BEIJING (AP) – President Hu Jintao opened a summit with dozens of African leaders today by pledging to double China’s aid to Africa, provide billions of dollars in loans and build hospitals and schools as it tries to expand economic and political ties.

China is trying to present itself as a partner in Africa’s economic and social development as it turns to the continent for new sources of oil and export markets to drive its booming economy. “Without combined development between China and Africa, there will be no global peace and development,” Hu said in a speech to leaders at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China’s parliament. “In this new era, China and Africa share increasing common intersts and having growing common needs.”

The two-day gathering includes heads of state from 35 of the 53 African nations – one of the largest such gatherings in history – and envoys from 13 others. Hu announced an array of new Chinese aid including $3 billion in preferential loans and $2 billion of export credits over the next three years and create a China-Africa development fund, Hu said.

Beijing will double its aid to African countries from its 2006 level by 2009, Hu said, without giving figures. China also will train 15,000 African professionals, build schools, hospitals and anti-malaria clinics and send Chinese youth volunteers to Africa, Hu said.

Before the summit officially opened, senior Chinese and African officials Friday stressed the positive in China’s growing role in Africa.

Chinese officials noted the decades-old ties between China and Africa that started in Cold War political solidarity and have evolved into economic benefit, and rejected suggestions it was acting as a colonial power. “Africa needs China and China needs Africa,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

But China’s growing influence in Africa has also attracted criticism. Labor and business groups in Africa have complained about poor treatment by Chinese companies and a flood of low-cost manufactured products.

The World Bank has said China’s hefty – and freely disbursed – loans could contribute to corruption and African debt. Liu dismissed those criticisms.

“When China is building roads and schools and providing health infrastructure and agricultural technology to African countries, are we damaging human rights in Africa? Are we hurting good governance in those countries? African people are benefiting from China’s projects,” said Liu.

China will also be seen as friendly with some leaders heavily criticized in other parts of the world for gross human rights abuses, such Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Human rights groups have accused China of abetting the abuses in those countries.

Chinese officials say their country’s involvement in Africa has improved the lives of ordinary Africans without meddling in political affairs – strict adherence to China’s diplomatic policy of noninterference.

The summit is intended to offer a showcase for both sides to prove the relationship is working. Aside from China’s aid package, participants are expected to approve a declaration of mutual support.

Besides using the summit to boost business and political ties, China is also using it as a mini-dry run for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with government cars kept off the roads to ease the city’s notoriously bad traffic, and African officials and journalists taken on tours of venues for the games.

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