BEIJING—In a city festooned with banners of safari scenes, China prepared Friday to open a two-day summit for 48 African leaders that will display the nation's rising trade strength and global reach.
China says the summit, which begins Saturday, is the largest diplomatic event it's hosted since the Communists founded their government in 1949. The summit is designed to engage the world's fastest growing economy more deeply with the region of the world that's most in dire need of development.
Beijing, a city that decorates big for special events, is wrapped in an African theme. Colorful banners of elephants and giraffes hang from buildings across the city, alongside streamers welcoming the dignitaries. Red lanterns dangle along major roads.
Grim-faced police guard each block of major thoroughfares. To clear up the usual traffic congestion, authorities ordered 490,000 state vehicles to remain off the road for six days.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency gave a glimpse of how the heads of state are being treated like visiting royalty: Their hotel suites have slippers and pillowcases embossed with their names.
China's trade with Africa has grown tenfold since 1995, and the continent is becoming a vital source of crude oil, minerals and other commodities to fuel the voracious economic needs of the globe's fourth-largest economy. Africa now accounts for 30 percent of China's oil imports. Angola surpassed Saudi Arabia this year to become China's top foreign oil source, and Sudan trails only slightly behind.
Sudan, where bloodshed in the Darfur region has left some 200,000 people dead, is an example of how China's quest for oil has led it to turn a blind eye to humanitarian considerations. China has pumped at least $4 billion into Sudan's oil industry, and has blocked several U.N. resolutions condemning Sudan.
Sudan's leader, Omar Hassan al Bashir, praised China on the eve of the summit.
"China has no political ambition in Africa, and China has never interfered in another country's internal affairs," Bashir said, according to Xinhua.
Throughout Africa and elsewhere, Beijing offers "no-strings-attached" investment policies and steps in with a helping hand to bolster regimes such as those in Sudan and Zimbabwe, where the government represses political opposition.
Unlike Western countries, which condition assistance and loans to African countries on practices of good governance, China makes no such demands.
"Africa is quite important for China," said He Wenping, the director of Africa studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "We've always regarded Africa as our very reliable ally. And there's lots of voting power there," she said, referring to support at the United Nations among China's African allies on issues that include its claim to Taiwan and its domestic human-rights situation.
In return for the support, China has canceled nearly $1.4 billion in debt held by 31 African countries since 2000 and is expected to announced a major aid package at the summit.
"Chinese trade and investment in Africa are giving African economies a major boost," Gobind Nankani, the World Bank vice president for Africa, told state television.
Trade between China and Africa is soaring 30 percent a year. It hit $40.5 billion in the first nine months of 2006, and is expected to top $50 billion next year.
China's thirst for energy drives relations: Much of China's growing investment is in oil-producing countries.
Some African countries, including those with deep-rooted corruption or tendencies toward autocratic rule, say they appreciate China's pledges of non-interference and its direct investment.
Critics in Washington say China can't balance its claim to be a responsible major power with unbending support for such regimes.
"Bolstering and even facilitating genocide is not a good way to demonstrate a commitment to participating in global affairs in a constructive way," Carolyn Bartholomew, the vice chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a panel supported by Congress, told a forum this week in Washington.
World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz criticized Chinese banks last month for lending practices to Africa that "do not respect" standards for environmental and social protections, and may end up propping up dictators.
Africa scholar He said China wouldn't lean on Africa on rights issues.
"We stick to the principle of non-intervention at all times in other countries' domestic issues," she said.
"We only want to do some business."
(Read Tim Johnson's China blog at http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/china or e-mail him at tjohnson(at)mcclatchydc.com)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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