Man behind $40bn Nicaragua canal vows transparency

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega with businessman Wang Jing. Picture: Reuters
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega with businessman Wang Jing. Picture: Reuters
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THE mysterious Chinese businessman behind a $40 billion plan to build a canal through Nicaragua has pledged transparency – but given little away about his background.

Wang Jing, 40, is the only public face for a project that on paper would challenge the Panama Canal’s monopoly on transporting oil, ore and containers between Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico ports and Asian markets.

Nicaragua’s Congress last week granted Mr Wang’s Cayman Islands-registered HKND company a 50-year concession to develop the canal, following a September initial agreement with president Daniel Ortega.

Mr Wang – who has said his initial wealth came from a gold mine investment in Cambodia – yesterday denied he had any family connection to the Chinese government, military or ruling Communist Party. Connections, known as “guanxi”, are often the hidden ingredient behind sudden success in China.

“I always hoped people would pay attention to the project and not to me personally,” he told a news conference at a luxury hotel in central Beijing.
“I couldn’t be more normal.”

The plan is to build a 178-mile canal connecting the Caribbean with the Pacific via Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest freshwater lake.

It would be three times longer than the Panama Canal, which took a decade to build. The deal calls for the new canal to be completed in five years, however it contains no penalties for delay.

“The world trade has been so developed today that it needs a new canal,” Mr Wang said. “The Panama Canal is not enough for the trade conducted currently between east and west.”

Mr Wang projected that annual shipping revenues would be about $5.5bn when the canal is at full capacity. Ownership of the concession would gradually return to Nicaragua.

Mr Wang was unknown when he privatised loss-making state-owned company Xinwei in 2010 and transformed it. Xinwei booked more than two billion yuan (about £211 million) in profits last year, Chinese media reported, mostly through building wireless networks in other countries.

But in Nicaragua, a Xinwei contract to invest as much as $700m to improve the country’s telecom system has so far shown little sign of any spending, leading to scepticism about Mr Wang’s ability to build a canal.

“It’s all a lie,” opposition Nicaraguan congressman Eliseo Nunez said earlier this month.

Ji Yongqing, a Chinese information technology commentator, said he believed Xinwei’s success was because it has fit into the strategic push by China’s government to help developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America with projects sourced with Chinese products.

Mr Wang told journalists he studied traditional Chinese medicine, but it was “inconvenient” to say at which university. He then took an interest in mining in south-east Asia, including the Cambodian gold mine, he said.

Corporate records show a hotel management company registered to Mr Wang and his brother, Wang Peng, plus other small entertainment and telecoms firms under their names.