There are many advantages for Central Asia in doing business with China -- the financing of major and minor projects being chief among those reasons. But a group of merchants in Chust, in eastern Uzbekistan's Namangan Province, is learning the hard way about what Chinese economic interest can mean.
"Two years ago we sold a half million Chust knives as souvenirs," Agzamjon Usta, a master knife-maker from Chust, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik. "In the Canadian city of Montreal and the Turkish city of Izmir, Chust knives have won awards [for craftsmanship]. Now our bazaars are full of cheap Chust knives and tyubetekas made in China," Usta explained.
Usta and other merchants and craftsmen in Chust are upset that the products they worked so long to carefully produce, "in the tradition of our fathers," Usta said, are being undersold by cheap imitations being made in China.
Abbas Asad, a blogger from the city of Namangan, wrote recently about the tyubetekas, or in Uzbek "doppi," the skullcaps Uzbeks have worn for centuries and a typical souvenir for tourists (I own about 10 of them). Asad said an original Chust tyubeteka takes at least three days to sew by hand and sometimes, depending on the design it can take up to seven days.
Asad wrote that the average price of the handmade skullcap is somewhere between 50,000 to 70,000 Uzbek som [about $8 to $11] but the Chinese-made copies are selling for as low as 3,000 som.
Asad lamented that customs regulations, put in place to help defend locally made products, seem to have failed in the case of the handmade knives and skullcaps of Chust.
These prized knives and hats once were sold at souvenir shops in Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand, Usta said, and it is in Samarkand, not China, that we find the source of these cheap knock-offs.
According to Usta, a local Samarkand merchant Usta identified only as "I." decided he could increase his profits by finding someone else to produce copies of the knives and hats. This merchant found such a place in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Usta said "I." took examples of the Chust knives and skullcaps to a factory in Xinjiang where a local entrepreneur agreed to make similar products at a much lower price.
The merchants and craftsmen in Chust seem resigned to the fact there is not much they can do to stop these imitation products from being sold in Uzbekistan. Namangan blogger Asad wrote, "If our customs policies are not changed, soon we will only find the original designs of Chust tyubetekas in museums."