Feature

Teodorin's World

Playboy bunnies. $2 million Bugattis. Bags full of cash. Meet the world's richest minister of agriculture and forestry.

View a slide show of the surreal playboy life of Teodorin Obiang.

The owner of the estate at 3620 Sweetwater Mesa Road, which sits high above Malibu, California, calls himself a prince, and he certainly lives like one. A long, tree-lined driveway runs from the estate's main gate past a motor court with fountains and down to a 15,000-square-foot mansion with eight bathrooms and an equal number of fireplaces. The grounds overlook the Pacific Ocean, complete with swimming pool, tennis court, four-hole golf course, and Hollywood stars Mel Gibson, Britney Spears, and Kelsey Grammer for neighbors.

With his short, stocky build, slicked-back hair, and Coke-bottle glasses, the prince hardly presents an image of royal elegance. But his wardrobe was picked from the racks of Versace, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana, and he spared no expense on himself, from the $30 million in cash he paid for the estate to what Senate investigators later reported were vast sums for household furnishings: $59,850 for rugs, $58,000 for a home theater, even $1,734.17 for a pair of wine glasses. When he arrived back home -- usually in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce or one of his other several dozen cars -- his employees were instructed to stand in a receiving line to greet the prince. And then they lined up to do the same when he left.

The prince, though, was a phony, a descendant of rulers but not of royals. His full name is Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue -- Teodorin to friends -- and he is the son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, a country about the size of Maryland on the western coast of Africa. A postage stamp of a country with a population of a mere 650,000 souls, Equatorial Guinea would be of little international consequence if it didn't have one thing: oil, and plenty of it. The country is sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest producer of oil after Nigeria and Angola, pumping around 346,000 barrels per day, and is both a major supplier to and reliable supporter of the United States. Over the past 15 years, ExxonMobil, Hess Corp., and other American firms have collectively invested several billion dollars in Equatorial Guinea, which exports more of its crude to the U.S. market than any other country.

Energy revenues have flowed into the pockets of the country's elite, but virtually none has trickled down to the poor majority; since the oil boom began, the country has rocketed to one of the world's highest per capita incomes -- and one of its lowest standards of living. Nearly four-fifths of its people live in abject poverty; child mortality has increased to the point that today some 15 percent of Equatorial Guinea's children die before reaching age 5, making it one of the deadliest places on the planet to be young.

Teodorin's 68-year-old father, Brig. Gen. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, seized power in a 1979 coup and has made apparent his intent to hand over power to a chosen successor. Obiang has sired an unknown number of children with multiple women, but 41-year-old Teodorin is his clear favorite and is being groomed to take over. That's a scary prospect both for the long-suffering citizens of his country and for U.S. foreign policy. As a former U.S. intelligence official familiar with Teodorin put it to me, "He's an unstable, reckless idiot."

He's also, according to thousands of pages of documents I've reviewed from multiple federal and congressional investigations of the Obiangs over the last decade, fantastically corrupt. As the minister of agriculture and forestry in his father's government, Teodorin holds sway over the country's second-largest industry. Investigators have documented how he has run his ministry like a business, operating several logging companies alongside the agency meant to regulate them. Documents from a secret joint investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency quote sources alleging that Teodorin supplemented his modest ministerial salary of $5,000 per month with a "large 'revolutionary tax' on timber" that he ordered international logging firms to pay "in cash or through checks" to a forestry company he owned. Investigators suspect a large chunk of his assets was derived from "extortion, theft of public funds, or other corrupt conduct," stated a 2007 Justice report detailing the probe, which I first reported on for the Harper's website in 2009. Teodorin has not only assembled a vast fortune, he's routed much of it into the United States; a detailed report last year by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that he used shell companies to evade money-laundering laws and funnel more than $100 million into the United States.

All those millions purchased Teodorin a lavish and debauched lifestyle, according to allegations in a series of previously unreported civil lawsuits filed against him by a dozen former employees at the Malibu estate. They claim they were cheated out of salaries, overtime wages, and work-related expenses for items ranging from gasoline to toilet paper, while being forced to support a tawdry setup straight out of the movie The Hangover: There were drug "binges," as one ICE document claimed, escort service girls, Playboy bunnies, and even a tiger. "I never witnessed him perform anything that looked like work," reads a legal filing on behalf of Dragan Deletic, one of Teodorin's former drivers. "His days consisted entirely of sleeping, shopping and partying." (Without responding to specifics, a Los Angeles lawyer for Teodorin, Kevin Fisher, dismissed the charges as "salacious" and "extreme," adding, "The allegations have not been verified and the people making them are not subject to perjury, so I don't give a great deal of credence to them.")

After years of wrangling, most of the cases have now been settled, and the employees signed agreements that prevent them from speaking about Teodorin. But prior to that I interviewed several plaintiffs and their attorney, Jim McDermott, and read the case filings. I also reviewed thousands of pages of U.S. and foreign investigations that involve Teodorin. They are incredibly damning.

The larger issue raised by all this is why the U.S. government -- after going to the effort to produce this mound of information pointing to Teodorin's flagrant corruption and apparent misuse of the U.S. banking system -- has been unwilling to do anything about it. "I'm surprised that he's still allowed in the country based on all of the information contained in the Senate report and uncovered by other investigators and reporters," said Linda Candler, a former Justice Department prosecutor who specialized in international criminal investigations. Indeed, legal experts say that Teodorin shouldn't have been allowed to enter the United States since 2004, when President George W. Bush issued Proclamation 7750, which bars corrupt foreign officials from receiving U.S. visas. "No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves," said Bush's successor Barack Obama, whose administration pledged to "vigorously" enforce 7750. "We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly and to isolate those who don't."

And yet no formal action against Teodorin has been taken, despite an investigation whose stated goal, according to one of the Justice Department documents, was to shut down the flow of money into the United States "obtained through kleptocracy" by the Obiangs. Why? U.S. officials declined to discuss the ongoing cases on the record or speak harshly about Equatorial Guinea; it certainly appears to be the familiar story of a U.S. government unwilling to offend an important oil partner -- the same coddling that has produced such stellar results in the past with Saudi Arabia and other energy-rich, democracy-poor Middle East allies. The Obama administration last year did help block UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, from accepting $3 million from Obiang to endow a science prize in his name -- but only after a public outcry raised by media reports calling attention to a prize the United States had previously been willing to overlook. Otherwise the administration has said little publicly about Equatorial Guinea's awful record of corruption and human rights violations, and it has failed to impose sanctions against Teodorin or the state he is set to inherit. As of late 2010, years after the Justice Department probe began, investigators were still seeking to identify expert witnesses who could tell them about the early days of the Obiang regime.

