Following the 2013 announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at a speech given by People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping during visit to Kazakhstan, Central Asia has been a key regional priority and an indispensable element for the success of the BRI as a whole (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 7, 2013). Over the years, the BRI—nebulously defined from the start—has come to be associated with a variety of policy and investment programs. A previous series of articles has covered security-related developments associated with the BRI aimed at maintaining stability and protecting economic investments across the region (China Brief July 15; October 19; August 12).
China has also begun to expand its export of digital infrastructure and surveillance technology under the umbrella of the BRI. The digitalization strategy—ostensibly aimed at promoting the international integration of technology with infrastructure and finance as well as spreading digital innovation abroad—is often referred to as the Digital Silk Road (DSR, 数字丝绸之路, shuzi sichou zhi lu). The high-level emphasis on promoting the DSR has only grown under the COVID-19 pandemic (CGTN, June 10, 2020). Across Central Asia, the DSR has been primarily represented by efforts to export China’s Smart/Safe City programs, which allow governments to collect, store, process and analyze vast amounts of personal information. The promotion of the so-called “informatization” of society (信息化, xinxi hua) and data commodification are yet more driving forces behind China’s DSR ambitions in Central Asia.
In 2005, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Science and Technology jointly launched the “3111 Project” (3111工程), a nation-wide pilot program to develop “safe cities” (平安城市, pingan chengshi) across 22 provinces. Technology companies such as Huawei, ZTE, Zhejiang Dahua and Hangzhou Hikvision, among others, have played a key role in developing subsequent national mass surveillance programs such as Skynet (天网, tianwang) and Sharp Eyes (雪亮, xueliang) (Hikvision, undated; Yiou Intelligence, August 28, 2019). These programs, in turn, laid the groundwork for the development of “smart cities” (智慧城市, zhihui chengshi). The industry surrounding the provision of smart city-related infrastructure and services has boomed, with one domestic report from 2018 estimating that the market size for smart city-related businesses could reach $2.9 trillion in 2021 (Yicai, November 26, 2018). These developments have not gone unnoticed in neighboring Central Asian states, which struggle with being (relatively) technologically underdeveloped and face a variety of domestic security issues. Beijing’s efforts to export its smart cities (and implicitly promote its illiberal governance model abroad, sometimes called “digital authoritarianism”) have consequently been well received in countries such as Uzbekistan.
Milestones in China`s “Digital Conquest” of Uzbekistan
Although nominally a privately owned company, Huawei has long-standing links to the Chinese state (ChinaFile, April 23, 2019). As a leading global provider of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, it has played a major role in China’s export of digital infrastructure. Huawei’s presence in Uzbekistan dates back to 1997, when the company signed a contract to provide equipment for modernizing the national telecommunications network. This project, completed in 2008, was valued at $21.2 million and financed in large part by China Development Bank (CDB, 国家开发银行, guojia kaifa yinhang) (Uz.mofcom.gov.cn, October 9, 2008). In 2011, Huawei signed another deal to work with local partners Uzmobile and Ucel to develop Uzbekistan’s 5G network. This deal, worth $18 million, was also financed in part by CDB. (Beltandroad.news, August 8, 2019).
Huawei’s deep involvement in Uzbek telecommunications networks was already well-established, but received new impetus in 2017 when the Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev (who took office in 2016) declared the launch of a national Safe City initiative. The program aimed to accomplish the digital transformation of Uzbekistan across several strategic dimensions, ranging from security and public surveillance to digitizing key sectors of local economy. According to Uzbek reports, the program would be implemented in three main stages. During the first stage (2017 – 2019), safe city technologies would be implemented in the capital city of Tashkent, with special emphasis on the dramatic increase of various surveillance systems, data collection, automatization and speeding up reports on criminal activities. The second stage (2019 – 2021) planned to expand the Safe City program to all other districts and major cities throughout Uzbekistan. In the third stage (2021 – 2023), the entire country would adopt the project (President.uz, August 30, 2017).
China’s—and specifically Huawei’s—critical role in the planned digitalization of Uzbekistan was clearly demonstrated by two events that took place in 2019. In April, Mirziyoyev visited Huawei while participating in the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, where he was reportedly impressed by demonstrations of Huawei’s cutting-edge technologies and surveillance-based solutions for various security issues and concerns (Huawei, April 25, 2019; president.uz, April 25, 2019). Uzbek media reported that the president signed an agreement on furthering Sino-Uzbek cooperation during this trip, although further details have not been released through official channels (Maxala.org, April 26, 2019). In June, Chinese business representatives and Uzbek government officials signed a formal agreement stipulating the creation of a joint initiative to develop “Safe Cities” in Uzbekistan (Mitc.uz, June 21, 2019).
Costar Group, its parent company China South Industries Group Corporation (中国南方工业集团公司, zhongguo nanfang gongye jituan gongsi) and CITIC Group (中国中信集团有限公司, zhongguo zhongxin jituan youxian gongsi) are all expected to play a major role in the rollout of Uzbekistan’s Safe Cities project. The central role in this initiative, however, will be played by Huawei, which has effectively become “[A] bridge between Chinese investors and Uzbek authorities” (Podrobno.uz, August 27, 2019). Incidentally, according to the joint statement, Chinese actors initially pledged to bring in more than $300 million of direct investments and later increased this to $1 billion. These funds would be directed towards implementing initiatives related to developing digital governance, digital economy, local IT industry, telemedicine and telecommunications (Podrobno.uz, August 27, 2019). The Uzbek political leadership has by this point vested huge expectations in the successful implementation of the Safe City initiative, viewing it as an integral part of the country’s strategic transformation (Trend.az, April 17, 2018).
