AP Interview: Wang coy on past, confident on canal

AP News
Posted: Sep 02, 2013 6:07 AM
AP Interview: Wang coy on past, confident on canal

BEIJING (AP) — The baby-faced Chinese businessman behind plans to slash a canal through Nicaragua has invested millions in telecommunications and mines. But he won't say how he made his fortune. Wang Jing says he once studied traditional Chinese medicine. At which school? He won't say. Nor can he put a dollar figure on his current business interests.

Wang was obscure even in China until he shot to fame in June after securing rights from the Nicaraguan government to build and operate a $40 billion shipping channel through the country to rival the Panama Canal.

Skepticism and outright disbelief have poured in about the mysterious 40-year-old chief of telecoms company Xinwei.

He acknowledges having no particular expertise in telecommunications before buying Xinwei in 2010 and remains untested when it comes to an infrastructure project as enormous as the one dangled before Nicaragua. The sluggish recovery in global trade from the 2009 recession has also raised doubts about the economic viability of a second central American canal.

Ever upbeat, Wang is promising to break ground on the waterway in 2014. Yet he is coy about his history and his money, and seems to revel in his previous obscurity, adding to the incredulity that surrounds an undertaking with a price tag about four times the size of Nicaragua's economy.

"I can pound my chest and guarantee it will succeed," he said, using a Chinese expression for full confidence.

Wang spoke to The Associated Press last weekend at the Xinwei Telecom Enterprise Group office in Beijing. He granted the interview in part to respond to an AP story that showed that Xinwei has yet to deliver on its promises to build telecom networks in 20 countries.

In 12 of the countries where Wang's Xinwei Telecom Enterprise Group and associated companies say they've done business, the AP found no evidence of a successful, large-scale project up and running. In the other eight, either analysts or major telecom firms said they had not heard of the company, or Xinwei did not provide enough details about its partners or projects to allow its record to be examined.

Wang said some of the projects were started before he took over the company. A Xinwei spokesman said it was unfair to judge the company's success when work is still underway.

"I trust my logic and my judgment," said Wang, seated on a wide sofa over which is the room's centerpiece: a full-wall painting of Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, surrounded by Communist Party comrades and Red Army soldiers, in a victorious celebration.

He says he has hired McKinsey & Company Inc., PricewaterhouseCoopers and China Railway Construction Corp. to study the canal's feasibility and the findings are favorable.

Wang asserts he studied traditional Chinese medicine, but when pressed does not want to reveal his alma mater, citing the controversy about the canal project. He made money in the financial world, but is vague about how he earned enough to invest millions in mines and to pay $16 million of his own cash for the 2010 takeover of Xinwei. And he says he's not sure how much he's worth because it's difficult to calculate values of his company shares and mines in Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia and Thailand.

"Before anyone gets famous, little is known of him," he said. "My resume? It is simple. Born in December 1972 in Beijing and a Chinese citizen."

The business success Wang claims with Xinwei suggests some acumen but it seems modest in comparison with the task of developing a canal that could be three times the length of the century-old Panamanian waterway it seeks to compete with.

By his account, the telecoms company suffered a 400 million yuan ($65 million) loss in 2009 but turned a profit of 30 million in 2010, the year of Wang's takeover. That grew to 500 million yuan in 2011 and to more than 2 billion yuan in 2012.

"Before my team and I came, Xinwei was a cup of warm water at 99 degrees. It boiled after I came, but I was only that one degree," Wang said.

Xinwei is a rarity in China's labor-rich but innovation-poor economy in that it boasts a Made-in-China Wi-Fi technology over which Xinwei can claim full intellectual property rights. The technology remains obscure overseas.

Wang's introduction to Nicaragua, a country that recognizes Taiwan and has no diplomatic ties with China, came when a Nicaraguan telecom minister visited Xinwei's Beijing office seeking bids for a network. Xinwei was awarded a contract, and through that work Wang came to know of the country's century-old aspiration for a canal to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

He said the "no-knowledge, no-fear" approach he took with Xinwei wouldn't work for the canal. "It is such a massive project that does not merely involve my own savings, investment and wealth but has many more aspects," Wang said. "It carries the hope of the country and its people."

"It will break ground by the end of 2014. There is no question about it."

Wang's canal company, HKND, is looking at routes ranging from 200 to 280 kilometers (124 to 174 miles), and will choose the one that best protects cultural relics and natural habitats, even if more costly, he said.

Wang said his plans to raise $8 billion by year's end in the first phase of financing are going "smoothly," and that he is in talks with investors from Europe, America and China. He said Xinwei's homegrown telecom technology helped the company gain attention from national leaders, who have visited the company, and has qualified Xinwei for favorable state policies and China-backed financing.

Wang questioned whether his critics did their own feasibility studies before casting doubts on him.

"The paperwork of our studies stacks up this high," he said, gesturing a height of about three feet.

"Our projections are backed by huge amounts of data. They are not created out of thin air."