To date, the only substantial actions taken against the Obiang clan in the United States have been prompted by the efforts of McDermott, the plaintiffs' attorney, and Superior Court judges in California. "In our system of international politics, there's a lot of ass-kissing, especially if there's oil involved," McDermott told me. "But in the cases that have gone to judgment thus far, the buck has stopped with our state court, which doesn't give special treatment to anyone, including Teodorin. That's the beauty of the rule of law."

BUT IN EQUATORIAL GUINEA, THE OBIANGS ARE THE LAW. The only former Spanish colony in sub-Saharan Africa, Equatorial Guinea gained independence in 1968. The country's first ruler was Francisco Macias Nguema, a crackpot dictator who named himself the "Implacable Apostle of Freedom" and "The Sole Miracle of Equatorial Guinea." In 1979, by which time his regime had murdered as many as 50,000 of his opponents -- real and imagined -- the Sole Miracle was overthrown and executed by his nephew, Obiang père. Teodoro was then only 37 years old, but he was already skilled in the art of dictatorship after running Macias's National Guard and Black Beach prison, a notorious torture chamber for political prisoners. Over the past three decades, Obiang has been thrice "elected" in sham ballots, most recently in 2009 when he won 95.4 percent of the vote (a record low; he peaked with 97.85 percent in 1996).

The United States historically had little interest in Equatorial Guinea and closed its embassy there in 1995 after the Obiang regime issued threats against Ambassador John Bennett, who had lodged protests over human rights conditions. But in an unfortunate twist, American companies soon discovered vast reserves of oil and gas in the waters off Equatorial Guinea, and successive U.S. governments have been slowly but steadily backtracking ever since. The key step came in 2003, when after an intense lobbying campaign by the oil industry, Bush approved the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea's capital. (The embassy formally reopened three years later.) "With the increased U.S. investment presence, relations between the U.S. and the Government of Equatorial Guinea have been characterized as positive and constructive," notes the State Department's country profile. Relations may be good, but the official U.S. assessment of the country is much less rosy. The State Department's most recent global human rights report cited abuses in Equatorial Guinea including "torture of detainees and prisoners by security forces; life-threatening conditions in prisons [and] arbitrary arrest." Freedom House's 2011 "Freedom in the World" survey put the country in its "worst of the worst" category for governments that violate political rights and civil liberties, along with North Korea, Sudan, and Turkmenistan.

Equatorial Guinea's economy depends almost entirely on oil, which generated revenues last year of well over $4 billion, giving it a per capita annual income of $37,900, on par with Belgium. "The oil has been for us like the manna that the Jews ate in the desert," Obiang has said. It certainly has been for him. Obiang placed eighth on a 2006 list by Forbes of the world's richest leaders, with a personal fortune estimated at $600 million. His population hasn't fared so well. Human Rights Watch reports that one in three of Obiang's impoverished subjects dies before age 40.

Obiang's corruption is hardly unique among oil-rich dictators. French authorities have uncovered 39 properties in France and 70 French bank accounts held by the family of President Omar Bongo, who ruled Gabon for 41 years until his death in 2009. (Soon thereafter, his son, Ali Bongo, took power.) Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the leader of Congo-Brazzaville, has bought a variety of French properties with tens of millions of dollars in oil revenues funneled out of his country. "All the leaders of the world have castles and palaces in France, whether they are from the Gulf, Europe, or Africa," Sassou-Nguesso recently said by way of explanation. In Central Asia, fantastically rich new ruling families have exploited energy wealth with great panache too, from throwing birthday parties featuring Elton John to doling out luxury villas to friends and family.

But Obiang watchers say the scale of his regime's looting appears to be approaching the sort of baroque levels reached before by historic crooks like Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, America's closest friend in Africa during the Cold War, and Nigerian Gen. Sani Abacha, who funneled several billion dollars into Swiss accounts before dying in 1998 of undetermined causes, reportedly in the company of two teenage prostitutes. Many African regimes have degenerated into kleptocracy, but Equatorial Guinea's corruption is so entrenched, scholar Geoffrey Wood has written, that it "is one of the few African countries that 'can be correctly classified as a criminal state.'"

A few members of Congress have criticized Obiang -- Michigan Sen. Carl Levin once compared him to Saddam Hussein -- and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has twice investigated the regime, in its report on Teodorin last year and in 2004, when it found that Obiang personally controlled as much as $700 million in state funds deposited at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., overwhelmingly by U.S. oil companies. The Senate panel said Riggs opened multiple accounts for Obiang and helped the president stash his wealth in offshore shell corporations; it was eventually hit with a huge fine for this and similar dealings with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and for violating the Bank Secrecy Act.

But in general, the U.S. government has preferred to look the other way since the oil boom hit, aside from the criticism contained in the pro forma annual State Department human rights reports and milquetoast appeals for better behavior. "We've raised our strong concerns about the country's poor human rights record consistently in meetings with officials from EG up to the highest level," a State Department official told me by email.

To ensure that Equatorial Guinea stays within the reasonable limits of Washington's good graces, Obiang has hired a team of American lobbyists and PR specialists, among them Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Bill Clinton and now a Washington lobbyist who has also represented the 2009 Honduran coup plotters and, briefly, Laurent Gbagbo, the human-rights-abusing leader of the Ivory Coast who refused to step down after losing elections late last year. "I've kidded him he'd do better to win by 51 percent than 98 percent," Davis told the New York Times about Obiang -- the type of sage advice for which Equatorial Guinea pays him a cool $1 million a year. The government also retains Qorvis Communications, which for $15,000 per month emails out a steady stream of news releases highlighting all manner of heartwarming news about Equatorial Guinea, from the Obiang government's alleged support for animal conservation to native daughter Matinga Ragatz being named Michigan's "Teacher of the Year." Teodorin separately pays the firm $55,000 per month to help polish his image, lobbying disclosure reports say.

