Tanzania's big new port | Did a Chinese spy catcher defect?

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Good morning!

The North Korean Dear Leader Kim Jong-un is just like you. No, I’m not calling you a murderous psychopath - but rather, just like most of us, the poor fellow is prone to overindulgence.

But, unlike the rest of us, the Dear Leader has lost weight during the last year. 

Ignore that his people live in abject poverty (now more than ever), and try to summon the milk of human kindness for the Dear Leader’s ‘grave’ health situation:

Other prime state media quotes include: “Seeing [him] looking emaciated breaks our people's heart so much”, and “everyone is saying that their tears welled up”. 

But after being locked inside with the red wine and chocolate, who amongst us wouldn’t appreciate a little state media-sponsored body positivity?

This week:

  1. Tanzania: Belt and Road and the Bagamoyo Port

  2. Did a Chinese spy catcher defect to the US in February?

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Tanzania: Belt and Road and the Bagamoyo Port

By Helen

When Chinese Chairman-in-Perpetuity President Xi Jinping embarked on his inaugural overseas trip back in March 2013 (officially branded as the ‘World Dream’), where do you think he visited first?

If you guessed Moscow, Russia, you’re right. Ten points to Gryffindor. And if you guessed that his Moscow agenda was indulging in a vodka vs baijiu drink-off with Comrade Vlad, you’re right again.

As thrilling as that exchange surely was, it’s actually where Xi travelled to second that’s more intriguing: Tanzania, in eastern Africa.

What might Xi have been seeking there? A few things come to mind:

  • 🐮 Grammable beaches that were blissfully influencer-free (and cow friendly)

  • 🏛 Equally-grammable architecture, including towns built from coral stone

  • 🏗 A leader (former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete) who’s really into epic infrastructure projects funded by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

It was definitely not for the first two reasons, judging by Xi’s mediocre (and laughably dubious) Insta account.

The on-again-off-again deal

It would be like selling Tanzania to China.

- Former Tanzanian President John Magufuli (Kikwete’s successor)

Xi’s 2013 ‘World Dream’ tour was indeed dreamy for China. One of China’s many wins from the trip was a US$10 billion deal with Tanzania to build a shipping port in Bagamoyo, a fishing town ~75kms north of the country’s capital, Dar es Salaam.

The high-profile deal was looking solid until Tanzania shelved the idea in late 2019.  Tanzania argued that the deal’s  ‘exploitative and awkward’ terms (a 99 year lease, a la Hong Kong’s lease to the UK) ceded too much control to China.

But just last week, new(ish) Tanzanian President Hassana* announced that China and Tanzania resumed negotiations to revive the whole port project. This deal could enhance Tanzania’s power in East Africa and be a big win for China, if it goes forward.

*President Hassana recently succeeded Covid-19 denier President Magufuli after he died of Covid-19-like symptoms 😬

The Bagamoyo Port Project

Here’s a quick backgrounder on the planned project:

  • Where: Bagamoyo is transformed into ‘Africa’s Dubai’. It will become Africa’s largest deep water and container port, handling 20 million containers a year - dwarfing Mombasa Port in Kenya. Within ten years, it will be busier and bigger than Dutch shipping hub Rotterdam.

  • What: a new port, plus new rail and road routes into the country (read: to lucrative oil and gas fields) that will turn Bagamoyo into a trade and manufacturing hub. The project will also establish Bagamoyo as a special economic zone modeled on Shenzhen, China.   

  • Who’s funding it: China’s Merchants Holdings International, (a Chinese partly state-owned port conglomerate), will fund 80% of the project. Oman’s sovereign wealth fund, the State General Reserve Fund, will stump up the remaining 20%.

  • Case for: supporters of the port project argue it will  ‘create an industrial revolution’ in a mainly rural country, where ~70% of the population live below the poverty line. The IMF estimates this deal will boost Tanzania’s GDP growth rate  by ~6.1% by 2022.

  • Case against: as the BRI flagship project, the Bagamoyo Port will be built and operated solely by Chinese stakeholders. That makes the project a ‘debt trap’ that fails to inject skills or money into the local economy.That's on brand with criticisms leveled at other BRI projects.

