Beijing Hosts Africa's Leaders: Just Don't Mention Darfur

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The depth of Beijing's investment in its growing relationship with Africa was evident in the arrangements for the China-Africa summit that opened here on Friday. The government has banned nearly half a million of its own officials from using their cars during the summit and taken other measures to keep Beijing's usually clogged streets clear, ordered schools to close early on two critical days, and deployed some 800,000 security personnel to maintain order. The summit is expected to draw some 1,500 African politicians, businessmen and journalists (including 48 heads of state) in a gala climax to years of work by Beijing in nurturing its ties with Africa.

In the last year alone, three top Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have made extended trips to the continent. Nor is the relationship simply one of political solidarity among developing nations: China's trade with Africa has quintupled since 2000 and its annual total is expected to hit $50 billion in 2006, and then to double again by 2010. China now imports about a quarter of its crude oil from Africa.

Chinese officials are at pains to emphasize that the country's intentions in Africa are altruistic as well as commercial. A prickly commentary by the state news agency Xinhua recently noted that China has waived about $1.4 billion of debt owed by 31 heavily indebted African countries. The article defended Beijing against the charge that it was engaging in "neo-colonialism" in Africa, outlining its long history of support for independence movements and newly independent governments in Africa. Criticism of Beijing's role in Africa, it argued, came from those who were "fearful of China's fast growth."

Still, the volume of criticism has risen sharply with the summit approaching. Last week, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz blasted Chinese banks for ignoring human rights and environmental issues in their lending in Africa. In an interview with the Paris-based Les Echos daily, Wolfowitz also said there was a danger that indiscriminate lending could plunge countries that had benefited from debt relief back into the red. But the harshest criticism has been over China's role in Sudan, where it owns some 40% of the country's oil production facilities. Critics charge that Beijing has failed international efforts to stop what U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called the genocide currently under way in the country's Darfur region — and that China has even impeded the efforts of others to do so at the U.N.

"China insists that it will not 'interfere' in other countries' domestic affairs, but it also claims to be great friend of the African people and a responsible major power," said a statement from New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But that doesn't square with staying silent while mass killings go on in Darfur." The statement criticized China for blocking several U.N. resolutions aimed at forcing the government in Khartoum to cease its support for the militias blamed for much of the killing in Darfur.

China has largely ignored such criticisms in the past, and that's unlikely to change. The primary impetus for China's drive into Africa is the raging thirst for oil of its booming economy, and the need to cultivate energy supplies beyond the Middle East. With Angola recent superseding Saudi Arabia as China's largest supplier of oil, Beijing sees the policy as a success, and it is unlikely to be put at risk by prioritizing political concerns. And, of course, the bedrock of China's foreign policy has always been non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations — a principle that protects China's own treatment of its citizens from international reproach.

But despite all the talk of friendship and brotherhood, both Beijing and its African partners have long since dispensed with even the rhetoric of "anti-imperialist solidarity." Asked by a reporter about trade and investment talks on the sidelines of the summit, deputy finance minister Wei Jianguo predicted that the event would spawn as many as 2,500 new deals. Today, when Beijing sits down with African leaders, their business is usually business.