The Afghan crisis through the prism of Chinese media

Editor’s Note: The almost instantaneous collapse of the Afghan military and its government in the face of US pullout and Taliban advancement over the past week left the world shocked and bewildered. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Hua Chunying, reflected, “the outside world lacked an objective assessment of situations in Afghanistan, and an accurate grasp of where public opinion stood in that country.” Hua asserted that the West was particularly prone to this kind of misjudgment. But how is China’s assessment of the situation faring as one of its central Asian neighbors fell back into a state of deep uncertainty? We decided to make this week’s Paw Tracker newsletter available to all our readers, as Afghanistan is probably on the mind of many today. In this special issue, we look at how Chinese media and society is trying to make sense of the situation, the future of China’s relationship with the country, and prospects for the handful of ongoing investments and projects in the country. (by Ma Tianjie and Tom Baxter)

Talk of the Town

Unlike the majority of overseas issues, particularly those with high relevance to China’s own foreign policy, the media narrative on Afghanistan has yet to settle, with the tone of coverage ranging the full gamut from optimism to shock and horror. This in itself is noteworthy.

In this sense, the Chinese media conversation on Afghanistan has in fact been far more diverse than its Western counterpart. When it comes to Chinese official media, the sense of pessimism, regression and dread that dominated Western media coverage, was strikingly absent. The tone of official media was rather on a spectrum between moral and political ambivalence to optimism that change could lead to a better future. Much of the tone was set by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ attempted apolitical official position on the Taliban takeover. “We respect the will and choice of the Afghan people,” said Hua Chunying on Aug 16.

MFA spokesperson Hua Chunying at a Aug 16 press conference, Source:

A point that has come up consistently in Chinese official media is that the Taliban is changing, becoming less conservative and should be given the benefit of the doubt. As we noted a few weeks ago, this argument was present when the Taliban delegation visited Tianjin on July 28. Interviewed by the Global Times last week, Zhu Yongbiao, Director of the Lanzhou University Afghanistan Research Center, expressed that the Taliban are unlikely to carry out “brutal revenge attacks” against former government and army personnel, a major concern in Western commentary. He also stressed that the higher levels of Taliban leadership who have appeared in media coverage over the last week do have a strong degree of control over the actions of middle and lower ranks, indicating that we should trust that what the upper echelons promise can indeed be implemented on the ground in Afghanistan. Echoing this point, Zhou Rong of the Renmin University Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, said to Global Times that the Taliban’s main efforts going forward will not be recriminations and violence, but on constructing a new country (“建国”) under their leadership. For this to succeed, they require international recognition and therefore have little interest in doing anything which will damage relations with key partners, including China.

An opinion piece on Daodu Shijie, a WeChat account managed by Singaporean Chinese language paper Lianhe Zaobao, suggested that “state media are warming up public opinion for China to recognise the Taliban government.” 

Outside of Chinese policy thinking circles, a Chinese businessman based in Kabul also offered an optimistic outlook in an interview with Southern Weekend. “There has been war here for 40 years, people don’t want to fight again. My Afghan friend once expressed this to me saying, ‘we fought for two generations, we don’t want to continue’,” he told the journalist.

What these future-looking accounts largely gloss over is the fear of a return to the atrocities of the last Taliban era, the topic which most dominated Western media coverage and contributed to scenes such as Afghans clinging to the side of Western evacuation planes in their desperate attempts to escape Taliban rule. A focus on these aspects was very present in other quarters of the Chinese media discussion, however. Numerous non-official WeChat accounts with high readership, usually among young and well educated audiences, highlighted issues such as women’s rights and education. A translation of a letter by Sahraa Karimi, general director of Afghan Film, speaking out against the horrors of Taliban rule – particularly against women – and calling on the world “not to abandon Afghanistan” went viral online, numerous reposts reaching in the 100s thousands of views. Another viral article focused on female musicians and their fear that everything they achieved over the last 20 years would be lost.

The audiences for such articles, more aligned with Western narratives on Afghanistan, are interest-driven, niche, and probably bubble-like. On women’s rights, the bubble has not been totally impermeable, however. An interesting Weibo account is that of Gao Cheng, a former Chinese diplomat in Afghanistan. In her reflections on the country last week, she noted how she was often the only woman on flights going to Kabul, and certainly the only not wearing a full burka.

Another key aspect of the Chinese discussion on the new Afghanistan has been on to what extent Chinese infrastructure investments should enter the country. In an OpEd for the New York Times on Aug 20, a former senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, Zhou Bo, argued boldly that “Beijing can offer what Kabul needs most: political impartiality and economic investment. Afghanistan in turn,” he continued, “has what China most prizes: opportunities in infrastructure and industry building — areas in which China’s capabilities are arguably unmatched — and access to $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits.” The BRI is the lens through which many in China view developments in Afghanistan. Some are optimistic that a “stabilized” Afghanistan will be a plus to trade and connectivity routes going from Xinjiang to Pakistan and Iran. Others warn that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan only worsens China’s security prospects in Central Asia, giving the fundamentalist group great leverage in threatening the Silk Road Economic Belt. Citing Iranian scholar Seyed Mohammed Marandi’s words, an observer on Weibo suggests that the US’s sudden pullout is a calculated move to sow chaos in the region in an attempt to disrupt the BRI. 