Key takeaways

China will only continue to increase and entrench its commercial and military presence in Africa. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, ~17% of the 172 sub-Saharan ports have taken Chinese investment. Commercially, this guarantees secure Chinese shipping routes. Militarily, this lets China fight wars farther from home (e.g. from China’s naval base in Djibouti).

But could China’s softened negotiating stance  represent a BRI 2.0? Clearly, the marketing dept. has told Chinese officials to drop in buzzwords like ‘interest-free loans’, ‘sustainable development’, and ‘partnership’, in official comms. Might this easing of terms be enough to persuade sceptical countries to re-engage with China after the initial BRI backlash?

Lastly, let’s not forget about Oman, once the patron of Tanzania’s main island, Zanzibar. The Bagamoyo deal will give Oman a foothold in eastern Africa once again, meaning commercial influence in a fast-growing region.

Whichever way this deal goes, China will definitely continue expanding its influence in eastern Africa. Perhaps President Xi will get the  chance to snap some choice Tanzanian content for his Gram after all.


Did a Chinese spy catcher defect to the US in February?

By John

Probably not. There you go, the answer right up front because we respect your time, Intrigue reader! Still, it’s a fascinating story, and I did say probably not...

China's spy catcher

Rumours have emerged over the past few weeks that Vice Minister for State Security Dong defected to America in February. And no, there will be no teenage-boy style jokes here, so just put that out of your mind right now.

Dong Jingwei had not been seen in public since September 2020, fueling gossip the CIA was debriefing him, until he reappeared on 24 June.

The Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) is roughly the equivalent of the FBI or MI5. Among other functions, the MSS catches foreign spies operating in China.

That means that as Vice Minister of the MSS, Dong is (was?) responsible for all counterintelligence within China - i.e. the country’s top spy catcher. He would be the highest-ranking Chinese defector in history.

According to the rumours, Dong has been providing evidence to the US that Covid-19 emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Dong's intelligence reportedly ‘changed President Biden’s stance on the origins of Covid-19’.

Again - wild speculation, but huge if true.

Why defect?

Let’s pause for a second - why would someone at the very top of the powerful Chinese bureaucracy, or indeed anyone, defect?

Okay, let’s try again in plain English via the medium of spy stories and notorious defectors:

  • Ideology: Two very famous defectors - Oleg Gordievsky (who defected to the UK in 1985), and Edward Snowden (who defected to Russia in 2013) - were both ideologically motivated.

  • Money: Arguably the worst traitor in US history, Aldrich Ames sold a huge amount of top secret information to the Soviets between 1985 and 1994. Why? Because he felt he was underpaid and wanted to buy his new wife expensive gifts.

  • Spycraft: Famous Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko defected to the West in 1985. He told the US all manner of secrets, and then seemingly defected right back to the USSR three months later. Was he a KGB ‘dangle’, or just a troubled chap?

  • Persecution: Many North Korean defectors tell stories of horrific hardship and even torture. According to one defector quoted in The Economist: “this is no paradise, but it’s better than hell”.

What do the US and Chinese governments have to say?

A former Chinese foreign ministry official tweeted in early June that top Chinese diplomat, Yang Jiechi, asked US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to repatriate Dong during their meeting in Alaska in March.

The US Government has explicitly denied this:

“We can’t can’t confirm or deny where [Dong] is exactly,” the US official said. Asked why the Biden administration was reaching out to knock down rumors of a high level defection—normally an ultra-sensitive issue—the official said, “that’s more of a policy question” and referred SpyTalk to the White House.

- SpyTalk.co, June 22

The Chinese have also denied the story, and Vice Minister Dong finally reappeared at a high-level meeting in Shanghai on 23 or 24 June. Or did he…


So, did Dong Jingwei defect?

If you’ve been reading International Intrigue, you know that we love to pose questions and then tell you that no one knows the answer. We delight in making you sit with uncertainty.

