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Obstacles face China's president on 2nd trip to Africa

BEIJING—Wooing Africa ever more intensely, President Hu Jintao returned to the region Tuesday on his second trip in nine months, toting huge loan offers and pledging not to meddle in the continent's affairs.

Hu is assured a warm welcome, but he faces emerging obstacles in a region that once swooned over China's interest in its resources and in greater trade.

Last month, South African President Thabo Mbeki charged that China's expansion in Africa is reminiscent of colonial-style behavior. And France's defense minister has warned of Chinese-made weapons spilling into trouble spots, apparently referring to Sudan, a key supplier of crude oil to China.

Hu's first stop is Cameroon, then he heads to Liberia, Sudan, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and the Seychelles before returning to China 12 days later.

Driven by its resource-hungry economy and seeking greater global clout, China is courting African nations with loans, swiftly growing trade and offers of political support. Autocratic countries that the West considers pariahs, namely Sudan and Zimbabwe, have leapt at the offers.

China pledged Monday to cancel the debts—worth an undisclosed amount—of 33 poor African countries, and said it would make $3 billion in loans during Hu's trip.

"The preferential loans provided by China carry no political conditions," the Ministry of Commerce said on its Web site.

Such no-strings-attached loans have generated good will in African nations weary of the conditions that the World Bank and Western governments set to limit corruption. China shrugs off criticism that such loans foster poor governance and it bristles at charges that it floods Africa with cheap goods.

"The Western countries criticize almost everything related to China-African relations," an exasperated-sounding Xu Weizhong, the deputy secretary general of the China Association of African Studies, told state television.

China also pledged this week to build a new conference center for the African Union, a 53-nation political body, and to erect 100 primary schools and a number of hospitals across Africa.

China's trade with Africa grew tenfold in the past decade, hitting $55 billion last year. Hu set a target last November of doubling trade again by 2010. China gets a third of its imported oil and abundant raw materials from Africa.

Despite China's largesse, a few voices have arisen saying relations are lopsided.

"There are some concerns that Africa in general may be responding too uncritically to China's foray into the continent," said Francis Kornegay, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa.

As South African industry squealed over low-cost Chinese imports, Mbeki questioned whether China promotes—or holds back—development by boosting trade but not investing in local factories with local employees.

"China cannot only just come here and dig for raw materials and then go away and sell us manufactured goods," Mbeki told a youth congress last month in Cape Town.

Hundreds of Chinese firms now operate in Africa, some of them bringing their own low-cost Chinese workers, a source of irritation in nations where joblessness is high.

China also has drawn fire for its political support for Sudan, which has refused to allow U.N. peacekeepers into its bloody Darfur region.

In a letter this week, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Hu to use China's leverage as an oil purchaser to compel Sudan to try those responsible for crimes in Darfur, where some 200,000 people have died in the past four years.

"It is clear that the vast majority of Sudan's oil revenues are not benefiting the millions of Sudanese citizens who require basic services and even international food aid to survive," the letter said.

The Darfur crisis has begun to entangle neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic, and French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told legislators last month that Chinese-made weapons are awash in the region.

Responding to the criticism, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Tuesday that China took a "responsible and cautious attitude" in any weapons sales to Africa.

"It is possible that some weapons made in China enter Africa through a third country which can purchase them legitimately," said He Wenping, the head of African studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a research center. She noted that Germany and Russia sell more weapons in Africa than China.

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report from Beijing.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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