Wang Jing: The man behind the Nicaragua canal project

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Media caption,

Wang Jing told Carrie Gracie: "This canal is connecting east and west"

The Chinese billionaire who intends to build a shipping canal through Nicaragua connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific has dismissed the project's critics.

Speaking to the BBC in a rare broadcast interview, Wang Jing said that having Chinese companies leading the project will help ensure its success.

Mr Wang's company HKND began initial site work in Nicaragua last December but the canal project is scheduled to begin in earnest after publication of the environmental assessment next month.

With no experience in infrastructure, a background in traditional Chinese medicine, and a fortune made in telecoms, the 42-year-old Chinese billionaire is embarking on what is arguably the world's biggest construction project.

"I feel great pressure because no matter how well we prepare, new problems will inevitably crop up," Mr Wang said.

"We can't think of everything in advance. But we can try to solve each problem as it emerges."

Image source, Getty Images
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Once completed, the Nicaraguan canal will be large enough to house fleets of container ships

The problems are on an epic scale.

The Nicaraguan canal will be more than three times as long as the Panama Canal to the south. It will also be much wider and deeper to fit the next generation of vast container ships.

Wang Jing's company HKND estimates that the canal will cost $50bn (£34bn) and take five years to build.

He faces a host of opponents and sceptics ranging from local residents to engineers and environmentalists concerned about the impact on Central America's largest lake.

But when I put a range of concerns to Mr Wang, he rejected them all.

"Actions speak louder than words," he said. "We'll convince everybody with the facts. We'll convince them by succeeding.

"The biggest pressure comes from having to win recognition from the world. I cannot let this project become an international joke."

Image source, Reuters
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Wang Jing dismissed the suggestion his project was a Chinese strategic push into the US "backyard"

'Quick results'

Wang Jing didn't strike me as much of a joker. He spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. He sat very still and wasted no energy on gestures, small talk or emotion.

We met in the Beijing headquarters of his telecoms company Xinwei.

Behind him on the wall of his conference room was the slogan "Serve the Country" and he wore a lapel pin with the national flag.

His staff treated him with deference. And before he entered the room, they went down both sides of the conference table with a piece of string, meticulously aligning cups, pencils and water bottles.

Outside in the corridor were signs reading "protecting state secrets is top priority" and in the reception area, exhortations to "enjoy hard work and fight hard".

Image source, AFP
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A man watches boats depart from Lake Nicaragua - Central America's key freshwater reservoir

'Commercially viable'

Mr Wang expects quick results from all this hard work.

Between 2010 and 2014, his telecoms company went from loss maker to star stock market performer.

And on the canal project, he told me he didn't pay much attention to sceptics who questioned his five-year timetable "while sitting indoors looking at a map".

He based his confidence on the expertise of the companies he has recruited.

"For decades now, Chinese firms have built up a wealth of experience and expertise with large infrastructure projects.

"So having Chinese companies leading this project adds enormously to its prospects of success. This is our strength."

Image source, AFP
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'This is our strength' - Mr Wang remains confident of his vision of the inter-oceanic canal
Image source, AFP
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Some Nicaraguans and environmentalists are opposed to construction of the canal

He was similarly dismissive of those who voiced commercial reservations about the projected revenue from the canal, observing that shipping was being hit by rail freight and the industrial centres of the world may be moving away from Asia.

"Ninety percent of world trade is by sea. Shipping is cheaper and more convenient than transport by rail.

"It doesn't matter where industries are located because this canal is connecting East and West. It's definitely commercially viable; otherwise we wouldn't be investing in it."

However, the financing of the project is still shrouded in mystery and construction will not start in earnest until publication of the environmental impact assessment, which is due next month.

Mr Wang said there would be full disclosure when the time was right.

"We are in talks with local people, even opponents of the plan. We want to produce a thorough report but that takes time.

"This is not withholding information, it's being responsible. We want to be seen as heroes making history not villains, so we need time."

Image source, AFP
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Nicaragua is one of Central America's poorest countries

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the world, with only rudimentary infrastructure.

Before HKND can start work on the canal proper, the company will have to build ports and roads fit for heavy construction equipment.

Once complete in 2020, the contract envisages free-trade zones, international ports, tourist resorts and an international airport.

HKND will manage the canal for 100 years. But Wang Jing himself is a relative newcomer to Central America, making his first visit in 2012 at the invitation of President Daniel Ortega.

What were his first impressions?

"I thought this country really needed this canal. Nicaragua is a beautiful country with a long history and rich culture, but many people there live in poverty.

If the canal can be built successfully, it will transform the economy and people's lives."

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (left) signed an agreement with Wang Jing in June 2014

'Belong to myself'

Mr Wang's telecoms company has also won a big contract in Nicaragua.

He is happy to describe himself as a Chinese patriot. And at Xinwei's Beijing headquarters, he has hosted visits from senior government and Communist Party leaders.

But he insists that he is a private citizen running a private company and that any talk of the Nicaragua canal as a Chinese strategic push into the US "backyard" is meaningless.

"Now the global economy is so developed, you can't say anything is anybody's backyard," he said. "This canal will benefit the US economy. I think Americans will be happy to see it."

Wang Jing rarely gives media interviews and ours had taken weeks to set up.

But if this mammoth canal project does go ahead, he will find himself under the spotlight for the next five years. But does he like the limelight?

"I don't like it at all. I hope people will pay more attention to the project, and less attention to me.

"The project belongs to the world, and I belong to myself."