Inside the Tajik Technical University gymnasium, Chinese workers spent the summer installing the latest plumbing and HVAC equipment.
Shandong Dolang Technology workers weren’t there to pamper the athletes, however. A smooth video shows them converting the space into China’s first Luban workshop in Central Asia, where future generations of Tajik students will learn about the latest in ventilation and green energy technology.
The Confucius Institutes in China are well known. The soft power outposts attached to hundreds universities around the world have been accused of undermining academic freedom and likened to a Trojan horse.
The Luban workshops are a more recent development. Named for an ancient carpenter now revered as the patron saint of builders, they are intended to be the vocational training equivalent of a Confucius Institute, designed to help personnel on projects dotted around the world in part of China’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure extravaganza, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Since 2016, 20 Luban Workshops have opened in 19 countries, mainly in southern countries but also in several European countries.
For Central Asian hosts, the project is a welcome job creation opportunity. But local leaders must deal with domestic skepticism about China’s intentions, which is reinforced by growing debt and abuses across the border in Xinjiang.
Similarly, some Western thinkers have struck a skeptical note about the Luban workshops: are they a way to create dependency on Chinese technology exports? What does more economic entanglement mean for Central Asian sovereignty?
While workers were installing the equipment in Dushanbe, a lecturer 8,000 kilometers away was expanding his own university’s Luban workshop, which opened in 2019, to offer a master’s degree in Internet of Things.
Sulaiman Patel of Durban University of Technology (DUT), South Africa, raves about the workshop he and five colleagues attended last year at the Tianjin Professional Institute.
Although it was virtual (they weren’t able to travel due to COVID restrictions), it was a hands-on experience – something Patel described as unusual in Africa.
“There’s no substitute for having the physical hardware and devices in front of you to get things done. So the fact that we were in a lab and getting guidance on how to use these pieces of technology and how to do it ourselves was a phenomenal experience,” Patel said.
What makes Luban unique is that China provides the equipment, while Western countries focus on subsidies, said Oludayo Olugbara, executive dean of accounting and IT at DUT. His university has already graduated 300 students from a short course through the Luban workshop; next year it will begin enrolling students for a three-year degree.
Before Luban moved to DUT, “we didn’t have 3D printing facilities,” Olugbara said, describing how African universities are often underfunded.
The first Luban workshop opened six years ago in Thailand. The collaboration between Tianjin Bohai Vocational Technical College and Ayutthaya Technical College specialized in automation and robotics before moving into high-speed rail technology, which serves the country’s flagship BRI project, a $7 billion high-speed rail link. The workshop trained 1,125 people, according to Chinese state media.
Soft power with solid yields
The Luban Workshops can be considered as the second stage of the BRI, which has, by an accounthas funneled $9 billion into Central Asia since 2013 – spent on everything from roads and ports to mining and energy.
China first became a net exporter of capital in the mid-2010s. Around the same time, overseas Chinese companies realized they did not have enough skilled local workers to operate their projects, guidance document by two researchers from Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology found later.
Beijing stepped in and encouraged technical schools to seek foreign partnerships. The prosperous region of Tianjin, on the coast near the capital, was the most active.
“Wherever Chinese enterprises go, our vocational training workshops will be built there, and we will train qualified talents there,” the Nanjing scholars wrote in 2021.
Li Lifan, associate research professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, confirmed this practical function in an interview with Eurasianet.
“We have to localize the workforce because it costs more if we only rely on Chinese workers,” he said.
Li says Luban graduates are expected to work with Chinese companies.
“We encourage students to work for Chinese companies, such as Chinese banks or Huawei. I think it’s to develop their professional training, professional skills and career,” he said.
Luban’s host countries include Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan and Portugal, among others, according to a report of the first Tianjin Conference on Vocational Education, held in mid-August. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will soon join this list.
The Tajik Technical University facility, which is expected to welcome its first students in the coming months, is a partnership with the Tianjin Urban Construction Management and Vocation Technology College, which donated equipment and resources worth of $1.2 million, according to Tianjin Daily.
The Tajik Luban workshop will specialize in surveying and gas transportation, an academic familiar with the program said on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission from Tajikistan’s education ministry to speak to the press.
In Uzbekistan, a workshop at the Tashkent State University of Transport will specialize in logistics and information technology, according to Chinese state media. We don’t know when it will open.
These deposits closely match Chinese capital flows into the region, which is rich in resources, including natural gas. In 2021, for example, Chinese companies invested over $211 millionn in Tajikistan, mainly in the mines. Although they have brought jobs, companies have faces criticism for not employing enough local people, especially in management positions.
DUT students in China in 2019.
Prior to the opening of a Luban workshop, academics from the host university and the Chinese sponsor exchange visits and decide on the skills needed based on BRI projects in the country. The Chinese school then provides the material, the teachers and the translators.
Typically, colleges in participating countries initially sign a three-year contract with their counterparts in Tianjin. DUT signed its three-year proposal in 2019 and recently concluded a five-year project extension.
In meetings with Central Asian officials, Communist Party officials increasingly touted Luban’s concept. President Xi Jinping twice last year publicly briefed regional presidents on the opportunities. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while receiving his counterparts from Central Asia in May 2021, said China would build five Luban workshops in its region to provide high-tech training.
Chinese opinion leaders are quick to discuss the benefits of soft power.
For a local worker “who only speaks a little Chinese and has no special skills, it would be difficult for him to be employed in a Chinese company. Once they have the special skills, it will benefit their jobs,” Li said.
These people-to-people interactions will help foreigners understand Chinese values, according to the Nanjing University policy paper. This, he concludes with a quote from President Xi, “will help build a ‘closer community of shared future for all mankind'”.
Also, the workshops are more hands-on than trying to start a university, Li said. Opening a college or university “requires several levels of approval. Compared to this, a Luban workshop is easier to build.
‘No free lunch’
It is too early to say how the Luban Workshops will be received in Central Asia. But South Africa’s experience could be instructive.
For Olugbara at DUT, the Luban workshop was a godsend. However, he also realizes that “there is no free lunch” and that his students must prepare for a day when Chinese largesse will dry up.
He doesn’t pressure graduates to work for Chinese companies, only to keep an open mind – some work for Amazon and Microsoft – to gain the skills they need to develop domestic industries. “Our goal is not only to strengthen [students’] employability. We also focus on the ability of students to create their own jobs and contribute to the development of society.”
Could this be an example for Central Asia?
Anticipating that Western policymakers will see the project as another way for Beijing to change the global center of gravity, Dirk van der Kley, a researcher at the Australian National University, pointed out that many hosts, such as Tajikistan, “won’t care “None of those reproaches. They need skilled workers for their economy. Wealthy liberal democracies frankly don’t provide as much support.”
This is evident in South Africa, which Olugbara knows could be asked to choose sides in a future great power confrontation.
“If there is a [clash] between China and America, you think I will support America? he said, referring to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. “Never. I will look at the person [standing in front of me] before thinking of someone very far from me.
A Eurasianet correspondent in Dushanbe contributed to the report.
Jiahui Huangrecent graduate of Columbia Journalism School, is an editorial intern at Eurasianet.
This article was originally published on Eurasianet here.