She named her baby daughter Siwei Liu, which means "be aware of danger." The young Chinese mother had just passed the United Nations exams and knew she would soon be leaving China's Hubei Province for places unknown and dangerous.
Less than six months later, Fang Liu, a lawyer with the Chinese police forces, packed her suitcase, waved farewell to her husband and baby daughter – and set off for South Sudan. "It was," she says solemnly, "a very long way away."
Ms. Liu, today a UN police observer, was joined by 435 other engineers, medics, and transport specialists, all of them part of China's contribution to the 10,000-strong UN force charged with monitoring the peace agreement here until 2011.
The Sudan mission is the longest-ever peacekeeping mission the Chinese have joined to date – but not their only one.
Playing a far more active role in UN peacekeeping than ever before, 1,809 Chinese troops, police, military observers, and others are deployed worldwide. The majority – 1,273 – are here in Africa, building roads, setting up clinics, patrolling troubled villages – and generally trying to show that China wants to be considered part of the international community when it comes to doing the right thing by this continent.
The number of Chinese peacekeepers worldwide is much smaller than the number that Pakistan supplies the UN – currently 10,173 according to UN statistics – or India, which has sent 9,471 of its nationals to participate in most of the UN's 15 current missions worldwide.
But, it's more than South Africa (1,188 blue helmets) or Brazil (1,277) have in the field – and far more than the US, which, unlike 118 other countries, puts no boots on the ground. (The US does, however, provide the largest chunk of the funding for these missions – 26 percent of the total. China, in turn, provides 3 percent.)
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Some of the words that typically come to mind in association with the budding China-Africa relationship are "trade," "raw materials," and "cheap goods." "Weapons," sometimes pops up, "neocolonialism" has its takers, too.
"Socially responsible," however, does not typically make the Top 10 list.
But increasingly, China is both expanding and honing its aid to the continent, and also trying to draw more attention to its social commitment to the people of Africa.
Since 2000 China has canceled more than $10 billion in debt for 31 African countries and has given $5.5 billion in development aid, with a promise of a further $2.6 billion in 2007-08, according to estimates by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Beijing has overtaken the World Bank in lending to Africa: In 2005, China committed $8 billion in lending to Nigeria, Angola, and Mozambique alone – the same year the World Bank spent $2.3 billion in all of Africa.
In 2006, lending by China's Exim Bank was $12.5 billion – and is set to rise by more than $5 billion in 2007, according to the EIU estimates.
The loans China offered Africa in 2006 were three times the total development aid given by rich countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and nearly 25 times the total stock of loans and export credits approved by the US Export-Import Bank for sub-Saharan Africa, points out Greg Mills, director of the Brenthurst Foundation, an economic think tank in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Not content with only making big gestures, China has also gotten involved with dozens upon dozens of smaller projects across the continent, touching the lives of everyday people.
During his February tour of the continent, Chinese President Hu Jintao opened a Chinese-built hospital in Cameroon, inaugurated a Chinese-funded malaria research and prevention center in Liberia, and launched a Chinese-language after-school program in Namibia, among others.
And in April, after a five-day visit to Sudan, Liu Guijin, the newly appointed Chinese special representative for Darfur, announced that his country was going to boost its humanitarian aid to Sudan, donating some $10 million worth of aid to the troubled region and sending in close to 300 Chinese military engineers to help strengthen the overtaxed African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur.
Western donors, concerned that China is throwing around aid, investment, and business with no strings attached, have been calling on Beijing to abide by global standards when it comes to human rights and the environment. Last month, the World Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China signed a memorandum of understanding to improve cooperation on aid and investment.
"China has real interests there [in Africa] and will, of course, be engaged on the continent, as is the United States," Deputy Assistant Secretary of African Affairs James Swan said in a February speech at Columbia University in New York. "US policy is not to curtail China's involvement in Africa, but to seek cooperation where possible and continue efforts to nudge China toward becoming a responsible international stakeholder."
Whether or not this largess has ulterior economic and strategic motives behind it, or whether it is propelled by nothing more than a desire to boost China's international image, the bottom line is that it is welcome by many on the continent.
"The Chinese interest in Africa ... their coming into our markets is the best thing that could have happened to us," says small-business contractor Amare Kifle, during a recent meeting with a Chinese investor in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. "We are tired of the condescending American style. True, the American government and American companies have done and do a lot here, but I always feel like they think they are doing us a favor ... telling us how to do things and punishing us when we do it our own way.
"These Chinese are different," he says. "They are about the bottom line and allow us to sort out our side of the business as we see fit. I want to have a business partner and do business. I don't want to have a philosophical debate about Africa's future."
Indeed, China's commitment to a hands-off approach is in stark contrast to the West, and some experts say the lengths to which China goes to be seen as a benevolent partner with Africa is unprecedented.
"China is the most self-conscious rising power in history and is desperate to be seen as a benign force as well as to learn from the mistakes of the existing major powers and previous rising powers," says Andrew Small, a Brussels-based China expert at the German Marshall Fund, a public policy think tank. "It sees its modern national story as anticolonial – about surpassing the "century of humiliation" at the hands of the colonial powers – and still thinks of itself, in many ways, as a part of the developing world."
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Liu, who is in charge of the UN police force's administrative personnel work, spends her days in a trailer office with four other peacekeepers keeping track of personnel sick days, home leaves, and other special requests.
Previous to this mission, Liu only left her home province once – to go on her honeymoon to Hong Kong.
Today, she shares a small apartment in Wau, Sudan, with six other UN personnel. They have no running water and no electricity.
She does her shopping in the market (the store owners know her and yell out ni hao ma – "How are you?" – when she passes by) and reads at night with the help of a Chinese government-issued rechargeable lamp.
She calls her husband and daughter once a week for three minutes and tries to also communicate throughe-mail, but it's complicated, as her UN-issued computer keyboard does not have Chinese characters.
It is less exciting than she had hoped, she admits. The insecurity, heat, food, bug bites, and loneliness test her. And above all, she misses her baby Siwei, she says, showing off a picture of her now 2-year-old child.
But Liu nonetheless has a clear sense of why she is here.
"Peace is giving [the South Sudanese] a chance for development. I believe the future of Wau will be brighter," she says, untangling her long dark hair, knotted by the hot afternoon wind. "We Chinese come from a different country, far away, but we are in harmony with Africa."
Maj. Mutacho Shadrock, a Kenyan commanding officer with the UN forces in Wau, says the Chinese peacekeepers "keep to themselves and the vast majority doesn't speak English, even the commanding officers." But, he adds, "They are good workers. They have repaired bridges and roads and are doing good work. And that is what is important."
"I am hardly an apologist for China," says Harry Broadman, an economic advisor on Africa at the World Bank. "But people tend to forget that China itself is a developing country that has had global leadership thrust upon it.
"People ascribe a lot of power and knowledge to them without understanding that they are climbing the learning curve themselves," he says, adding that China wants to be seen as a force for good on the continent. "They want to give Africa a fair deal. I believe that."
Liu is finishing her day in the office and going out to join some of the other Chinese peacekeepers for a table-tennis tournament at the engineering corps camp.
She is a terrific player, she says, and will probably win. "But it's not just about winning, of course," she says. "It's about playing the game with – with ..." Liu searches for the word in English, and then smiles, "with dignity."
That, she says, is the way things are done in China.