In last week's presidential election, Zambian voters should have had plenty to complain about. Endemic poverty in this southern African nation. One of the world's worst rates of HIV/AIDS, which affects nearly one in six Zambians. Repeated cycles of famine. When I visited eastern Zambia, crowds of emaciated farmers wandered the sides of the road at night, begging for coins and stopping at huts in search of handouts of thin nshima porridge.

Yet much of the Zambian debate centered on a completely different topic: China. Opposition candidate Michael Sata accused Chinese companies, which have invested heavily in Zambian copper mining, of exploiting Zambian workers and undercutting Zambian goods. "Chinese investment has not added any value to the people of Zambia," Sata told a Zambian radio station, also threatening to toss Chinese companies out of the country. In response, China's embassy in Zambia became directly involved in the election, very unusual for foreign diplomats in any country, warning that Beijing might sever ties to Zambia if Sata won. The incumbent president, Sata's opponent in the election, reportedly apologized to Beijing for Sata's comments.

Sata appears to have lost--he is alleging fraud--but his rhetoric resonated with many sections of Zambian society. Over the last year, in fact, Zambian workers in a Chinese-owned mine had erupted in violent protest against low wages and safety standards, which may have led to an accident last year in which some 50 miners died.

Zambia, in fact, offers a window into a phenomenon American policy makers have only just begun to discover. In a short period of time, China has become a major donor and investor in Africa, and it has begun to play a major role in domestic African politics--not only in Zambia but also across the continent. In fact, China has so quickly amassed power in Africa that it now rivals the United States, France, and international financial institutions for influence--and potentially damages Africa's economic and political renaissance.

Two years ago, Stéphanie Giry chronicled the beginnings of China's African safari for THE NEW REPUBLIC, but, since then, Beijing has much more aggressively wooed the continent. African states can provide the natural resources China desperately needs to power its economy. And African countries, especially those just recovering from years of war, also are less likely than Middle Eastern oil providers to have established relationships with Western oil consumers. Cultivating African allies offers China crucial support at international forums like the United Nations, where it is beginning to have a more active presence. Perhaps most important, if China can play a major role in Africa, it could stake its claim as a global great power in the world, able to influence events far from its own neighborhood.

China also has developed more sophisticated strategies and tools for wooing Africa. Beijing increasingly advertises its state-directed model of development, which can prove alluring on a continent where neoliberal economic reforms promoted by the West did not deliver promised poverty reduction--and where they sometimes saddled African nations with high debt loads. Beijing has backed up its claims of working for Africans' benefit by signing cooperation agreements with African nations; in November, it will host a high-profile China-Africa summit, even as American presidents struggle to make it to Africa once a term.

China has become a major aid donor, offering Africa nearly $2 billion in annual aid, along with at least $2 billion in loans, creating programs to train African students, and establishing Chinese language programs at African universities. What's more, Chinese companies invest in nations no other major powers would consider, and the Chinese government encourages firms to invest in select countries. Chinese construction firms have swarmed into war-torn countries like Sierra Leone, rebuilding factories and hotels.

Many African nations have welcomed China's new safari. Since 2000, African trade with China has quadrupled, and some African elites and publics have welcomed China's aid, investment and model of development: Program on International Policy Attitudes polls show strong favorable opinions of China across Africa. Even the head of the African Development Bank has announced that, "We can learn from [the Chinese] how ... to move from low to middle income status." And African leaders clearly are treating China like a great power on the continent, affording Chinese officials and businesspeople the type of welcome and access once reserved for Western leaders.

But, at the same moment, for the first time in decades, Africa has entered the radar screen of international corporations and Western governments. In a world facing a potential peak in production from major Middle Eastern oil fields, Africa's untapped oil and gas are proving quite attractive. Meanwhile, parts of Africa are posting some of their strongest growth rates since independence. The continent has begun to climb the rankings of the World Bank's index of domestic environments for doing business.

China's emergence could threaten this progress. As a Treasury Department paper reportedly warns, growing Chinese loans to Africa, especially at high commercial rates, could threaten billions in recent forgiveness by the World Bank and IMF's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. China's aid to Africa also sometimes comes linked with Chinese investment, a practice major donors shun. The fear is that Chinese investment could contribute to environmental destruction and poor labor standards, since Chinese firms have little experience with green policies or unions at home, and many African nations have powerful union movements.

Worse, if China continues to offer aid without any conditions, it will allow itself to serve as a wedge between developing countries and the West, and it will support Africa's pariahs. This has already begun to occur. In Angola, Chinese aid has helped the government avoid IMF programs designed to ensure that aid money actually gets the poor. In the Central African Republic, Chinese assistance helped the government weather sanctions after staging a coup, and, in Sudan, China's refusal to countenance sanctions has rendered the United Nations impotent.

In Zimbabwe, Chinese backing has allowed Robert Mugabe's government to resist pressure from its democratic African neighbors to open a dialogue with the Zimbabwean opposition. During the run-up to Zimbabwe's last national election, in fact, China reportedly sent planeloads of T-shirts for supporters of Mugabe's party, offered the Zimbabwean government jamming devices to be used against independent radio, and sent Zimbabwe riot control gear. At a rally later held on Zimbabwe's independence day at a stadium in Harare, Mugabe touted his "Look East" policy favoring ties with China. As he spoke, Chinese fighter planes looped over the stadium, which had been built for Zimbabwe by China.

This article was originally published in The New Republic (online), October 5, 2006.