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The rise of an economic superpower: What does China want?

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These men are part of a growing Chinese presence in Congo that has already flexed some impressive economic muscle. Chinese companies are behind two billion-dollar deals, now in the works, to buy two large copper mines near Lubumbashi. Across the African continent, others like them are engaged in China's most dramatic drive for friends abroad, seeking to secure the oil, minerals, and other raw materials that China's still-booming economy needs.

"China's financial support on the continent gives African countries a choice" between East and West, says one Chinese activist at a nongovernmental organization following Beijing's African adventure, who asked not to be identified.

China's financial muscle has been key to its growing influence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Beijing signed a $6 billion minerals-for-infrastructure deal in 2009. Congo's traditional Western partners don't have the ready cash for the mammoth task of rebuilding the war-ravaged country, says Congo's communications minister, Lambert Mende, so "China is very important."

In return for 10 million tons of copper and 600,000 tons of cobalt, China will build roads, schools, hydroelectric dams, and hospitals. Half the deal is a barter, which means that it adds less to the country's foreign debt burden.

"Whether [the deal] will prove to be more effective than the Western model in the long term remains to be seen," says Lizzie Parsons of the Global Witness pressure group. Among unanswered questions: whether money will be siphoned off corruptly, whether all the infrastructure will be built, and what impact fluctuating mineral prices will have on the deal.

Orange construction vehicles from China are already a common sight at roadworks all over the capital, Kinshasa, and more and more people are doing business with Chinese firms. The experience is not always a pleasant one, according to one Western businessman who has worked in Kinshasa for nearly two decades.

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