Huawei`s Pilot Initiative: The Case of Bukhara
In 2018, Huawei Tech Investment Tashkent, working with the State Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan for Development of Tourism and Uzbek Ministry of Internal Affairs, agreed to implement a “Safe Tourism” pilot project in the city of Bukhara (Petition.gov.uz, July 13, 2018). The “Safe Tourism” project is a part of the greater “Safe City” concept and combines a set of solutions including the creation of a converged command center; a unified LTE communication network; a data center; high definition video cameras with face recognition function and processing software for big data analysis to optimize urban management. The Bukhara project mirrors similar initiatives previously carried out in Nairobi, Kenya; Lahore, Pakistan; Saudi Arabia and Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Uza.uz, accessed December 15).
Uzbek media reports argued that the main reason for choosing Huawei was because of the company’s successful implementation of a Safe City project in the city of Dunhuang, Gansu Province, which boasts a strong tourism industry. Huawei’s equipment enabled local authorities to oversee the city via cutting-edge surveillance technologies capable of operating under extreme heat conditions—which is particularly important for Uzbekistan. After implementation of the Safe City project in Dunhuang, tourists’ satisfaction reportedly exceeded 95 percent and local revenues grew accordingly (Petition.gov.uz, July 13, 2018). Depending on the results of Huawei’s pilot project in Bukhara—as well Uzbekistan’s successful control of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has become a key challenge to developing tourism—Chinese providers should be expected to sign contracts to equip other major Uzbek tourist destinations (such as Samarkand, Khiva and Shakhrisabz) that had been previously named as strategic venues for digital modernization (Spot.uz, November 27, 2017).
Apart from the Safe City project and the export of Chinese surveillance systems, two other forms of Sino-Uzbek collaboration could have even greater strategic implications in the long run. First, Huawei is actively leveraging education opportunities to increase its “soft power” and improve its image among young Uzbeks. This has meshed well with local authorities’ emphasis on the digitalization of the local economy and ambitious plans to develop the indigenous information technology (IT) industry. Mirziyoyev declared 2020 to be the “Year of Science, Education and the Digital Economy” (Tashkent Times, January 24, 2020). Huawei signed an agreement with Tashkent University of Information Technologies (TUIT) in 2014 that opened a number of opportunities for young Uzbek students, culminating in the 2017 launch of the “Seeds for the Future” initiative. Uzbek students were given the opportunity to attend the BRI International Forum and invited to visit and take classes at Huawei’s headquarters in China (Huawei.com, accessed December 16). Huawei has claimed that it will not discontinue the education program despite the ongoing pandemic, and is instead committed to seeking new talents and providing job opportunities (Uzreport.news, June 10).
Second, Huawei has played a major role in China’s COVID-19 aid to Uzbekistan. China has been aggressive in leveraging its successful control of the virus at home to export its pandemic prevention model abroad—including the use of digital contact-tracing and other new technologies. Although China’s so-called “mask diplomacy” (and its more recent evolution, “vaccine diplomacy”) has sometimes been too heavy-handed and backfired, it appears to have been largely successful at fostering goodwill in Uzbekistan. In March 2020, Huawei donated thermographic cameras to be installed in the Tashkent airport and video-calling services to ensure free information exchanges, at no cost to Uzbekistan. The seemingly no-strings-attached aid also bears similarities with Chinese state behavior in security cooperation with Central Asian actors (Huawei.com, March 16; China Brief, August 12, 2020).
Conclusion: Uzbekistan – China`s “digital stronghold” in Central Asia?
Huawei has achieved huge successes since it first entered Uzbekistan in 1999. Today, more than half the local population actively uses Huawei’s services. While the growing number of Huawei customers in Uzbekistan realizes direct economic gains, the company’s strong position in Uzbekistan also serves as a vehicle that allows China to increase its “soft power” in a country that is critical to the successful development of the BRI. This has resulted in Uzbekistan becoming an important—if often-overlooked—partner for the DSR. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently highlighted the DSR’s importance in China’s greater foreign policy aims during the November China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning (Podrobno.uz, September 26, 2018; SCMP, November 27, 2020).
As noted by the Central Asian analyst Umida Hashimova, China’s growing involvement in Uzbekistan’s digital infrastructure has far-reaching and multi-dimensional implications. Although increased surveillance technologies could contribute to greater accountability for Uzbekistan’s security services and improved public safety, concerns about privacy and China’s growing dominance in Uzbekistan’s telecommunications and technology sector are also relevant (The Diplomat, June 28, 2019). The above chronicling of Huawei’s two decades of success in penetrating the Uzbek market sets a noteworthy precedent for the entire region, demonstrating that Huawei’s increased business opportunities in the region go hand in hand with China’s rising influence.
Dr. Sergey Sukhankin is a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, and an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics (Washington, D.C.). He received his PhD in Contemporary Political and Social History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. His areas of interest include Kaliningrad and the Baltic Sea region, Russian information and cyber security, A2/AD and its interpretation in Russia, the Arctic region, and the development of Russian private military companies since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. He has consulted or briefed with CSIS (Canada), DIA (USA), and the European Parliament. His project discussing the activities of Russian PMCs, “War by Other Means” informed the United Nations General Assembly report entitled “Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights and Impeding the Exercise of the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination.” He is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
 A proposal for an “Information Silk Road” was first included in a 2015 White Paper on the development of the Belt and Road (Xinhua, March 28, 2015). The concept of a “21st Century Digital Silk Road” was revamped and expanded following Xi Jinping’s coining of the term at a keynote speech at the 2017 Belt and Road International Cooperation Summit (Xinhua, May 14, 2017).
 For a more detailed description of Beijing’s digital authoritarianism, see: Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole, “Exporting digital authoritarianism: the Russian and Chinese models,” Brookings Institute, August 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/exporting-digital-authoritarianism/.