. “No one in the world wants to be like [the] Chinese. No one in their right mind wears a Beijing logo on their cap and dreams of emigrating to the fabulous Guangzhou.” His conclusion is simple. “In an authoritarian state, the production of a topical and globally modern cultural product is simply impossible. A lily will not grow in the desert, only a cactus and a thorn.”

Tell that to Ai Weiwei, I thought. Or Yuk Hui.


Thinking further about the BRI and the relations between China and Uzbekistan, I remembered Vanessa Page writing about China, “it is home to rampant corruption. The national government is actively trying to stamp it out in an effort to make the country more business-friendly for westerners and to avoid the economic and business inefficiencies that come from corruption.” Uzbekistan is facing very similar problems and if there has been a name evoked every time corruption in the country is mentioned, it is Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of independent Singapore. His popularity with Uzbek neoliberals is explained by his image of “a man with an iron hand,” leading his country to prosperity in an Asian, rather than a democratic European, fashion. Here, a top-down Soviet approach gets mixed with patriarchal power patterns attributed to Asia. Some influencers seriously suggest that Uzbekistan should adopt “a Singaporean model” unconcerned by the huge geopolitical difference between one of the world’s busiest cargo ports and a double landlocked country in “the lost heart of Asia,” as Colin Thubron had it.

Chinese and Uzbek flags (Umida Akhmedova)

Guanxi (benefits gained from social connections) (Alex Ulko)

Corruption is not the only problem that China shares with Uzbekistan. There are obvious cracks in both countries’ economies. There is the problem of underemployment and inflation. Government spending is a key driver of growth in China and in Uzbekistan, and it has led to indiscriminate construction in the recent years. China has struggled to find buyers for properties in its ghost cities. Some large-scale city development projects in Uzbekistan have already stalled. The vision of urbanism that has become the trademark of Chinese “progress” (whatever that means in real terms) has turned into a form of cargo cult in Uzbekistan – an imitation without any clear objective. Commenting on the poor quality of the newly built high-rise building in the centre of Tashkent, some people say, “at least these won’t stay here long.” What a consolation!


The famous Russian rock musician, Boris Grebenshchikov, a renowned connoisseur of Taoism, wrote the following joke and shared it on Facebook:

“One day Lao Tzu was driving a black buffalo and violated the traffic rules. A traffic cop approached him and asked to see his driving license. Lao Tzu said:

– When water flows down, it does nothing, because flowing down is its natural property. Such are the properties of a true person: they do not improve, but things follow them. The sky itself is high. The earth itself is solid. The Moon and the Sun are light in themselves. What can they improve? How can a person riding a buffalo have a license?

The cop did not know whether to laugh or to cry.”

Chinese traffic police signs (from the internet)

In 2007, Chinese city traffic police officers had an average life expectancy of 43 years. Nearly every traffic police officer in large cities had respiratory infections caused by polluted air. Stress, traffic noise and the time they had to stand in the sun also exacerbated their grave health conditions. I do not know if their life has become better over the last 13 years, but I am sure that even without the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains rather grim. Things do not change that fast.


An important characteristic of the BRI framework has been noticed by Roman Vakulchuk and Indra Overland, who saw that the Chinese strategists had decided to tackle the internal lack of cohesion within the Central Asian region by using a bilateral approach in China’s relations with Central Asian governments in the 21st century. They write: “The Chinese have acted patiently and pragmatically, and over time have managed to build working relations with each of the five countries, including Turkmenistan, where the construction of the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline can be viewed as a major Chinese success story in a country where both Russia and the United States have struggled to maintain a foothold.” However, these bilateral relations can be described as skewed, at best. A substantial part of the Chinese investments into Central Asia forever remains within the Chinese infrastructure as a loan given by a Chinese bank to a local government, or when project is used to pay the Chinese company that had been contracted to execute the project. The company, of course, uses Chinese equipment and Chinese workers to do almost all the work. The most spectacular illustrations of this are the roads built in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as the Kamchik Railway Tunnel in Uzbekistan linking the Ferghana Valley with the rest of the country across the mountains.

Chinese construction equipment (Elina Klimova)

Despite the fact that BRI is a huge regional project, it is obvious that in the short and medium term, the collaboration between China and Central Asian states will be based primarily on bilateral relations. That was what happened in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and in a different form, is now happening in Uzbekistan. In summer 2020, I had to open my Visa card with an Uzbek bank and tellingly chose the one called the Ipak Yuli Bank (the Silk Road Bank). I was quite surprised to receive a free UnionPay card as a bonus. Interested, I went online to check the benefits and potential issues with the card and found the following review: “After the annexation of the Crimea, the United States and other Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia, which has led to disruptions in service to holders of Visa and MasterCard cards issued by some Russian banks. Chinese UnionPay cards, which on the one hand have become common throughout the world, on the other hand, cannot have their use limited by US authorities. So for those who have suffered from the sanctions or are afraid of such a prospect, the CUP cards are the most suitable.” If there is a book that can comprehensively explain the attractiveness of such exciting options to Central Asians, it’s not going to be Frankopan’s New Silk Roads, but rather Dictators without Borders by Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw.

a screenshot of a section dedicated to Uzbek-China relations from (from the internet)

Meanwhile in Uzbekistan, the once invisible Chinese presence is becoming more and more articulate. A popular web news outlet has a special section dedicated solely to the relations between Uzbekistan and China, aptly called: Keys to the Future.  The section contains what is known as “sponsored content” with texts redolent of the long forgotten Soviet style – unashamedly banal and bombastic at the same time. One article describing a cultural festival organised by the Chinese company CNODC, informs its readers that “the Chinese people call on the peoples of the whole world to jointly create a global community of shared destiny. And many countries have already extended their hands of friendship and cooperation in return. We must act together, share our cultures and knowledge, have common good goals and move forward, creating a bright and wonderful future for our descendants. After all, we are all children of the same planet.” Aren’t we just?

Atlas gown, two books and two chopsticks (Alex Ulko)

Alexey Ulko, born in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) in 1969.
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