BEIJING (AP) — China touted its close relations with Africa on Wednesday ahead of talks with the continent's leaders even as some African countries grumble about problems that come from being locked in a tight embrace with the resource-hungry Asian economic power.
Commerce Minister Chen Deming wrote in the China Daily newspaper that total trade between China and Africa hit a record high of $166 billion last year. Chen said direct Chinese investment in Africa reached $14.7 billion by the end of last year, a 60 percent increase from two years earlier.
Chen's comments came as African leaders arrived in Beijing for two days of talks on expanding cooperation. Also attending the opening ceremony for the meeting was United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, who praised China's relations with Africa in his talks Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Close cooperation between the sides enabled them to weather the 2008 global crisis, Chen wrote. "As a result, the trade and economic cooperation has witnessed faster growth across wider areas in more diversified forms, bringing more tangible benefits to the Chinese and African people."
China has emerged as Africa's main trading partner and a major source of investment for infrastructure development, pouring billions of dollars into roads and developing the energy sector across the continent. But its presence has also sparked concerns about labor abuses and corruption.
In May, Zimbabwe's labor minister said the government was investigating persistent reports of rampant abuse of workers by Chinese employers. In Zambia, complaints about Chinese business practices stretch back years. Human Rights Watch said in a November report that despite improvements in recent years, safety and labor conditions at Chinese owned copper mines in Africa are worse than at other foreign-owned mines, and Chinese mine managers often violate government regulations.
In a speech on relations with Africa last week that was by turns celebratory and combative, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun hit back at unidentified critics of China's growing influence in Africa. Zhai denied China is practicing a new form of colonialism. Instead, he said, China's economic and political backing is giving African countries options they never had before under a Western-led world order.
"We stand fully with African countries in upholding sovereignty and dignity and exploring development paths," Zhai said. He later said: "The unfair and unreasonable political and economic order is still an obstacle hindering Africa's economic development."
Zhai also outlined modest goals for the Beijing meeting, saying ministers would take stock of past cooperation and lay out an action plan for ties in 2013-15.
Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler contributed to this report.