Yes he did:

  • President Xi’s anti-corruption drive is scary af (for his enemies). It’s already claimed the careers and freedom of some very high-ranking Chinese security officials including Zhou Yongkang, a former Minister for Public Security, and Ma Jian, a former Vice Minister for State Security. Both are serving life sentences.

  • President Xi undoubtedly has internal enemies. We really don’t know much about the internal politics of China, but even if Dong wasn’t corrupt, he may have sensed he was in the firing line and tried to escape before he too rotted in jail.

  • The US denial could indicate that a very high-level deal was done to send Dong back to China.

  • There’s some (weak) circumstantial evidence that official CCP propaganda has been pushing the lesson that 'true Chinese patriots never defect, no matter the circumstance’. I told you it was weak.

No he didn't:

  • Defections are pretty rare. Life is miserable for defectors, even if they’re welcomed by the other country. Russia has brutally pursued ‘traitors’, and there are reports China hunted down a defector in 1987 and drowned him (though whether that's true is anyone's guess).

  • It was totally concocted by untrustworthy media. Officials in China commonly disappear. Sometimes it's a sign that someone is under investigation for serious corruption, sometimes it’s because they’ve been tasked with a very important and sensitive mission.

  • The US denial, while unusual, is probably true. It's unlikely officials  would make those comments while still having Dong in US custody. They might see this ‘fake news’ as a potential problem for an already troubled relationship.

Does it matter?

It’s tempting to think that this is all diplomats and spies playing handbags at five paces. But defections and counter-intelligence can have huge impacts, eg:

  • scientific breakthroughs: towards the end of WWII, the US launched Operation Paperclip which brought ~1600 Nazi scientists to the US. One of them, Wernher von Braun, developed the first ballistic missiles.

  • defence: uncovering enemy capabilities or plans can shorten wars, save lives, and even deter attacks. While Mao Zedong was planning to invade Taiwan in 1950, his chief spy in Taipei was caught and defected (arguably), causing the invasion to be postponed (arguably).

The danger to us is speculation

Even though the truth about whether Dong defected does matter, pure speculation on the subject does not. (And yes, I have just written ~600 words on something that I am now saying doesn’t matter, I work in mysterious, some say inefficient, ways).

The point is that people use these kinds of events - events shrouded in mystery and doubt - as a framework upon which to erect their own view of the world. They know that the truth will likely never emerge, which means they can never be proven wrong.

For example:

  • every defection from the Soviet Union was ‘evidence’ that folks were just yearning for freedom

  • every defection from North Korea is a sign of the imminent collapse of the Kim dynasty

Of course, the reality was and is far more complex. So the risk now is that those who benefit from sensationalist speculation are gearing up to do it again:

Simply put, we should be very sceptical when the inevitable charlatans arrive and begin spinning unknowable truths into broad claims about the future. They always show up at the same time, and they’re always selling something you don’t want to buy.

🔎 Intriguing recommendations

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➕ Extra intrigue

  • A senior British government official from the Ministry of Defence accidentally left a briefcase of classified documents behind a bus stop in Kent this week. The documents analysed Russia's potential reactions to a Royal Navy warship's 'innocent passage' through the Crimean coast. We had bad days in government, but this is next level.

  • Samoa has faced a constitutional stalemate since its general election in April. The incumbent, Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi, lost the election to opposition leader (and Prime Minister-elect) Fiame Mata'afa, and locked the doors to parliament to prevent a transition of power. Real mature Mr Malielegaoi.

  • YouTube came under fire (again) for briefly suspending the channel of Kazakh human rights group 'Atajurt', which contained over 3,000 interviews with Uighers in detention facilities in Xinjiang, China. YouTube claimed it took this action because of a 'perceived violation' of its policies. Civil society groups have called bigtime BS.

  • You know things are dire in the Amazon rainforest when the Brazilian military is deployed to guard it from illegal deforestation. Amazon deforestation has been steadily worsening for 12 years. In 2020, an area 7x the size of London was illegally destroyed. President Bolsonaro has also enforced a nationwide fire ban while Brazil endures its worst drought in decades.

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