Early one evening this past summer, I met two of Teodorin's PR handlers from Qorvis, Matt J. Lauer and Seth Pietras, at a bar in Washington. The two men unknotted their ties in unison after slipping onto a couch and ordering drinks. Allegations of human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea are highly exaggerated, they said, citing as evidence their experience during a trip to the country. "We could walk around at night and talk with people and no one interfered with us," said Lauer. "No one is saying there are no problems, but it's not North Korea." They were similarly miffed about Teodorin's reputation as a high-rolling kleptocrat, saying that officials from a number of energy-rich countries also live lavishly, while their client was unfairly singled out. Pietras noted that Bush had reportedly been a drinker and partier as a younger man before becoming more serious. Teodorin, he offered, "is at the point where he's thinking about his legacy."

IF SO, THEN SOME SERIOUS SOUL-SEARCHING IS IN ORDER. In the fall of 1991, Teodorin, then 22, arrived on the posh Malibu campus of Pepperdine University to enroll in an English-as-a-second-language course. Walter International, a Houston-based energy firm that then had a stake in Equatorial Guinea's as-yet-untapped offshore fields, financed Teodorin's studies. Walter also agreed to pick up Teodorin's living expenses, which proved to be a costly mistake. Tuition was a mere $3,400 and included boarding at Pepperdine, but Teodorin deemed the dormitory unsuitable and shuttled between two off-campus residences: a rental home in Malibu and a suite at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. He rarely attended class, instead spending much of his time shopping in Beverly Hills. Teodorin dropped out of the program after five months; Walter International's tab came to about $50,000. The aggrieved firm complained to Ambassador Bennett, and the story later came out in public.

Teodorin traveled the world in subsequent years but returned frequently to the Los Angeles area. In 2001, he bought a $6.5 million home on Antelo Road in Bel Air, across from actress Farrah Fawcett. He never moved in, however, lamenting to a real estate agent that in retrospect the house was too contemporary for his taste.

Teodorin dreamed of being a hip-hop mogul and for a time owned and operated a label whose name was derived from his initials: TNO Entertainment. TNO's most significant project appears to have been a flop titled No Better Than This by Won-G -- a fitting collaboration given that the rapper, whose real name is Wondge Bruny, has described his father as a former military official under "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the Haitian dictator deposed in 1986.

Teodorin continued to burn through cash during these years. He lived for a time at a Paris hotel off the Champs-Élysées; a French TV crew captured him on a shopping spree during which, it reported, he bought more than 30 suits in a single day. In 2004, he bought two estates worth a combined $7 million in Cape Town. But he and his family generally stayed off the radar screen in the United States -- until the Riggs scandal broke.

Lesser kleptocrats might have turned tail and fled, but not Teodorin. He employed two lawyers to set up shell companies and associated bank accounts that he controlled but on which his name never appeared, according to the 2010 Senate report. It found that the companies were merely vehicles for him to receive and spend funds wired from abroad.

In 2006, Teodorin used one of the firms, Sweetwater Malibu LLC, to purchase the Malibu estate, which is among the largest homes in the private gated community of Serra Retreat. When it came to spending habits, Teodorin wasn't to be outdone by his Hollywood-star neighbors. He owned at least three dozen luxury cars, including seven Ferraris, five Bentleys, four Rolls-Royces, two Lamborghinis, two Mercedes-Benzes, two Porsches, two Maybachs, and an Aston Martin, with a collective insured value of around $10 million, according to the Senate investigation. There were far too many cars to keep at the estate, so Teodorin rented storage space in the garage of the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard and had his drivers fetch the one he wanted for an outing, a choice that sometimes depended on his attire. "I'm wearing blue shoes, so get me the blue Rolls today," he once told Benito Giacalone, a former driver.

His favorite was a blue Bugatti Veyron, a car that can reach speeds of more than 250 miles per hour and sells new for about $2 million. One night, Teodorin parked his toy near the entrance of L'Ermitage, a favorite hangout where he'd gone for drinks. When he saw gawkers stop to admire it, he sent Giacalone back to Malibu by cab so Giacalone could drive back his second Bugatti to park next to it.

Teodorin's household staff included drivers, housekeepers, caretakers, estate managers, executive assistants, chefs, landscaping crews, and two security teams with off-duty and retired cops, and guards from Equatorial Guinea. One security unit was based at the estate while a second, called the "chase team," tailed Teodorin on his late-night excursions into Malibu and beyond. Legal filings depict the "prince" as a nocturnal creature who generally slumbered until afternoon and sometimes as late as 9 p.m.

He dated a series of women, among them the rapper Eve, whom he designated as president, treasurer, and chief financial officer of his Sweet Pink shell company, according to the 2010 Senate report. An Equatorial Guinean logging company owned by Teodorin transferred $60,000 into Sweet Pink's corporate account, but the Union Bank of California, where it was housed, shut it down a month later, in October 2005, because it deemed any funds sent from Equatorial Guinea to be potentially of criminal origins. In 2005, Teodorin reportedly threw a party for Eve aboard the Tatoosh, a 303-foot yacht that he rented for $700,000 from its owner, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. An account in the New York Daily News said she later cooled on him, perhaps after hearing that his father was an accused cannibal who had eaten his political rivals. Other companions included Tamala Jones, who appeared in such movies as Booty Call and Confessions of a Call Girl, and Lindsey Evans, named Miss Louisiana Teen USA in 2008 and Playboy Playmate of the Month in October 2009.

The guest list at Teodorin's mansion invariably included an assortment of high-heeled, miniskirt-clad women procured from escort agencies, according to my interviews with former employees. Giacalone noted in his legal filings that his unofficial duties included accompanying his boss's girlfriends on elaborate shopping sprees. He also said the Dolce & Gabbana store on Rodeo Drive periodically dispatched a sales associate and tailor to Teodorin's estate in a van packed with racks of merchandise for his viewing and would close off its second-floor showroom when his girlfriends came in to shop. Giacalone said he escorted one who racked up about $80,000 in purchases, including bronze and red dresses that cost nearly $7,000 apiece. Giacalone claims Teodorin gave him the embarrassing task of paying the tab from a Nike shoebox filled with shrink-wrapped bills.

