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China boosts African economies, offering a 'second opportunity'

Trade between China and Africa reached a record $55 billion last year, much of it coming from oil and metals.

By Danna Harman / June 25, 2007

Rumbek, South Sudan

A bicycle craze has hit South Sudan. And with it, decorative fake flower handlebar bouquets have become all the rage.

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"If you have a bicycle, then you need flowers, because they are so beautiful," explains John Dut, a former rebel now working as a security guard for a Danish charity.

Mr. Dut's bouquet of choice: pink and orange. "Sudanese people like nice things," he says.

The brutal 21-year-long civil war, the millions dead or displaced, and the insufferable poverty usually associated with South Sudan are a far cry from the stuff of beauty.

But, today, with a fragile 2-1/2-year peace deal between rebel and government forces holding, roads being built, and commerce trickling in – locals are turning some attention away from survival and toward a few of life's simpler pleasures – like shopping.

Candy-apple-red nail polish is for sale in the market stalls under the acacia trees. Toothpaste and matchboxes are here, too. Soap. Mattresses. Padlocks. Suitcases. Shoes. And the hottest sellers of the moment: shiny Phoenix 10-speed bicycles and their attendant fake flower handlebar decorations.

All of it is made in China.

In most parts of the world, such everyday items wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But here, this feels like the dawn of a new age of consumption.

Five years ago, there was nothing to buy, says Moga Johl, a shopkeeper in the dusty, languid former rebel stronghold of Rumbek. "Absolutely nothing."

From the well-stocked markets of Rumbek to the Chinese oil firms in Sudan's upper Nile; the Chinese weapons in Darfur; and the Chinese laborers building the new presidential palace in Sudan's capital, Khartoum – China, in its many forms, has made a grand entry.

Sudan's experience is hardly unique. There is more trade going on today between China and Africa than ever before. In the late 1980s, trade between the country and the continent was $12 million. Last year, according to official Chinese figures, it reached a record $55 billion. In 1991, Chinese direct investment in Africa was less than $5 million a year. In 2006 – China's official "Year of Africa" – it reached $1.25 billion, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Sudan is the No. 1 recipient of that investment.

"The Chinese have big machines and factories and they work day and night ... and at the end of the day this means we can go shopping," says Jacob Marial, a rebel-leader-turned-bicycle repairman in Rumbek. "My wife likes green tea toothpaste."

THE backbone of China's blossoming relationship with the continent is raw materials. China, with its rapid economic and industrial growth, needs them – and Africa has them in abundance. Some 30 percent of China's oil imports now come from Africa.

Last year, Angola overtook Saudi Arabia as the largest oil supplier to China, and Sudan – China's second-largest supplier on the continent – sold close to 65 percent of its oil to Beijing. China is also either drilling or exploring for oil in more than half a dozen other African countries.

Beyond oil, China is extracting copper from Zambia and cobalt (a key ingredient in making cellphones and laptop computers) from Congo, buying timber in such countries as Cameroon and Liberia, and getting manganese for manufacturing steel from Ghana. South Africa is one of China's biggest suppliers of iron ore.