Being Like America (3quarksdaily)
The myths surrounding the global rush for farmland (The Guardian)
Photo by Adrian Hon
The Sudan-Shanghai Letter
“I can personally guarantee that our partnership with the Chinese Transnational Fund to develop high-tech farms and infrastructure will usher in a new phase of prosperity for everyone in the Gambella region.” – Elala Asfaw, Ethopia in 2019
“After everything we did for them, this is how they pay us back? We should make them understand they can’t do this to China and kill everyone in Ethopia who had a part in the bombings!” – Han Peng, Shanghai, in 2025
Our object today is a message – a message that was written in ink and in blood, one that spanned continents and highlighted the growing power and disparity between two countries: Sudan and China. And it all begins with the price of food in China.
It wasn’t just the billion people living in China that caused made food increasingly expensive; it was their apetites. As China became richer, it followed a well-trodden path that saw its demand for meat, fish, and speciality produce increase dramatically. On the whole, crop yields in China also increased thanks to GM crops and improved techniques, but not quite fast enough to keep up – urban sprawl and expanding industry put pressure on the price of available farmland, not to mention topsoil degradation and water scarcity due to aquifer depletion.
Like other countries in the Middle East and North America, many Chinese companies – often with the official blessing of the government – chose to make major investments in securing millions of acres of comparatively cheap farmland wherever they could, usually in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan. The notion was that foreign governments’ investment could pay for better crops, improved fertilisers, and higher quality management; host countries would gain from the improved infrastructure, extra jobs, and new revenues, while the companies would generate much needed food and profits.
The reality was rather different, as Dr. Anthony Liu from Tsinghua University describes:
“In contrast to the orthodox capitalist view which stated that these foreign ‘food security’ investments would benefit everyone, the truth is that only the elite and the privileged were accorded full and fair access to the market. Land in Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and a dozen other countries was often sold below market rates, seized from those who had been living on it for generations, and forcibly occupied. They were paid little, if anything, but kickbacks, bribes, consultancy fees and other favours flowed to local administrators, developers, government officials, and politicians.”
In a thousand locations, the promised jobs didn’t materialise, and the hospitals, roads, schools, clinics, and railways were frequently second-rate and shoddily built. Despite the desperate unfairness of the situation, it seemed that any negative effects would be strictly limited to the host country – until the terrorist attack in 2025.
In 2014, the China Transnational Fund made a routine investment in 14 million acres of farmland in Northern Sudan. While much of the land underwent development immediately, a small and less fertile region in Al Jazirah was left spare until April 24th, 2021, when local police and contract security services moved in to clear the area. The inhabitants were given money for their land and for relocation expenses – a fraction of what it was worth – and one month to move out.
On May 24th, seven locals were shot dead, with thirty heavily injured. However, the locals succeeded in defending their land until a larger police force moved in two days later, killing a further 13 people and scattering the rest. Online media and TV pundits were outraged, leading to a government investigation that saw three mid-ranking police officers fired and the China Transnational Fund paying a modest amount of fines, as well as promising to implement better self-regulation. Overseas reaction was even more muted due to a tsunami near India.
Yet we now know that relatives of those killed in Al Jazirah were planning a response. Many were desperately poor, but their fervent desire for retribution found willing ears in richer fundamentalists who were eager to stoke anti-Chinese sentiment even higher. Ironically, its name notwithstanding, the China Transnational Fund had little loyalty to China, with funds and staff coming from investors and private equity around the world, but it had a Chinese face – and that’s what they wanted to strike at.
Three Sudanese men travelled to Shanghai under business visas, ostensibly to meet with LED manufacturers. Instead, they checked into a hotel near the airport for two nights, then drove out to a flat near Dongtan owned by a Kenyan expat. There, the men assembled components for a bomb and hid it inside a van; later, it was discovered that many of the parts were stolen, with several policemen and security official bribed to look the other way.
For the next two weeks, the men from Sudan surveilled the financial district to determine the most effective time and place to attack. On Thursday 18th September, 2025, they drove their van in to Shanghai, and dropped off two of the men armed with assault rifles into the busy tourist district of The Bund. Before they were shot and killed by policemen, they managed to kill 142 people. Five minutes later, the van rammed into the glass frontage of the Agricultural Bank of China skyscraper and exploded. 25 people standing nearby were killed instantly, and during the resulting fire and structural damage to the building, 598 others died.
The Chinese government initially pointed the finger at Uighur separatists, but a blog post and video from the Sudan Resistance Front quickly clarified matters. The letter from Sadiq Naguib, discovered in their planning house, apparently written to his family – but not named or addressed – explains that he was doing this in retribution for ‘China’s occupation of our home’ and that with luck, this attack would cause them to think again.
The bombing was a significant moment for China. The country wasn’t a stranger to violent protests or even terrorist attacks, but most had come from regions in China’s periphery such as Tibet or Xinjiang, not halfway across the world. The middle class, already dissatisfied with the levels of corruption and economic slowdown, along with poor social services, were momentarily distracted with the prospect of a Chinese retaliatory attack on the terrorists’ ‘base’ in Sudan, but in an echo of the decade following the 2001 New York attack, increased security measures and strained political ties with African countries put even further pressure on China’s economy – and its social compact with its citizens.
Such were the strains of a nation that was moving to the forefront of the world…