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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. All this week, we're bringing you stories on China's increasingly important and controversial role in Africa. Today, we hear about soft power. It's a term people use to describe a kind of friendly influence that one nation wields over another, usually smaller, nation. Take China and Sudan, for instance. China is an economic giant with huge investments in Sudan's oil industry. The government in Beijing could use its soft power to sway the Khartoum government on a variety of other issues, like Darfur, but as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, many Sudanese say China's hand in their affairs is so soft it's almost imperceptible.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Ghazi Suleiman is a lawyer and economist in Khartoum. But when he talks about China, he sounds like a lover. Who else would describe economic investment in terms of kisses?

Mr. GHAZI SULEIMAN (Lawyer and Economist, Khartoum, Sudan): If somebody is exchanging with you kisses, you don't like him?

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: In the inferno that is summer in Khartoum, Suleiman appears to be a lion in winter. Here in his office, a fan is purring. He's wearing a crisp, white suit to match a full head of soft, white curls. He's also wearing the smile of a single man half his age.

Suleiman says China became Sudan's most important trading partner when the West turned away.

Mr. SULEIMAN: Chinese are exchanging with us kisses, and the Americans, they are keeping their face away from us. This is - it's very simple.

THOMPKINS: But it's not that simple at all. The relationship between Sudan and China is the story of a long courtship, complete with rival attractions and expensive gifts. So like they do in any good news story, let's follow the money.

The Khartoum Stock Exchange occupies a large, airy room with tile floors, a tiny bullpen and a few laptops. Today, young men in suits and women in head scarves are chatting each other up, waiting for a rally to start. This is the little stock exchange that could. There are only 53 companies listed, and they trade for exactly one hour each day, from Sunday to Thursday.

One hour is apparently more than enough. That's because the companies on the Khartoum exchange don't actually reflect where Sudan's real money comes from. This economy runs on foreign investment in oil. Japan, Malaysia and India buy a lot of Sudan's oil, but the Chinese have the corner market. Economist Ali Abdalla Ali says they've already invested billions of dollars.

Mr. ALI ABDALLA ALI (Economist, Khartoum, Sudan): We're satisfying about 7 percent of the requirement of China, actually - seven percent. And the investment in oil until 2006, I think it was about $9 billion only in oil, you know. People are grateful to them because they did this.

THOMPKINS: Ali is a chief consultant to the exchange. He's written a history of relations between Sudan and China.

Mr. ALI: Of course, there are some hitches here and there, you know, but generally, they do for us what other countries would not dare to do.

THOMPKINS: Ali writes that the relationship heated up in the 1970s when Chairman Mao sent aid to Sudan in the form of doctors, engineers, construction workers and interest-free loans. But at that time, the Chinese had neither the technology nor the inclination to drill for oil in Sudan.

The Americans did. So Chevron explored the fields until a north-south civil war threatened the company's investment. Then, Chevron pulled out. Shortly thereafter, Khartoum backed Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, and U.S. sanctions began. When the West pulled out, Ali says, China was ready.

Mr. ALI: China became an elephant because of the stupidity of other elephants.

THOMPKINS: In case you're wondering, the U.S. and Europe are the stupid elephants to whom Ali refers. He and others here can be very critical of foreign powers, including China.

Ali says he resents the ancillary businesses the Chinese have set up to serve their oil workers in the country: the hotels, the travel agencies, the grocery stores. He says the Chinese are taking jobs away from Sudanese who badly need them.

Mr. ALI: The Chinese now are different than the Chinese of the '70s. Now they are more businesslike. They are really tough businessmen.

THOMPKINS: But could that be envy in Ali's voice? Economic reforms have revolutionized China into a major world power, while Sudan's growth has been hampered by years of civil war, agricultural decline, military coups and spats with the West. And then, of course, there's Darfur.

Mr. LIU GUIJIN (Chinese Envoy to Darfur): We have maintained a very close contact and consultations with the government of Sudan.

THOMPKINS: That's Liu Guijin, China's envoy to Darfur, speaking last year at peace talks in Libya.

Mr. GUIJIN: Me, myself, when I was nominated as the special representative of the Chinese government to Darfur, I went to Darfur myself.

THOMPKINS: At the United Nations, China has abstained from voting on most measures designed to entice or force Sudan to protect human rights there.

Mr. GUIJIN: Of course, we are against the idea of using sanctions to solve the problem, because we think there is only one way to solve the problem in Darfur, that is through dialogue, consultation.

THOMPKINS: Safwat Fanous teaches political science at Khartoum University and is in parliament as a member of the ruling National Congress Party. He says that with the exception of China's support for peacekeepers in Darfur, he has seen no effort by China to help resolve the underlying issues of that region.

Mr. SAFWAT FANOUS (Teacher, Political Science, Khartoum University): Usually, in Sudan, there are very few secrets. If China was playing a mediatory role, or putting pressure, we should have seen the results of it.

THOMPKINS: What's even more curious, Fanous says, is that China has kept such a low profile during recent fighting in Sudan's Abeyei region. Government forces and the army of semi-autonomous southern Sudan are fighting over control of the nation's oil supply.

Mr. FANOUS: China has been silent, completely silent, although they have a lot at stake, and you really wonder how the Chinese are just watching these partners fighting each other, which is affect to their own investment.

THOMPKINS: And on a purely ideological level, Fanous wonders whether there is any communist ideology left in the People's Republic of China.

Mr. FANOUS: The Sudanese Communist Party is defending the poor people of Sudan in rural areas and in urban areas. Now Chinese investments in Sudan have nothing to do with the poor people. The Sudanese Communist Party has to be embarrassed.

THOMPKINS: The headquarters of the Communist Party of Sudan are on a quiet residential street in Khartoum. The sign out front is pink. So is the bougainvillea flowing over the fence. But Sudan's communists aren't exactly carrying around copies of the Little Red Book, either.

Lawmaker Suleiman Hamid El Had says the people of Sudan are less concerned with ideology and more interested in survival.

Mr. SULEIMAN HAMID EL HAD (Lawmaker, Sudan): Some people in the Sudan eat only one meal per day - millions of people. It's very difficult.

THOMPKINS: Nearly all of Sudan's main political parties appear to be agitating for the basic trappings of democracy, including national elections scheduled for sometime next year. The country has not had multi-party elections in a generation, since well before the military coup that brought the ruling National Congress Party to power. People here say they want to control their own destiny. Again, economist Ali Abdalla Ali.

Mr. ALI: You don't know how much we can love you, you know, provided that you don't try to tell us what to do.

THOMPKINS: Take that as a warning to the outside world.

Mr. ALI: You cannot impose your culture on me, but if you respect my culture, if you try to be good to me and really think in terms of the human side of me, we'll be ready to stand on your side, you know.

THOMPKINS: China and Sudan may be trading kisses, but the Sudanese would prefer the relationship go no further than that. In the language of courtship, Sudan is not that kind of country. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Khartoum.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, what China gains from doing business with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Unidentified Man: They get a stake in a mega mine, which guarantees a huge supply of copper into the future.

MONTAGNE: That's tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

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