The first thing you see walking out of Kabul's airport is a billboard advertising Chinatown, which, if you visit, turns out to be a plain, off-white trio of 10-story towers in the Afghan capital's Taimani district. On the ground floor are shops selling Chinese products, including lights, office furniture, fans, electric bicycles, kitchen equipment, garden tools, pipe fittings, solar panels, toiletries, clothes, decorations and Clean Laundry detergent, which promises "disintegration of the stain."
Most visitors' first stop is the office of Yu Minghui, the 51-year-old entrepreneur who started Chinatown in 2019 and who doubles as chairman of the China-Afghanistan Trade Committee, a semiofficial liaison office for Yu's passion project: bringing Chinese merchants to Afghanistan.
The office helps them obtain visas, navigate the market and make connections. Those who like their chances can join Chinatown or rent space in Yu's newest undertaking, a sprawling 350-acre,
$216-million industrial park on Kabul's northeastern edge — the first infrastructure project signed between a Chinese company and the Taliban government.
"They want to help foreigners invest here," Yu said of Afghanistan's hard-line Islamic rulers. "The government is now supporting us."
Behind his efforts is at least the tacit support of another government: his own. With the West focused on Ukraine and the U.S. refusing to deal with a Taliban-led state, China sees an opportunity to extend its influence in its backyard, using commercial ties to help forge a stable regional order and demonstrate that its brand of economic diplomacy — buttressed by a steadfast policy of noninterference in domestic affairs — can achieve success where Washington's 20-year misadventure in Afghanistan could not.
The efforts are nothing like the United States' gargantuan nation-building campaign. Instead, Beijing's goal is to neutralize the dangers from what has long been a problematic neighbor, while pursuing wider policies such as its Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to develop international infrastructure links, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $62-billion project to construct transportation networks, energy infrastructure and special economic zones, which Beijing wants to extend to include Afghanistan.
"The U.S.' was a transformational project. China is about stabilization," said Jennifer Murtazashvili, an expert on Central Asia at the University of Pittsburgh. " China's interest in Afghanistan is primarily about security, and it sees the security stabilization of Afghanistan through its economic development, which is also beneficial to China."
Others see in Beijing's efforts a logical desire to encourage economic development in a strategically situated nation closer to home.
"If China can invest billions of dollars in Africa, why can't it invest a bit more than it did in the past in its neighbor?" said Zhou Bo, a former colonel in the People's Liberation Army who is now a senior fellow at Tsinghua University's Center for International Security and Strategy in Beijing.
The U.S. and China say they want the same thing for Afghanistan — a stable, inclusive government. "The difference is in how to achieve that," Zhou said. "The Chinese approach is that this is reality: The Taliban are in power. Let's just get in touch, and hope through this process they can become inclusive and open."
Signs of growing economic ties abound in the last six months.
In April, China spearheaded the Tunxi Initiative, which corralled Afghanistan's neighbors and Russia to support reconstruction and economic assistance in the war-torn country. Over the summer, it removed tariffs on 98% of imported Afghan goods. Last month, it restarted an air transport service delivering pine nuts — a key Afghan export — to China, which brings $800 million a year into Kabul's coffers.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group wanted to move ahead with China's Belt and Road Initiative, calling it "a great opportunity" and saying that now that there is "good security, it is time we start major economic projects."
These days, it's not uncommon in Kabul to see stern-faced Chinese bodyguards escorting visitors to various Afghan ministries, or Taliban provincial and central leaders meeting representatives of Chinese state-owned companies at the recently reopened Afghan Embassy in Beijing. The Chinese Embassy in Kabul is one of a few diplomatic missions still operating, although China has not officially recognized the Taliban government.
"I'm dealing with Chinese investors not every week, but every day," said Jawad, an Afghan Ministry of Commerce official who gave only his first name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Chinese officials pointedly trumpet Beijing's humanitarian aid on social media, contrasting Chinese military planes in Afghanistan that "carry hope" with American planes that "take life" — even though U.S. humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, totaling $1.1 billion over the last year, dwarfs the amount China gives. Other countries also donate more.
The newest addition to the Afghan capital's hotels is the Kabul Longan, now under Chinese ownership; customers settle bills and buy Chinese foodstuffs from a ground-floor grocery store using Chinese payment systems such as WeChat or AliPay, as Western credit card and other cashless
payments are suspended in Afghanistan.
Then there is Yu. Standing on a rock-strewn plot of land at the foot of a mountain eight miles northeast of Kabul, not far from where herders chivvied their sheep, he waxed enthusiastic about the prospects of the new Chinatown Industrial Park, which he launched six months ago.
"Before, the market was strong, but it wasn't safe. Now, security is 90% better, but the market is down 50%," he said, adding that the project was first signed with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, then renewed with the Taliban. If all goes to plan, in two years there should be more than 13,000 workers employed here.
More than 100 Chinese entrepreneurs have already signed up, said Yu, who proudly points to a framed picture on his wall showing him with Taliban officials at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Now he was rejecting applications, he added.
Yet for all the fanfare and the friendly visits and discussions, including Chinese overtures to the Taliban to gain mining concessions and make infrastructure investments, observers note that few concrete deals have materialized.
"I still haven't seen any signatures on major projects, whether it's roads or electricity transmission lines, and if these aren't implemented, any talk on mining and renewable energy is just that — talk," said Niva Yau, a Central Asia expert based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
That reflects the caution with which Beijing still approaches the Taliban, said Andrew Small, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund.
"None of this so far is super risky, major state projects of the sort embroiled in deep political risk assessments about where it will go in the coming years," Small said. He noted that in the eastern province of Logar, a copper mine concession won by the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp. in 2007 remains undeveloped, despite Chinese officials announcing they had restarted discussions with the Taliban.
"They will make statements with rather small amounts of humanitarian aid and relatively modest activities, such as pine nuts," Small said of the Chinese government. "All of them are useful, but it's not on the scale that is backfilling for U.S. and Western assistance in terms of what it can actually do for the economy."
Yu, unsurprisingly, is more bullish, even evangelical, about Chinese-Afghan trade. He first came to Afghanistan in 2002, defying a consensus among friends and family that he was "crazy" to do so. He claims to be the first Chinese trader to bring lapis lazuli to Beijing, the semiprecious blue gemstone for which Afghanistan is famous. His investments include factories for metal wire production, color paints, PVC piping, textiles and a stainless steel plant that still brings in $30,000 of profit a day, he says.
"I'm not like other foreigners who stay for one or two years, then leave. I felt I needed to be here," he said.
When the Taliban seized Kabul last year, he closed Chinatown but didn't leave the country. The militant group's representatives came to visit and assigned guards to protect the premises; Yu felt safe enough to reopen a week later.
That can-do attitude was one of the reasons why Afghan businessman Abdul Qaher Faqiri partnered with him.
"I tried to invest with Americans, but they won't do it. I could offer it for free," Faqiri said, gesturing with a sweep of his hand at the desolate landscape around him, "and they still wouldn't, whether now or before the republic's fall. Chinese are the kind of people who stay the night here. Americans would never do that."
Yu believes in the potential for business to help stabilize Afghanistan after decades of conflict.
"We're coming here to invest. When there are factories, people will work, have salaries, feed their families," he said. "And when you can do that, you'll never go to war."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.