Thanks to his diplomatic passport, Teodorin routinely carried as much as $1 million in cash into the country, the ICE documents allege. Several ex-employees said he had a bag the size of a small suitcase that was forever stuffed with stacks of fresh $100 bills. Teodorin traveled on a Gulfstream V, which he bought in 2006 through a British Virgin Islands-registered shell called Ebony Shine International, Ltd. "He used it like a taxi," Giacalone said. "He'd fly alone or use it to pick up one passenger. Once he sent it from Rio to Los Angeles to bring back his barber." And Teodorin didn't travel light. He bought a 15-seat cargo van and had the seats taken out to fit his collection of Louis Vuitton luggage.

Records compiled by FlightAware, a firm that tracks private and commercial air traffic, show that Teodorin's ministerial duties took him to such vital destinations as Las Vegas, where a July 2009 bill for the presidential suite at the Four Seasons -- made out to "Prince Teodoro Nguema Obiang" -- showed a rate of $5,000 per night; to Miami, where he docked one of his two Nor-Tech 5000 speedboats; and to Palm Beach. International destinations included Bermuda, Nice, and Paris.

His fall 2009 monthlong jaunt to Maui stands out for debauched luxury, according to an account by Giacolone. Teodorin flew on the Gulfstream V and chartered a second jet for a group of household employees. He also brought along a few escort girls and shipped several sports cars and one of the Nor-Tech speedboats, painted in gaudy orange, purple, and yellow. The leaded fuel it ran on wasn't sold on the island, so it was flown in, at a cost of $600 per barrel, the former driver claimed. But the holiday was marred when the Nor-Tech capsized into the Pacific following a brief excursion. "I still have not be[en] able to confirm where the guy is from, but money is not a problem," one bemused local wrote on an online boating forum, thehulltruth.com. "Yesterday, when it was time to drive the boat, the prince showed up at the ramp in his Bugatti.… Between the car, the boat, the royal aides (including four absolutely stunning foxes) with him, they were quite an image at the tiny ramp."

AMERICA HAS BEEN ONE LONG PARTY FOR TEODORIN, but his days of wine and roses might finally be coming to an end. He still owns the Malibu estate; Lauer at Qorvis insists there is no information suggesting he is barred from the United States and that he came on a visit last spring. (Qorvis declined to reply to questions about the claims of corruption and money-laundering by U.S. investigators or the allegations from the former employees suing Teodorin.) But the 2010 Senate report disclosed reams of the family's sensitive banking information, which has surely reduced his ability to move money into the country. Meanwhile, new lawsuits keep sprouting up -- there are four still outstanding -- and the charges grow ever more lurid, with one former employee alleging full frontal nudity by Teodorin. "He is a guest in our country who clearly does not think that the rules apply to him," McDermott argues.

Perhaps all this helps explain why Teodorin is seldom in Los Angeles these days, spending far more time in Equatorial Guinea. It may not be Malibu, but he owns a huge beachfront estate there with a swimming pool set on a patio dotted with marble statues imported from Italy. Better yet, there are no investigators or financial regulators to worry about. Through a holding company called Abayak and other assorted business vehicles, Teodorin's father reportedly has a stake in all key economic sectors. Gabriel, Teodorin's younger brother, controls the oil sector from a post at the Ministry of Mines and Energy. His cousin runs the treasury department and oversees the budget, and another relative heads the military cabinet.

Nor does Teodorin need to fret about nosy reporters, because there is no independent radio or television in Equatorial Guinea. In 2009, the Information Ministry dismissed four journalists at a state broadcaster for "lack of enthusiasm" about the government's "merits." A few years earlier, an announcer on Radio Asonga -- owned by Teodorin -- declared that President Obiang was "in permanent contact with the Almighty" and has the authority to "kill without anyone calling him to account."

Washington's accommodation of Obiang stands in marked contrast to its harsher treatment of global thugs who aren't lucky enough to be sitting atop vast energy reserves. And the relationship between the United States and Equatorial Guinea is as oily as they come. In June 2000, with American oil company executives starting to call Equatorial Guinea the "Kuwait of Africa," the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government agency, approved $173 million in loan guarantees to build an American-owned methanol plant in Equatorial Guinea, at the time its largest program ever in sub-Saharan Africa. Five months later, Rep. William Jefferson led the first-ever congressional delegation to Equatorial Guinea and was presented with a key to Malabo. (Jefferson was sentenced to prison in 2009 after being convicted on multiple counts, including conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Prosecutors charged that he took bribes in exchange for promoting deals in Africa, including oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea.)

In September 2005, the Obiang regime tortured dozens of detainees it had accused of having links to an alleged coup attempt the year before, according to credible human rights groups. Yet the following April, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Obiang in Washington and called him a "good friend" of the United States. In September 2009, two months before Equatorial Guinea held its sham presidential election, a smiling Obama posed for a photo with Obiang during a reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, marking a minor PR coup for the regime.

American business ties have meanwhile deepened and expanded. In February 2010, Equatorial Guinea quietly awarded a $250 million contract to Virginia-based private security firm Military Professional Resources Initiative (MPRI) to provide coastal monitoring, a deal that required State Department approval. "Granting a license to MPRI is consistent with our foreign policy goal of ensuring maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea," a State Department official told me in an email, adding that the license came with training that "includes an important human rights component and anti-trafficking provision and we believe this training is a strong tool for tangible improvement in human rights and transparency."

Several other countries, however, appear to be going after Equatorial Guinea's leaders with more vigor. A Spanish court is investigating a complaint charging that 11 of Obiang's relatives and associates used $26.5 million in laundered money to buy houses and chalets in Madrid and the Canary Islands. A 2007 French police inquiry uncovered tens of millions of dollars' worth of assets belonging to the Obiang gang, including luxury cars owned by Teodorin worth a combined $6.3 million. Late last year, a French court ruled that a related corruption case brought by human rights groups against the Obiangs and several other African ruling families could proceed.

After years of allowing him to run amok in the United States and otherwise enabling him, the U.S. government may soon find that it needs to deal far more directly with Teodorin in the future. In a clear sign of his political ascendancy, his doting father named him vice president of the ruling party last July. Furthermore, a well-placed source told me that government officials in Equatorial Guinea have already informed American oil company executives that Teodorin will be the country's next leader. Given the size of his country's oil reserves, he's going to have leverage -- and cash -- for a long time to come.

