Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) swept through Africa on a charm offensive, showering bounty and portraying Beijing as a benefactor of the world's poorest region, but the pitch has failed to silence critics.
Hu's eight-nation swing, starting from Cameroon in western Africa and ending in the islands of the Seychelles, was marked by China's largesse of hundreds of millions of US dollars and debt waivers.
China's burgeoning economic presence in several African nations has sparked criticism that it was only interested in plundering the continent's vast natural resources and oil to feed its economic boom, although South Africa, which is the continent's economic powerhouse, echoed Hu's assessment of a "win-win" relationship.
"China's increased engagement with the continent presents an opportunity for a valuable contribution to Africa's growth and further development," South African Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad said.
Human rights groups and some Western nations have accused China of turning a blind eye towards bad governance and human rights violations in countries such as Sudan in its bid to gain fodder for its energy-hungry economy.
The spotlight was more intense on Hu in Sudan, where Western observers had hoped that China could stem the tide of failed diplomacy in the troubled Darfur by pressuring President Omar al-Beshir to accept a robust UN force to bolster poorly equipped African Union troops already on the ground.
China, which absorbs almost two-thirds of Sudan's oil output, was committed to preserving "Sudan's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Hu said, underlining what has been interpreted as a hands-off policy.
Western powers blame Khartoum for much of the violence in Darfur and have urged the Sudanese government to accept a UN force, but Beshir himself has claimed that Beijing wanted him to press on with his own peace moves.
Another contentious port of call was Zambia, where rising anti-Chinese sentiment sparked by China's economic juggernaut spurred the government to severely curtail Hu's program following reports of planned protests.
Ironically, Hu's munificence was the greatest in Zambia -- one of the world's top copper producers -- where he pledged US$800 million in investments, wrote off nearly US$8 million in debt and announced a "showcase" free-trade zone.
The US$800 million free-trade zone, the first of five such zones due to be set up by the Chinese across Africa, is expected to create more than 60,000 jobs over the next three years, but it has failed to assuage the concerns of many Zambians.
"We are still very concerned and convinced that this investment will not benefit Zambia ... unless there is a serious change in policy. Otherwise, China will just exploit Zambia's raw materials without any any value to the economy," said Rayford Mbulu, president of the Mineworkers Union of Zambia.
Zambians have carped about the alleged exploitation of local workers by Chinese firms, poor safety standards at Chinese mines -- a blast at one of them killed nearly 50 in 2005 -- and the alleged plunder of the country's wealth.
In South Africa, where a top official of the country's main labor federation evoked the specter of Chinese "neocolonialism," Hu was quick on the draw, saying that the Chinese "are most strongly opposed to colonialism, oppression and slavery of all manifestations," and that Beijing had always wanted a "win-win" relationship with Africa.
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