There is a tradition in Kyrgyzstan. When families have guests, they make a big meal no matter the time of day. Yongjia Luís Du experienced this firsthand this summer while working—usually on a full stomach—for a consulting firm in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. After studying international law at SAIS Bologna, he returned for his second year with compelling stories and a glowing sense of optimism about the future of China’s relationship with Central Asia.
Where were you working and what was your official position?
I worked for an export-import consulting firm in Kyrgyzstan that imports tea from Fujian, China, called the New Horizon Consulting and Investment Corporation. As a manager’s assistant for this Kyrgyz firm, I was the liaison between the Chinese partners and our office in Bishkek.
I worked with 10 people—all of them Kyrgyz—and my manager, who was a friend from college. When I was in Bologna, I spent so much time searching for jobs that eventually I just decided to call my friend and ask if he had any opportunities for me. He was working for this firm in Bishkek but was having difficulty attracting young Chinese workers to Central Asia, and he said that my native proficiency in Chinese would be very valuable.
What were you doing on a day-to-day basis?
I was in charge of taking meeting notes and writing daily reports for our Chinese partners. Most of my job was participating in negotiations, but I also had to sift through economic data and do research on current events in Kyrgyzstan, our Chinese partners and new policies to follow up on.
There were a lot of interesting issues that came up while working in Kyrgyzstan. For example, the country is very divided between the north and the south, where the country’s Muslim culture is much stronger. They don’t drink alcohol in the south and a lot of shops and restaurants refuse to sell it or tobacco products. We worked with a company whose main products were alcohol and tobacco, so in order to reach markets in the south, this company wanted to start importing Chinese tea. In Kyrgyzstan, families drink tea four times a day, but there is still very little tea from China coming into the country. This is one of the ways that Kyrgyzstan, one of the first countries along China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is growing much closer to China.
What was one of the most difficult challenges you experienced?
One was economic. Because Kyrgyzstan is still not very developed, the infrastructure is still poor. The roads are very bad, so it’s difficult for other countries to invest in the country. Infrastructure is one of reasons why Kyrgyzstan is a much less attractive investment environment compared to neighboring countries. The other problem was political. Until recently, the country has not been very stable. Since electing a new president two years ago, it has become more stable, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Foreign investors still think that the future is too risky.
Is there a story that stood out during your time there?
Once, when I was travelling to Uzbekistan from Bishkek, I got on a bus that I thought would take eight hours, but two hours into the ride everybody got off to cross a border. When soldiers checked my visa, I showed them my visa for Uzbekistan and they replied, “Yes, but where is your Kazakhstan visa?” At that moment I realized where I was! I thought the bus would go directly to Uzbekistan, but it passed through Kazakhstan. Keep in mind, Central Asians can go freely throughout the region without a visa because all the former Soviet Union countries share a visa-free policy.
The soldiers asked me if I could call my Kyrgyz friends and discuss it. In the end I had to go back to Bishkek, so I paid for a taxi and a bus back. I stayed there for another five days and then eventually flew to Uzbekistan.
Is Central Asia a region that you want to continue to focus on?
I am very interested in the region because I think that it has a lot of development potential. Historically, this region has done quite well, but it was one of the most affected victims of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Central Asian economies lost one of their biggest trading partners, and they were too far away from European markets to recover. They were also still using the ruble, so when the ruble collapsed, Central Asian countries were hit very hard, and their economy struggled for the next 20 years. Some people say time stopped there after the 1990s.
But these countries now have their own industries as well as so many educated people, so I see a lot of potential for future growth. China is investing money abroad and Central Asia has been a primary recipient of the Belt and Road Initiative. Russia also has interests in developing the region. Uzbekistan’s gross domestic product, for example, has grown seven percent each year for the last two years. Growth is already happening and I forecast that it will continue, and that means more opportunities for Chinese people in the future.