Object 19

The Sudan-Shanghai Connection

2025, Shanghai, China

"I can personally guarantee that our partnership with the Chinese Transnational Multi Fund to develop high-tech farms and infrastructure will usher in a new phase of prosperity for the Gambella region." — Elala Asfaw, Ethiopia, 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 Africa who had a part in the bombings!" — Han Peng, Shanghai, 2025

Our object today is a letter — a letter that was written in ink and in blood, carrying a message that underscored the growing power and disparity between two very different countries.

It all begins with the price of food in China.

It wasn't China's billion-plus people that caused food prices to rise — it was their appetites. As China grew richer, it followed a well-trodden path that saw the country's demand for meat, fish, and speciality produce increase dramatically. While crop yields also increased thanks to genetic modification and new technology, the pressures on farmland from urban sprawl, topsoil degradation, and water scarcity made it impossible for domestic growers to keep up with demand. But if there was no space left at home, one option was to look abroad.

Like other nations in the Middle East and North America, many Chinese companies secured millions of acres of comparatively cheap farmland in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan. The theory was that foreign investment could pay for better crops, improved fertilisers, and higher-quality management; the host countries would gain from the improved infrastructure, extra jobs, and new revenues, while the foreign companies would receive much needed food and profits. It didn't hurt that the companies' governments usually blessed these 'strategic' investments in food security.

Unsurprisingly, 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 in the host countries, the truth is that those benefits flowed principally to their elites. Land in Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and other countries was often seized from those who had been living on it for generations, sold below market rates, and forcibly occupied. Plenty of kickbacks, bribes, and 'consultancy fees' went to local administrators, developers, government officials, and politicians — but little went to the general populace."

In a thousand villages and towns, the promised jobs didn't materialise, and the hospitals, roads, schools, clinics, and railways were 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 2025 terrorist attack. Let’s trace it back.

In 2014, the Multi Fund made a routine investment in 14 million acres of farmland in Northern Sudan. While much of the land was developed immediately, a small and less fertile region in Al Jazirah was left alone until April 2021, when local police and contract security services finally moved in to clear the area. The inhabitants were given money for their land — a fraction of what it was worth — and just one month to move out. Most left, but a few locals resolved to fight.

During the first unsuccessful eviction attempt on May 24th, 2021, seven locals were shot dead and 30 seriously injured; 12 policemen were also injured. Two days later, a larger police force supplemented by Multi Fund-hired security forces cleared the area, killing a further 13 locals and scattering the rest. Online media and TV pundits were outraged, but the resulting government investigation was toothless, with only three mid-ranking police officers fired and the Multi Fund paying a few minutes’ worth of profits in fines. Overseas reaction was even more muted due to a tsunami in 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 rich Kenyan religious fundamentalists eager to stoke anti-Chinese sentiment. Ironically, the China Transnational Multi Fund had little loyalty to China — its investors and staff were wholly international in nature — but it did have Chinese patrons and a Chinese face, and that's what the fundamentalists planned to strike at.

Three Sudanese men travelled to Shanghai under business visas, ostensibly to meet with electronics 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 (it was later discovered that many of the parts were stolen, with several Chinese policemen and security officials bribed to look the other way). For the next two weeks, the men from Sudan surveilled the financial district to determine precisely when and where they should attack. During that time, one of the men wrote our crucial letter.

On Thursday November 6th, 2025, the three men drove their van into Shanghai. Two men armed with assault rifles were dropped off in 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. Twenty-five 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 that I’m holding here explains that he was doing this in retribution for "China's occupation of our sacred homeland", and that with luck, this attack would cause them to think again. "I may die," he wrote, "but there are countless others who will take my place."

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 Chinese middle class, at the time dissatisfied with high levels of corruption and economic slowdown, were momentarily distracted by the prospect of an exciting retaliatory attack on the terrorists' 'base' in Sudan, which ultimately accomplished little other than killing 50 people and radicalising a hundred times more.

In an echo of the US’s ‘wasted decade’ following 9/11, China immediately implemented ludicrous domestic security measures and alienated its former partners in Africa. China’s own economy suffered excessively as a result, along with its social compact with its citizens. Unfortunately, it would take over a decade for the country to fully recover...