updated 11/4/2006 5:42:31 AM ET 2006-11-04T10:42:31

China’s president pledged to double aid to Africa as he and dozens of African leaders opened a conference Saturday aimed at strengthening Beijing’s ties to the continent amid its search for new oil sources and export markets.

China is trying to present itself as Africa’s partner in economic development. But it faces complaints that its commercial activities there are a modern form of colonialism and that Beijing supports regimes with poor human rights records.

“Without combined development between China and Africa, there will be no global peace and development,” President Hu Jintao said in a speech to Chinese and African leaders at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China’s parliament.

“Dear friends, let’s join hands and endeavor to promote development in both China and Africa, improve the well-being of our peoples and build a harmonious world,” Hu said.

The two-day conference includes heads of state from 35 of the 53 African nations and top officials from 13 others — one of the largest such gatherings in history.

China’s state oil companies are expanding in Africa, signing deals in Nigeria, Angola, Sudan and elsewhere. Manufacturers are trying to expand exports to African markets.

Hu announced an array of Chinese aid including $3 billion in preferential loans and $2 billion of export credits over the next three years. He said Beijing will create a $5 billion fund to encourage Chinese companies to invest in Africa.

Aid to be doubled in three years
China will double direct aid to African countries from its 2006 level by 2009, Hu said.

Chinese-African trade grew to nearly $40 billion last year, 10 times the 1995 level, according to the Chinese government.

Hu said Beijing will forgive debts owed by Africa’s poorest countries to the Chinese government while increasing the number of categories of their exports that receive tariff-free import status.

China will train 15,000 African professionals, build schools, hospitals and anti-malaria clinics and send agriculture experts and youth volunteers to Africa, Hu said. He said China would double the number of scholarships given to African students to 4,000 by 2009.

Beijing’s expanded relations with Africa have prompted complaints that it is engaging in neocolonialism by trying to exploit the continent’s natural resources.

Human rights activists accuse China of abetting human rights abuses in countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe. African business groups complain about poor treatment by Chinese companies and competition from a flood of low-cost imports.

Human Rights Watch on Saturday called on Beijing to avoid giving Sudan aid that could be used in fighting in the Darfur region.

“Africans do not need another external power enabling abusive regimes,” the New York-based group said in a statement. “They need all powers, including China, to place human rights at the center of their policies.”

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, described China as a key source of support as African countries try to reduce poverty.

“Africa provides for the growing Chinese economy a reliable field for investment, trade and the utilization of natural resources for mutual benefit,” Zenawi said in a speech at the Great Hall. “China provides for Africa a source of successful development experience, technology transfer, trade and investment.”

World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz accused Chinese banks last month of ignoring human rights and environmental standards as they lend more to Africa. He warned that the flood of new credit could fuel corruption and African debt burdens.

China insists its involvement in Africa has raised living standards and says it tries to avoid interfering in other countries’ affairs.

Major prestige event
This weekend’s conference has been a major prestige event for China’s government.

Beijing was hung with banners welcoming African leaders. Residents were encouraged to avoid driving to reduce traffic congestion for the dozens of official motorcades.

On Saturday, state television showed Chinese surgeons working in African hospitals, a Kenyan stadium paid for by Beijing, and Chinese and African students dancing together.

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