ASTANA – The dynamic growth in Chinese-Kazakh business relations is expected with a focus on agriculture, said Alinur Zhengis, the second Kazakh citizen after singer Dimash Kudaibergen, who was given the Chinese Government Friendship Award, the highest award for foreign experts.
Back in 2018, the Chinese government honored two Kazakh nationals for their outstanding contributions to the country’s economic and social progress. One of them was the well-known Kazakh singer Dimash who made headlines, becoming the first Kazakh man to be awarded China’s Friendship Award.
Zhengis, who received the award just a couple of months later, did not gather media’s much attention, but her contribution to deepening the trade and investment relations between the two nations is indisputable.
In an interview with The Astana Times, she shared the story behind her immense work, organizing forums and promoting Kazakhstan, that laid the foundations for the diplomatic ties linking the people of Kazakhstan and China together to this day.
The homecoming story
Zhengis was born and raised in China. Her family was part of the Kazakh diaspora there until her father decided to return to Kazakhstan.
“It was my father who initiated the move. He came to Kazakhstan in 2006 in search of treatment for his diabetes. He came here and saw Kazakhs everywhere. I remember he came back to China very moved from his visit to Kazakhstan and immediately said: ‘let’s go back to our Kazakh country, everyone there is Kazakh,’” said Zhengis as she undertook an emotional journey back to the first time her family decided to move to the homeland.
Upon their return in 2007, the family was confronted with a harsh reality. Their residence consisted of an old house located in the part of the city devoid of roads and streetlights.
After studying her whole lifetime in a Chinese school, Zhengis arrived in Kazakhstan with basic Kazakh writing skills and no Russian. But those hardships fueled a burning passion for achieving her dream of becoming a diplomat and helped her deal with the most difficult circumstances.
“I really wanted to get out of poverty. Now I think that if a person is hungry, there appears to be a strong intention and strength within. I think it was right that my father was strict on us,” said Zhengis.
In 2015 she formed her own company. Now she has built a career here in Kazakhstan and has become a respected expert among the two nations’ business circles.
“Back then, I made a commitment to myself: not to spare my work between the two countries. With the intention of being an inspiration to others so that there would be more people like me, I put myself under a lot of pressure, but it wasn’t all for nothing. In 2017, I became a partner with the sponsor of the Expo,” said Zhengis.
In 2017, Kazakhstan hosted EXPO 2017 under the title Future Energy, a milestone event for the country. 115 countries, 22 international organizations and over 33 million visitors converged at the venue, addressing an urgent concern – a shortage of energy resources and energy transition.
“I said I can help with advertising. I will go to every region of China, conduct regional forums and introduce the EXPO 2017. I will publish it on Chinese television, radio and newspapers. There needs to be a person to run this job. And it is not even about knowing the [Chinese] language. You need to know the right doors,” she said.
In the context of jointly advancing the EXPO 2017, Zhengis was an irreplicable partner to organizers in Kazakhstan.
“I went to China and made 26 forums in 40 days. There were times when I slept for only two hours. We would set up a forum and explain everything about Kazakhstan. I would take the stage to give a speech. I would say ‘there are such and such projects in Kazakhstan, come, see and invest,’” added Zhengis.
Her tour through China has been a big success, saving millions of dollars for the organizers, according to Zhengis. She said that over her career as an entrepreneur, she has not visited only two places in China: Tibet and Taiwan.
The Friendship Award
Zhengis did not stop there. Over the years, she arranged hundreds of events in Kazakhstan, welcoming Chinese potential investors and showing them true Kazakh hospitality.
Those early diplomatic openings for the Chinese people were truly never forgotten. By the end of 2018, one of the first acts of the Chinese side was to pay their respects to Zhengis and grant her the Friendship Award, a symbol of China’s strong and enduring friendship.
“However, at the end of 2018, I could not go to China because my visa did not open. Dimash Kudaibergen was able to go. Therefore, I received my award in 2019. They told me that only you and him received such an award,” said Zhengis.
The award caught her by surprise.
“I asked them ‘his [Dimash’s] contribution is clear: he is doing a great job in bringing together people in the field of culture, but what about me?’ They said ‘look at the Baidu website (Chinese search engine platform). You have done so much. There are so many news and interviews about you and it is only one part. We have heard about you, we are watching you. You are a well-known person in the Chinese-Kazakh joint business environment,’” said Zhengis.
Kazakhstan’s relationship with China
The relations between the two countries would only grow stronger in the future, according to Zhengis.
“Now we have opened our borders. We will be in close contact with China. It is one of the most prominent countries in the world. I have so much experience and respect there to share those benefits with people here,” she said.
As an important regional transport hub, Kazakhstan has a pivotal role to play in extending China’s cooperation with Europe and the rest of the world, according to Zhengis.
“International relations is basically an art in itself. We should be able to use this art properly. If we do well, there are great future collaboration opportunities. Because Kazakhstan is located in a great place. Through Kazakhstan, goods can be transported from China to other parts of the world, be it to Europe or Russia,” she said.
Prospects of developing agriculture
Competing with robust economies, such as China, to target industrial production or technological innovation is not easy. According to Zhengis, Chinese investment plans should be determined by strategies based on Kazakhstan’s comparative strengths in niche areas, such as agriculture.
“We should engage [with China] in our national interest. We can’t outdo anyone in manufacturing, it is hard to compete in that industry. Alternatively, in terms of innovation, someone is already building a flying machine. It will be difficult to compete on that too. But regardless of whether they build a flying machine or fly a rocket, everyone eats food,” said Zhengis.
She hopes Kazakhstan will become a hub for a high-quality food culture with hospitality at its heart.
“It should be done systematically. Whether it is vegetables or crops, we need to show that we produce them in good quality, without the addition of pesticides. Small factories should be created. There are so many different products that could be made from wheat and from meat. If we pay attention to this, we can export food to Europe and China. We can take a great place in this field,” said Zhengis.
Her future plans
Zhengis hopes to become a part of the government officials or Kazakhstan’s Presidential Youth Personnel Reserve one day. “In the future, I want to be able to work in the public office. That would be a return to my old dream,” she said.
She believes her background as an international relations student and her extensive experience working with Chinese businesses will allow her to support the local community and bring necessary investment to the remote regions of Kazakhstan.
“I also want to teach the young people in villages. I want to develop production in villages. I have been working in this field as an investment consultant for 12 years. I know what kind of project or production should be done in which region,” said Zhengis.