Note to the Obama administration: If you think he was hard to manage as the Prince of Malibu, just wait until Teodorin becomes the King of Equatorial Guinea.

PAINTING BY ANDREA VENTURA FOR FP

Feature

Human Rights Last

China's diplomats have the ear of the world's bad guys. So what are they telling them?

On Feb. 21, 2010, the Chinese Embassy in Harare threw a birthday party for Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's heavy-handed and increasingly erratic octogenarian despot, complete with cake, almost 100 guests, and a "Happy 86th birthday" sign. Xin Shunkang, China's dapper ambassador, led the embassy staff in singing the Zimbabwean national anthem in the Shona language. The embassy invited local students to sing Chinese folk songs. "The Chinese people sing the Zimbabwean national anthem in Shona; Zimbabwean people sing Chinese songs in Chinese," recalled Xin when we met in Harare some months later. "It's harmonious." It was the first time Mugabe had visited a foreign embassy since Zimbabwe became independent in 1980. "It's not easy to get a president to come to your embassy," said Xin with a bit of pride. "Not every ambassador can do this, but I could do it."

In Zimbabwe and many other countries far from Beijing, China's hand is increasingly conspicuous these days, and its choice of friends, like the thuggish Mugabe, is increasingly under scrutiny. It used to be that the Western world lectured China most extensively about its poor human rights record at home, for detaining dissenters and silencing free speech. But as China's power and influence grow, the Chinese government now finds itself weathering criticism for its support of cruel regimes around the world -- from accusations, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and others have put it, that "Beijing is financing, diplomatically protecting and supplying the arms for the first genocide of the 21st century" in Darfur, to the recent warning by Win Tin, co-founder of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, that if Chinese leaders "praise the [Burmese] regime" without helping the public, then "China will fail to win the hearts of the people." Chinese officials are newly sensitive to such reproaches, if not exactly responsive. As one Foreign Ministry official told me with surprise in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, "For the first time, China's foreign position on human rights outweighs the world's concern for China's domestic human rights."

Certainly, as Chinese trade and commerce have exploded over the last decade, they have been an economic boon to many developing countries, correspondingly boosting China's clout in countries as remote from Beijing as Angola, Ethiopia, and Uzbekistan. But in many of those places, China has purchased its clout at the cost of maintaining warm ties with murderous governments, from Burma to North Korea to, perhaps most prominently, Sudan -- where two U.S. presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have accused Omar Hassan al-Bashir's regime of genocide.

Yet it is much less obvious how the Chinese government thinks about these awkward relationships. How does a generation of Chinese who opened up their own country to the world square China's ongoing transformations with such ties to some of the most closed societies on Earth? How does a country haunted by awful memories of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution overlook suffering in other countries? Is the Chinese government defending its long-standing principle that national sovereignty should reign supreme, seeking natural resources to fuel its red-hot economic growth, or offering a new model of international development and diplomacy? Is there any way the United States can more effectively engage with China on these issues? Above all, what do China's complex attitudes toward its rogue friends say about the kind of great power China will become?

IT IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to report on what China's top rulers think and say behind secure doors in the Zhongnanhai leadership complex. But over the course of multiple trips to Beijing in the last several years, I was able to interview about a dozen Chinese Foreign Ministry officials from various departments, some repeatedly, about China's dealings with outlaw governments. They seemed well briefed that I write about human rights -- ordinarily a topic much avoided in Beijing. Having documented what the historic rise of liberal great powers like Britain and America meant for human rights, I wanted to know how Chinese officials see their own impact.

When asked about human rights, Chinese officials invariably start with a principled defense of national sovereignty. Dating back to the 1949 revolution, this tenet recalls China's own searing experience of colonial oppression by the West and Japan. But defending sovereignty may be Chinese diplomats' only guiding ideology today. Since Deng Xiaoping, China has given up on sponsoring Maoist revolutions, as it did in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s. Chinese officialdom remains deeply wary of most of the tools that Western governments have used to promote human rights, not least because the Chinese state has been on the receiving end of many of them.

Chinese authorities recoil at the prospect of humanitarian military intervention, as the West undertook in Kosovo in 1999. Criticizing the use of force in general, a Chinese official drew a stark contrast toward the end of 2008: "This year we had two big events. China had the Olympic Games; Russia attacked Georgia." Another Foreign Ministry official told me, "Sometimes we think what's caused by intervention could be even more thorny than the reality before, like what [the Americans] have in Afghanistan and Iraq. Out of some emotion, [the Americans] initiated those two wars. But it becomes very difficult to get out." When I raised Rwanda as an example of a terrifyingly fast genocide that the outside world failed to stop, one Chinese official rather lamely suggested that the African Union should have been allowed to mediate. Another, asked about Rwanda, uneasily hinted at personal dissatisfaction with the official line, but wouldn't say anything more.

Chinese officials are equally appalled by economic sanctions, which were imposed on their own country after the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. "In Myanmar, you give more sanctions, but the leaders have a very happy life," argued a Foreign Ministry official. "Why do you just make people suffer, but you cannot change the regime?" Even the tactic of naming and shaming human rights violators is too much for the Chinese state -- itself frequently singled out for its own human rights abuses. "It is maddening to be rebuked by foreign countries in a high-profile way," a Chinese Foreign Ministry official told me. Instead, this official boasted, "We usually convince the other parties in a most subtle manner."

Whatever their private misgivings, Chinese officials can be determinedly unwilling to publicly criticize even their most outrageous partners. When, in an unsubtle manner, I pointed out that North Korea had starved a million of its own people to death, as well as sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan and shelled South Korean civilians on Yeonpyeong Island in recent days, a Chinese diplomat would go no further than saying, "We encourage them to have better living standards for their people." According to this official, when Kim Jong Il visited China recently, his hosts were impressed with his desire to develop the North Korean economy. This official, while questioning whether North Korea had really sunk the Cheonan, said, "Generally speaking, North Korea is a normal state. It's a nation that has its own right to choose how to govern."

Reluctant to publicly condemn even the baddest of bad actors, Chinese officials champion a diplomacy based on trade and engagement, rather than on military, political, or economic leverage. As one Chinese diplomat told me in Beijing in October 2008, the North Koreans "want to talk to the U.S. The U.S. won't talk to them. Then they develop nuclear weapons; then the U.S. talks to them." The official added jokingly, "But still the U.S. is reluctant to talk to Myanmar officials, perhaps because they did not develop nuclear weapons."

