China's premier stressed Saturday that his country's push to boost already burgeoning trade ties with Africa was "sincere and selfless," as the Asian powerhouse battled criticism its quest for natural resources was at the expense of the poverty-ravaged continent.
In a speech punctuated with terms like "equality" and "mutual benefit," Wen Jiabao appeared to be setting the stage for a China-Africa summit starting Sunday that would allow Beijing to both continue its investment inroads into Africa and mute critics who argue that its need to fuel its growing economy has allowed it to ignore the dismal human rights records of many of the continent's nations.
The Chinese premier, who met earlier in the day with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, outlined a strategy for economic growth that includes traditional mainstays like increasing trade and gradually eliminating tariffs on exports from some of Africa's neediest countries. But the sharpest language was in comments about developing human resources, technology transfer agricultural ventures and developing the continent's poor infrastructure.
China's efforts in Africa are "sincere and selfless, without political strings attached," Wen told hundreds of Chinese and African businessmen gathered at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik a day before the main policy forum. That gathering is expected to attract leaders from across the continent.
In explaining the focus on training local talent, he said China's training of 15,000 African professionals has provided the continent with "a human resource more valuable than gold."
China would work to boost cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, Wen said, noting also that China is now Africa's second-largest trade partner, with the average yearly growth rate of that trade at over 33 percent.
Cooperation "is based on equality and good friends sharing wins and woes," he said, pledging that despite the global economic meltdown's impact on his nation, China would gradually increase assistance to Africa as possible with a focus on development issues and beefing up infrastructure. He provided no specific dollar figure.
The meeting Sunday is a continuation of a push that received a boost in 2006 as the energy hungry Asian giant delved headfirst into resource-rich Africa to fuel its mushrooming economy.
The Sino-African summit that year included $5 billion in loans and a slew of projects, including building hospitals, anti-malaria centers, schools and roads, which Chinese officials say have largely been met.
China has invested billions in Africa. Direct investment hit $7.8 billion in 2008, and total China-Africa trade grew to roughly $107 billion by that year _ a tenfold increase from the start of the decade.
The inflow of cash, however, has come at a price.
Critics in the West contend that China has funneled money to government and military regimes with few strings attached and little concern for their human rights record.
China, itself widely criticized in the West for its own human rights record, appears to be taking the criticism to heart.
Ahead of Wen's trip, officials have stressed the same theme of mutual development and equality. It's a theme that African businessmen working in China say they have heard echoed increasingly over the past couple of years by Chinese companies.
"The reality is that China's come of age," Craig Bond, chief executive of the South Africa-based Standard Bank, the continent's largest, told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the conference.
"They've actually begun to realize that if they want to be global citizens, they're gong to have to start doing things in a sustainable way," said Bond, who is currently based in Beijing. "They're going to have to start worrying about all the issues that the West has been worrying about."
China's Africa investments have been its most controversial, serving as a catalyst for criticism.
For years, Beijing has played a leading role in developing Sudan's oil sector, even as the Khartoum government is accused of atrocities in the conflict-ravaged Darfur region. More recently, a little-known Chinese company signed a $7 billion mining deal with Guinea's repressive military regime. The agreement was announced last month, just weeks after Guinean soldiers opened fire on demonstrators in September, killing over 150 people.
Beijing said has said it was not involved in that deal.
Some Africa watchers argue that while some criticism is warranted, African nations must also shoulder a good share of the responsibility.
"Africans need to up the ante to see how they can best leverage their potential and ensure that Chinese investments are channeled into those areas where they generate the most value," said Edward K. Brown, director for policy services at the Africa Center for Economic Transformation, a research and policy advisory organization based in Ghana.