Series Overview: China's Rising Power in Africa

China's role in Africa is becoming increasingly important and controversial.

In recent years, China's trade with the continent has reached more than $55 billion and continues to grow, with predictions that it will double by 2020, if not before.

China is now Africa's third-largest trading partner. But as its profile has grown on the continent, so have concerns about Beijing's hands-off policy on internal affairs and human rights' issues, from Sudan to Zimbabwe.

China is thirsty for Africa's oil and mineral wealth. In exchange, the continent gets infrastructure and aid. Along with China's enhanced investment in Africa comes increasing influence.

Yet, despite international pressure, Beijing has not used its seat on the U.N. Security Council, or its diplomatic leverage in Khartoum, to help resolve crises such as the five-year conflict in Darfur, Sudan. China's reluctance to delve into domestic affairs has raised concern internationally, but the trade-without-conditions approach has been hailed by many African leaders who are tired of being dictated to by their Western peers.

While China feeds its growing hunger for Africa's natural resources, the continent is becoming flush with roads, hospitals, schools, stadiums and other major works projects it desperately needs. But, along with the infrastructure come Chinese laborers and companies, which can cause friction with Africans desperate for jobs. In addition, cheap Chinese goods — in particular, textiles — have flooded African markets, wiping out competition, crippling local enterprises, closing factories and adding to widespread unemployment.

NPR investigates China's pivotal new role on the continent in this five-part series.

First is a look at China's historic ties to oil-exporting Sudan — ties that go back more than a century. Sudanese say their relationship with China is deeper than any oil well. And a key to understanding the link is Maj. Gen. Charles Gordon, also known as "Chinese Gordon" or "Gordon of Khartoum."

The historic background provides some perspective on Sudan's contemporary relationship with China, which revolves around oil and infrastructure. China does not get involved in domestic politics in its African partner-nations and has not used its diplomatic or investment weight to help resolve the conflict in Darfur, Sudan. Despite its large investments in Africa, China steers clear of moral issues, which is explored in Part 2.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Chinese have signed a multibillion-dollar agreement — dubbed the "deal of the century" — to develop the mining sector and build roads and hospitals, in exchange for minerals galore. Though many Westerners express suspicion about the Chinese deal, the Congolese say "tant pis" — pronounced "ton pee" — which means "too bad." Instead of hemming and hawing on the sidelines about good governance and transparency, China came ready to play by Congo's rules. Part 3 explores this relationship.

Part 4 looks at Zambia, where China is hungry for copper. The Zambian government is upbeat about Chinese investments and involvement. But there has been anti-Chinese unrest and rioting among Zambian copper workers over low pay, poor working conditions and alleged exploitation.

In conclusion, Part 5 explores the other end of the story of how Chinese investment is changing Africa. China has funded huge infrastructure projects all over the continent. But the vanguard of China's pioneers has been an army of small merchants fanning out throughout Africa, setting up "mom and pop" shops and market stores, selling cheap imports. Senegal, in West Africa, is one of the countries where they've settled, notably in one area of the capital, Dakar.

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