WITH THE OUTBREAK of violence in Darfur in 2003, even some of the most sophisticated Chinese officials were startled to find themselves facing blistering Western criticism over their support for Bashir's government. In 2007, a puzzled Chinese Foreign Ministry official asked me whether Bush had latched onto Darfur as a potential "legacy issue," like the North Korean nuclear negotiations, on which China and the United States cooperated closely and effectively. The official said, "For many Chinese, it's a surprise. Two years ago, people, even academics, would say, 'What is Darfur? Where is Darfur?'" A Foreign Ministry official told me, "One or two years ago, we didn't realize that Darfur was so important."

Nobody has borne the brunt of foreign outrage over China's Sudan policy more than Liu Guijin, China's first-ever special representative for Darfur. Liu is the model of an old Africa hand: an influential veteran diplomat who served in Kenya and Ethiopia, as ambassador to South Africa, and as director of the Africa department in the Foreign Ministry. He is a sprightly man with owlish glasses, a ready smile, and a gracious manner. He's steeped in Western literature, recommending to me Saviors and Survivors, a book by Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani that shows, Liu said, how the "Darfur issue has been highly politicized." When he gets going, he has the air of a man who's not used to being interrupted.

Liu, who met with me at the gargantuan stone-and-glass Foreign Ministry building in Beijing in August 2009 and again in December 2010, was unembarrassed about China's economic stake in Sudan. It is, he said, "a matter of fact that China does have a great interest there." He defended the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp.'s $7 billion investments in Sudan's oil sector over protests from human rights campaigners: "I say that to get oil that way is not so rare. Lots of multinational corporations do that too. And not everywhere the multinational corporations go have that good a human rights record. So to have economic dealings in countries like Sudan, that the Western countries do not love, that is something normal." Even Liu, a sophisticated character, doesn't register that this might not be the most winning banner for Chinese foreign policy: as principled as a multinational corporation.

During the worst of the slaughter in Darfur, in 2003 and 2004, China was the Sudanese government's most powerful supporter. It used its U.N. Security Council power to block or water down tough measures against Sudan, like the imposition of sanctions or peacekeeping troops. Western accusations of genocide caused a particular headache because China is a party to the Genocide Convention, which obliges states to prevent and punish killings and persecutions "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." To dodge that obligation, Chinese diplomats deny that Darfur meets the definition. One Chinese official did tell me, "If there is a widely agreed opinion that there is a genocide, I think that the international community has the obligation to prevent or to help end it." But the official then downplayed claims from the likes of Bush and activist Mia Farrow ("the star lady") that Darfur counts as genocide.

A Foreign Ministry staffer remembered a colleague returning from a trip to Darfur and giving a PowerPoint presentation about the refugee camps. While admitting that Sudan might have stage-managed the trip, this official said, "We didn't see anyone dying. It's serious, but how serious? We have some doubts." Although credible human rights groups estimate that several hundred thousand people have died in Darfur, Chinese officials and elites are skeptical. "I don't know how many people died," a Chinese Foreign Ministry official told me. Another asked: "There are so many crises that need attention. Why this one? We think it's because of the strategic interest of Western countries."

But as the death toll mounted and the U.S. government repeatedly accused Sudan of genocide, Chinese policy quietly began to shift. Liu, who has met with Darfur activists, told me he was impressed with their effectiveness: "They are so successful, the Save Darfur Coalition and Enough." In a September 2005 speech that got Beijing's attention, Robert Zoellick, then the U.S. deputy secretary of state, urged China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the world system and specifically rebuked China over its support for Sudan. In February 2007, Hu Jintao became the first Chinese president to visit Khartoum, offering loans, partnership accords, and financing for a new presidential palace. But in a break with past practice, China also privately pressured Bashir to accept new peacekeepers, according to Chinese officials. In public, Hu called for creativity in Darfur peacekeeping, as well as a U.N. role there. In July 2007, China for the first time joined the Security Council in voting to deploy a joint African Union and U.N. peacekeeping mission to Darfur, known as UNAMID. Liu bluntly said, "We played a key role in convincing Khartoum to accept UNAMID," and pointed out that China also sent about 300 Chinese engineers to help the peacekeepers.

In another step aimed at heading off Western criticism, in May 2007 China announced Liu's appointment to his unusual envoy position. Liu, in a remarkable statement by the standards of Chinese officialdom, told me being named as "special envoy for a country which is thousands of miles far away from China -- that is something unprecedented, the first time in history. It shows that China feels, though we still adhere to the principle of noninterference in the affairs of a sovereign state, we have a more flexible interpretation than 10 or 20 years before."

After the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Bashir in March 2009, China bristled and tried to neutralize the tribunal's action. Even so, Liu said that behind the scenes, China's "strong advice" to the Khartoum government was "please do not stop your cooperation with UNAMID or expel UNAMID. The consequences will be devastating." He warned the Khartoum government not to retaliate against foreigners living in Sudan, he said. His account is borne out by a confidential U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, recounting that in September 2008, before the arrest warrant, Zhai Jun, China's assistant foreign minister (as paraphrased by a U.S. diplomat), "expressed grave concern" about ICC charges but "strongly counseled" the government of Sudan to "remain prudent."

Human rights activists argue that China's shift hasn't gone far enough. When I asked Liu about a U.N. request for Chinese helicopters to help more with Darfur peacekeeping, he replied that the Sichuan earthquake had shown China "so seriously lacking in necessary helicopters" of the kind needed in the vast spaces of western Sudan. He noted that, before the sanctions imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre, a U.S. arms maker had sold Black Hawk helicopters to China, which are now grounded for lack of spare parts. He wryly told a story about a Chinese leader who, visiting the United States, was asked for helicopters for Darfur. The Chinese leader pointedly replied that China didn't have enough helicopters, but "if you could sell us some, we will pay you in cash, and immediately we are going to send them to Darfur."

Today, China is showing flexibility in another part of Sudan: the oil-rich south. As a January referendum on the secession of Southern Sudan approached, which a Chinese official admitted would inevitably mean southern independence, China nimbly built up ties with the southerners. A senior Obama administration official told me that Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other top officials energetically enlisted China's backing for the referendum, with many specific requests. "President Obama is raising it in every meeting with Hu Jintao," said this official, so that Bashir faced united American and Chinese support for the referendum. So long as the referendum was "free, transparent, and credible," Liu told me beforehand, China would accept it -- an unusual solicitude about fair voting from a Chinese official.

