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China woos African trade

In Beijing this weekend, China is seeking tighter ties with regimes reviled in the West.

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For Chinese officials, this weekend's summit here of more than 40 African leaders is a chance to celebrate Beijing's booming economic ties with the continent.

For Western governments, though, the jamboree highlights a new and troubling source of friction with China: the Asian giant's readiness to bail out African regimes that the US and Europe are trying to pressure into improving their human rights and good governance records.

Behind the handshakes, and the giant billboards from which elephants look down on Beijing's expressways, the summit raises vexing ethical questions about China's role in the world.

In its drive to feed the booming Chinese economy's voracious appetite for oil and other raw materials, the Chinese government has not always been choosy about the African friends it has made – such as pariah regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Its indiscriminate glad-handing, though, is frustrating recent Western efforts to use trade, aid, and investment to compel certain African regimes to clean up corruption and dubious ethics.

For their part, Chinese officials say that business is business, and that it is not their job to tell others how to run their countries.

"It is never our view that a country should interfere in another country's internal affairs," Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun said last week. "We've never imposed on other countries our values ... and we do not accept other countries imposing their values on us either."

That principle has guided China's dealings with the world for 50 years, points out He Wenping, head of African studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "It has played a very positive role in developing Chinese influence," she says. "Developing countries appreciate it very much. It won't change in the near future."

China's business with Africa is exploding; trade has increased tenfold over the past decade to nearly $40 billion a year, making Beijing the continent's third largest trading partner, just behind the US and France. Chinese investment now tops $6.4 billion, largely in oil installations but also in prestige projects such as railroads in Angola and Nigeria, sports stadiums in Mali and the Central African Republic, and Africa's largest dam in Ethiopia, according to Deputy Trade Minister Wei Jianguo. China's president, prime minister and foreign minister have all visited the continent this year.

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