As we show in this week’s newsletter, there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism for Chinese investments in the country. On the one hand, resourceful Chinese businesses have cultivated genuine economic connections in Afghanistan largely in an improvised, bottom-up fashion. On the other hand, key Chinese investments in the country have historically struggled to get off the ground. Whether the removal of US and allied forces and the re-emergence of a Taliban led government will provide for a better investment environment seems unlikely. But if the last few weeks have shown us anything about Afghanistan, it is that the unlikely can very quickly become reality.

Highlight Project: Kabul’s China Town in the middle of the Taliban takeover

Kabul’s China Town, open to business in Jun 2020. Source: The Paper

As the US military, foreign embassies and civilians fled Kabul in a frenzy that shocked the world, others decided to stay. Among them are Chinese managers and employees of China Town, a trade center for Chinese goods and services in the middle of the city. Their accounts to the media back home gave Chinese society a glimpse of what’s going on in Kabul. China Town’s presence and development in Kabul also illustrates the spontaneous and somewhat messy nature of Belt and Road projects in a country of extreme uncertainty like Afghanistan.

“We don’t want to give local people the impression that us Chinese are unreliable and will escape at the first sight of trouble,” Yu Minghui, the person in charge at China Town, told Global Times. He claims that China Town has a few outstanding contracts with Afghan ministries and the state grid, and he is not considering bailing on them. In another interview, he told Yicai that the trade center is suspending business for 3 days to “observe the situation”, but he did not expect major disruption to China Town’s plans in Kabul.

Yu has been doing business in Afghanistan since 2001. “Over the two decades, the Chinese business community’s relationship with the country has shifted,” he told Yicai, “from one-off sale of low-quality products, we are now developing longer term business relationships.”

The China Town’s evolution in Kabul is a reflection of the other side of China’s “Going Out”, which is not strategically coordinated, infrastructure driven and executed in a top-down fashion. The trade center grew out of loosely connected business and investment interests in the post-war Afghanistan that brought Chinese companies and business people to the country starting from 2002. The privately invested Minghai Steel project in 2010 was a major catalyst in the process, as the investor later seized upon China’s increasing interest in Central Asia after 2013 and jumped on the bandwagon of the BRI to turn the project into a multifunctional platform for facilitating China-Afghanistan trade and investment. It took another 6 years before the China Town idea materialized into a building complex in central Kabul, offering shop fronts, storage space, hotel rooms and even karaoke facilities for those interested in finding business opportunities in the impoverished country.

The project is gradually finding its place in China-Afghanistan economic interactions. One year after its opening ceremony in Kabul, it is already looking to expand into an industrial park with manufacturing capacities for electric wires, shoes, garments and plastics. In early June this year, China Town even reached an agreement with the Afghan government on building a 300MW coal-fired power plant to solve the chronic problem of power shortage once and for all. The rooftop of the China Town building has also become a demonstration space for Chinese solar technology. “China is exploring ways to bring peace to Afghanistan through economic means, not military force,” Yu Minghui quoted a Peking University expert in a blog he contributed to on Aug 11. His China Town will be a major test of that philosophy in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Other project updates: Mes Aynak Copper Mine and its future

An ancient Buddhist shrine discovered at Mes Aynak, Source:  Jerome Starkey

Another project that has aroused much speculation amid the latest political turmoil is the mothballed Mes Aynak copper mine 40km southeast of Kabul. In 2008, the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper Corporation won a major deal to develop the mine, believed to contain ores worth USD 50 billion, but progress has since been minimal. Mining was stalled by difficulties in building key infrastructure, lowering copper price in the global market, and unstable security situations throughout the years. The uncovering of an ancient Buddhist shrine on top of the deposit also became a major regulatory roadblock for the Chinese developers.

After the Taliban takeover of the country last week, The Paper contacted Jiangxi Copper Corporation and the company responded that all its on-site staff members had been evacuated to Pakistan early on. It could not share more information as it was in a quiet period before releasing its H1 2021 report to shareholders. 

Meanwhile, MCC was much more blunt about its frustration with the project. The company complained that the Afghan government had not fulfilled its commitment to secure crucial phosphorus and coal resources for the project, and procrastinated on issues of relocating villages, clearing land mines and sorting out archeological arrangements. MCC told the Paper that it engaged the Afghan side on multiple rounds of renegotiation. As recently as 2019, MCC conducted a feasibility study of underground mining following the requirement of the Afghan Ministry of Mining and concluded that it was uneconomical. The request was likely made to explore ways of mining that avoid destroying the archeological site. Progress was further stalled by Covid-19 in 2020. “Copper price has been good recently. The project could have had decent economic returns if it were in operation now,” an MCC spokesperson told the Paper, “but it will take 4-6 years before Mes Aynak can be brought to operation. In the current circumstances, we will take very careful considerations about its economics, after the political situation stabilizes.” Since coming into power, Ashraf Ghani’s government reached multiple deals with China on railways, roads and residential buildings. Some of them are still ongoing, including the 300MW coal-fired power plant mentioned above whose agreement was barely two months old before its signatory partner, the Afghan government, became obsolete. We will likely see a lot of reassessment, renegotiation and reconfiguration of such projects in the coming months and years.

Further reading

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