But China has not abandoned its support of Sudan, only modified it. Beijing remains a powerful backer of Bashir, albeit with fresh reservations. Still, China's changes in Sudan policy lend some credence to those who argue that Western engagement with China can have benefits for human rights even in China's worst client states. "Publicly we are very cautious," acknowledged Liu. "But when we engage with our Sudanese brothers, I am sometimes quite straightforward." Liu said, "One strict principle is that we do not interfere. But we do not regard giving advice, suggestions, as interference." When I pointed out that when a country of 1.3 billion people suggests something, smaller governments are going to listen, he laughed in agreement. Another time, he said flatly, "When we give advice to Sudan, it has to consider it seriously. Because China is one of the few friends of that country."

SUDAN WAS A RARE CASE for China: where international pressure, not least U.S. engagement, was overwhelming. But China is less impressed with American clout today, and most places where China is investing and cultivating friendships, from Burma to Angola, haven't made it onto the Western agenda in the same way. In these neglected places, China is free to stick closer to its own view of its influence. In particular, Chinese officials point to a success story for their softer kind of diplomacy, with a case that would startle many Westerners: Zimbabwe.

"Zimbabwe is a good example for us," said a senior Chinese official. As seen from Beijing, Zimbabwe exemplifies a model of inclusive compromise, with two local rivals coming together without thundering military or economic threats from self-interested superpowers. In September 2008, the dictatorial Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai made a quiet deal to move forward. The brokers were fellow Africans, not the meddling hegemonists of Washington and London. "It proves once again that it is a good way of countries to solve issues by themselves," said a Chinese official in Beijing. This official suggested that Zimbabwe made a good precedent for other troubled countries: "In light of what happened in Zimbabwe, we should still give time to the Sudanese government and parties in Sudan to make a new accomplishment." But there's an obvious problem with this pleasant vision: Mugabe has repeatedly and brazenly violated the power-sharing pact, maintaining his grip on power while China continues its happy talk.

China has supported Mugabe since his revolutionary struggle against British colonialism and white supremacy. "He led the Zimbabwean people to win their independence," Xin, the Chinese ambassador, told me in May 2010 over dinner at a Hunanese restaurant in a low-density area of crumbling, ravaged Harare. "Just like Chairman Mao."

This friendship endured even as Mugabe drove Zimbabwe into economic collapse after 2000, with at least 80 percent unemployment, hyperinflation reaching 231 million percent, a quarter of the population fleeing, and female life expectancy plummeting to 34 years, the lowest on Earth. Chinese officials admit frankly that, unlike in oil-rich Sudan, they have little economic stake in Zimbabwe; "it's just one drop in the sea," as one put it. But even so, "China did not stop our normal economic relations, as Western countries did," said Liu Guijin, himself a former ambassador to Zimbabwe. Another Chinese official said, "The West is suspicious: Why do you have such good relations with Zimbabwe? Is there a secret deal? I don't know of any secret deal at all."

The key test for China came in March 2008, when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Tsvangirai, claimed victory over Mugabe's party in presidential and parliamentary elections. Tsvangirai's movement endured widespread government-backed violence, in which some 200 people died. When I asked Xin about this bloodshed, he replied, "If they say the president beat some people, did you see that with your own eyes? People could believe it or not."

Tsvangirai, shaken by the carnage, pulled out of a second, decisive round of voting scheduled for June 2008. Neighboring African states refused to accept Mugabe's assertions of victory. Finally, South Africa helped broker a power-sharing arrangement, with Tsvangirai becoming prime minister while Mugabe held on as president. Despite loud MDC claims that Mugabe stole the elections, Chinese officials in Beijing are sanguine: "The Zimbabwe issue is by its nature a domestic issue; like in the U.S. you also in 2000 had this controversy."

This, for Chinese officials, stands out as the proper way to handle an African political crisis. A Chinese diplomat told me, "Many people in the West think it's better to intervene in the domestic situation of the Zimbabwean election. We advocated that the Zimbabweans should solve the issue themselves, with what is good for the nation itself in mind. They went through some zigzags on the road, but the result is much better." A Chinese Foreign Ministry official praised Mugabe's statesmanship: "For a hero of the liberation struggle to make such a big compromise is not an easy thing."

Now, Chinese officials are full of praise for the joint Mugabe-Tsvangirai government. One Foreign Ministry official said (without evident irony), "That agreement is a great leap forward." In Harare, a city that still suffers frequent power and water outages, Xin told me, "Things are getting better and better." The two parties, he claimed, are like siblings: "For ZANU-PF, there is a new brother, so they have to get used to discussing things." As for Tsvangirai's movement, "The MDC is like a younger brother; they don't have experience in running the country. They try to learn how to cooperate with the older brother."

China balks at using its considerable influence to pressure the regime. One Chinese official told me, "We cannot put a gun to Mugabe and say that you have to accept this or accept that." Liu argued that sanctions would be counterproductive: "It's the ordinary people who suffer from sanctions or embargoes. That is not Mugabe."

It was particularly important to China that the deal be done without superpower interference. "We still see it as a domestic affair," said a Chinese diplomat. "It's not something that needs the intervention of the U.N. Security Council." China usually reserves its Security Council veto for core security issues like Taiwan. In Zimbabwe, one Foreign Ministry official told me, "there is no direct [Chinese] interest involved, no vital interest involved."

But on July 10, 2008, just after Mugabe was sworn in for a sixth term as president, China vetoed a U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution imposing an arms embargo on Zimbabwe and a travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe and some of his top aides. Russia joined China, as did South Africa. Liu said that the African Union had asked China to veto the sanctions. "Because China is the only developing country" in the permanent five members of the Security Council, "that veto belongs to the developing countries," said a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, adding, "No matter how serious it is, it is their internal affair. If the U.N. Security Council really adopts a resolution to sanction Zimbabwe, it maybe sets a very bad precedent; it may set a precedent to have the U.N. interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country."

