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Tajik distrust of Chinese investors grows after failed 'Chinatown' project in Khujand

By Negmatullo Mirsaidov

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The building site on the bank of the Syr Darya in Khujand, where residents' homes were demolished in 2015 can be seen April 21. [Negmatullo Mirsaidov/Caravanserai]

KHUJAND -- A Chinese company's failure to carry out a construction project in Khujand has displaced dozens of families.

Some 32 families who initially heard they would have to relocate for only one year have now been displaced for six.

In early 2015, Husnoro-1, a subsidiary of Beijing Construction, a Chinese firm, set its sights on a development project on the banks of the Syr Darya River, which flows through the heart of Khujand.

That year, Chinese specialists proposed to Khujand city leaders a modern housing development project that included advanced infrastructure, promising to equip the embankment of the Syr Darya with services and utilities on a very tight deadline.

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A building in the 18th micro-district of Khujand, where 32 families who lost their homes to demolition received ownership vouchers, can be seen in this photo taken April 24. [Negmatullo Mirsaidov/Caravanserai]

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Those displaced by the failed Chinese project visit Khujand city hall on April 14 to urge authorities to cover their rent. [Negmatullo Mirsaidov/Caravanserai]

The city's leaders expressed great interest in the Chinese venture as part of Khujand's General Development Plan.

The "Chinatown" project, as local residents later began to call it, was slated to include 15 multistorey apartment buildings with 1,200 apartment units, a shopping centre, café, school, daycare, small park and parking garage.

Construction, which began in 2015, was expected to be completed within five years, by 2020.

City hall and the mahalla (neighbourhood association) council told residents of the embankment that demolition of their clay one-storey houses would be necessary.

Under an agreement with the homeowners in which Khujand city hall was guarantor, the Chinese company agreed to pay rent for the displaced families' temporary housing.

The Chinese promised the families new homes in the first completed buildings of the project.

"City hall assumed that it would be incurring almost no costs and would be able to improve one of the most touristy areas of the city, the bank of the Syr Darya," said Maruf Mukhammadzoda, a former Khujand mayor who was working in the city's building department at the time.

"The clay structures spoiled the appearance of the area, and they would have needed to be torn down sooner or later," he said.

"To be sure, we operated on the assumption that the residents' rights would be respected and they wouldn't suffer. We tried to do all we could to protect their interests during the talks with the investors," he added.

Chinese excuses

In August-September 2015, workers demolished about 40 houses belonging to 32 families as well as the office of the local association of the deaf.

Immediately after the demolition, the Chinese specialists suggested modifications to the project, citing high groundwater levels and a need to install deep reinforced concrete pilings and a drainage system.

Instead of the planned multistorey luxury buildings, they proposed ordinary high rises that did not fit in with the requirements of the General Plan and did not comply with the agreement.

The Tajik side rejected the proposed Chinese modifications and held out hope that the investor would complete the project.

"We kept asking the Chinese if they really didn't know they were building on a riverbank and if they really didn't calculate from the start how much the project would cost them," Mukhammadzoda said.

"They constantly talked about how the project was expensive because of unforeseen circumstances... That's when I realised that the Chinese [companies] are always motivated by what's profitable for them," he said.

"Credibility isn't particularly important for them -- money is what counts."

"It's common knowledge that in 2016 the Tajik housing market collapsed by almost 40%. That could be the main reason why the Chinese wanted to modify the project," he said.

"At that point we grasped that it's better not to deal with an unreliable partner," he added.

Disillusionment

By 2016, rumours had begun to spread that the Chinese company had backed out of the project because of groundwater at the building site.

Two years later, in 2018, Tajik officials acknowledged that the Chinese investors had abandoned the project after citing the area's proximity to the river, leaving the displaced residents in limbo.

Abdurakhim, who gave only his first name, and his family of eight owned a six-room house on the bank of the Syr Darya on 600 square metres of land that included a small courtyard and household outbuildings.

A grape arbour provided both protection from the scorching summer sun and a stable family income.

"We were forced to give up our family home, something that Tajiks hold dear. We agreed and signed the contract," he said.

"As soon as we found an apartment to rent and moved, our buildings were torn down. We didn't know that we'd soon experience major disillusionment," Abdurakhim said.

"A lot of people said that the Chinese had 'deserted' us ... Every possible thought went through my head. We thought we wouldn't have house or home."

Anvar, another resident who gave only his first name, lost the house that he inherited from his parents.

"Of course you can't compare an apartment in a high rise with what I had. I had a house, my own vegetable garden and fruit trees," he said.

"Now I've lost everything. After six years of living in a rented apartment, I've lost the habit of taking care of a garden, vineyard and flowers," Anvar said.

"The Chinese stole the life I was used to, a life that gave me great joy."

"Our representatives were going to city hall every day," said Anvar, who has a small business at the Panchshanbe market. "Finally, city hall acknowledged that the Chinese had unilaterally terminated the agreement. It assured us it would find another investor and that everyone would receive housing on time."

"We never saw anyone from the Chinese company again. City hall did manage to get the Chinese to pay another year of rent for us, but we were left with an unpleasant feeling inside," Anvar added.

[In Part 2 of this article, to be published Friday (May 21), Caravanserai will describe the ability of Tajik construction firms to accomplish what Chinese builders have failed to do in Tajikistan.]

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It would be great to start by learning the reasons for cancelling the project, and then draw some conclusions!

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