The reality in Zimbabwe -- devastating levels of unemployment, infrastructure in collapse, Mugabe squarely in control -- is miserably different from China's rosy official version. It's true that Zimbabwe halted its economic free-fall by adopting the U.S. dollar as its base currency, ending hyperinflation. But Mugabe has trampled the power-sharing deal repeatedly. He named loyalists to all 10 of the regional governorships, though they were supposed to be distributed among the rival factions. He grabbed the most important ministries. Without consulting Tsvangirai, Mugabe appointed a stooge as attorney general and reappointed the central bank governor who had presided over the country's economic meltdown. In May 2010, to the MDC's shock, Mugabe appointed the controversial former electoral chief, accused of helping rig the 2008 election, as the president of Zimbabwe's high court. Tsvangirai's finance minister, Tendai Biti, has complained, "ZANU-PF cannot continue to urinate on us."

When I asked Xin about these vehement complaints, he said, "First, I didn't hear such comments from any ministers from the MDC. Second, I want to say that such a thing is just like in the past 30 years ago; there was a lot of not very accurate criticism of China." It's hard to believe that Chinese officials are truly naive about Mugabe. Liu, who knows the old dictator well from his posting as ambassador in Harare, was unsurprised at the thought of Mugabe violating the power-sharing deal: "I could imagine it. He's such a senior leader, well established, controls everything." Still, with Mugabe and Tsvangirai now jockeying over the prospect of new elections, Chinese diplomats seem to be among the last to publicly assert faith in a shotgun marriage that has overwhelmingly benefited Mugabe.

MY MOST RECENT TRIP to China coincided with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese writer and democracy activist sentenced in December 2009 to 11 years in prison for inciting subversion. A few days before the prize was placed in Liu Xiaobo's empty chair, an urbane, worldly Chinese official in Beijing, who usually emphasizes his country's peaceful cooperation with the United States, vented some of his government's fury: "If a million or even a hundred million people listened to Liu Xiaobo's call and make moves to overthrow this government, what could happen to China?" This official heatedly warned that Liu Xiaobo risked igniting an "endless quarrel" like the Cultural Revolution, a dreaded memory among reformist Chinese elites: "How can China stand it? China will fall into a chaotic situation. Then China cannot pull people out of poverty. Nobody cares for China but us. The basic law helps us enjoy this kind of stability. We can prevent this country falling into the abyss."

This kind of scorched-earth response makes it tempting to explain China's friendships with dictatorships as a simple affinity with China's own resilient authoritarianism. After all, China has taken a hard line on domestic dissent over the past several years, including Liu Xiaobo's stiff jail sentence. But Chinese officials style themselves as a different kind of government: one that has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, reached out to the world, allowed limited openness at home, and played a helpful role on the global stage. They point with pride to their role in pressing North Korea on its nuclear weapons and to China's considerable contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

This self-presentation makes China's support for radical tyrants like Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Il more than a little awkward. Mugabe drove his economy into the ground, and Kim rages against the international system; Chinese diplomats are proud of doing none of those things. Liu Guijin recalls sitting in on summits with African leaders, where "our paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said, 'I don't wish you to take up socialism.'" Liu, remembering China's own experiences, told me he warns Africans against revolutionary excess: "If you go a more drastic revolutionary way, you will destroy infrastructure; you will undermine what you have achieved. You will have more resistance. And you may be faced with embargoes or sanctions."

That softer kind of thinking may yet leave an opening for people who care about human rights. After all, it's easier for China to engage with the West on the human rights situation -- couched in suitably diplomatic terms -- in a faraway country like Sudan than within China itself. Even before the Sudan experience, Liu noted, China had become more open in its view of sovereignty: "Twenty years ago, we regard[ed] U.N. peacekeeping as a kind of interference in internal affairs. But now we are active participants." And the Sudan example demonstrates that smart, sustained Western engagement with China can pay off. China's shift, however belated or inadequate, puts the lie to the notion that China will never pressure a friendly government about its domestic abuses.

Yet, getting China to reconsider its rogue relationships takes an enormous amount of effort and skill. Other issues -- Taiwan, renminbi undervaluation, Iran -- will threaten to crowd out America's concerns about China's record on human rights abroad, just as they do on China's domestic human rights record. "I'd put Sudan in the same category of currency, Iran, and North Korea," a senior Obama administration official told me.

The Chinese government excels at spotting weaknesses in foreign pressure. Chinese officials are full of praise for Scott Gration, Obama's special envoy on Sudan, who prefers offering inducements to Bashir. "There is a new approach of Scott Gration," Liu said after the Obama team took charge. "It's no longer 'You do this; we do that.'" In August 2009, when I told a Chinese Foreign Ministry official that Darfur was an important personal and moral issue for Obama, the official replied, "In the character of President Obama, we not only find his morality but also his pragmatism." (This was meant as a compliment.) But more recently, after a surge of sustained engagement on Sudan from the highest levels of the Obama administration, Liu noted that "not everyone in Washington agrees with [Gration's] moderate policy." A senior Obama administration official told me, "We've seen them step up in surprising ways" on Sudan.

Yet America's influence over a more assertively nationalist China is already on the wane. At a moment when many elites in today's more self-confident China, particularly in the military, believe that the American system is in decline, dragged down by bitterly deadlocked politics and a stagnant economy, it will not be easy for the United States to engage with Beijing on its human rights impact abroad.

But a more responsible Chinese attitude toward its pariah friends would actually benefit China. By cozying up to Mugabe, China stands to alienate generations of ordinary Zimbabweans, not to mention the millions of other Africans looking on helplessly from outside. In April 2008, dockworkers at the South African port of Durban, with the backing of their powerful labor unions, refused to unload weapons bound for Zimbabwe from a Chinese ship. That could be but a taste of enduring African resentment of Chinese influence.

China risks falling into the same trap that America fell into during -- and even after -- the Cold War. In places like Pakistan and Argentina, Egypt and Tunisia, the United States championed convenient tyrants and thereby embittered ordinary citizens against America for decades. "Even when we are economically stronger, in the middle of this century, I hope China's behavior will not be the same as the superpowers," Liu Guijin said. "We have such a unique history that is so similar with the developing countries." It is an admirable sentiment. There are some reasons to hope that China will get more responsible. But so far, there are few Darfuris or Zimbabweans who would see much to cheer in China's growing global influence. China would not be the first big power to grow both strong and cold.

ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY FOR FP