(New York) - At its upcoming Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit with more than 30 African countries, China should use its growing diplomatic and economic ties to press for improvements in the status of human rights across the continent, Human Rights Watch said today. The summit opens today in Beijing.

“China insists that it will not ‘interfere’ in other countries’ domestic affairs, but it also claims to be great friend of the African people and a responsible major power,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But that doesn’t square with staying silent while mass killings go on in Darfur.”

China’s relations with Africa date back to the earliest years of the People’s Republic. Despite its own relative poverty, China provided aid and maintained diplomatic ties with a variety of countries, often presenting itself as a poor but principled alternative to Cold War powers, particularly through its harsh criticism of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

More recently, China’s economic involvement in Africa has increased dramatically. Sino-African trade has tripled in the last decade, totaling US$32 billion in 2005. China has forgiven numerous African loans, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund recently noted that Chinese loans to Africa have not increased the continent’s indebtedness.

China’s policies have not only propped up some of the continent’s worst human rights abusers, but also weakened the leverage of others trying to promote greater respect for human rights.

Chinese companies now own 40 percent of Sudan’s production facilities, and Beijing blocked several UN resolutions designed to discipline the Sudanese government. Only recently have Chinese diplomats begun to claim that they have pressed Sudanese officials to accept a UN force.

And despite Beijing’s growing concerns about Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s repressive tactics – most notably his willingness to literally starve his opposition and destroy the Zimbabwean economy – China has continued to sell the Zimbabwean government technology that enables it to monitor electronic communications.

“In recent days we’ve seen that Chinese pressure has brought North Korea back to the negotiating table in the wake of its nuclear test, and we hope similar efforts will be made with countries in Africa where the situation is also catastrophic,” said Richardson.

While China’s leaders use this summit to hammer out new economic aid and trade agreements, they must also underscore their stated interest in African peace. Human Rights Watch called on China to suspend aid to Sudan that could be used in Khartoum’s brutal campaign against the people of Darfur, and to press Sudanese President Omar El Bashir to permit the presence of a UN peacekeeping force. China should refuse to sell censoring technology to Mugabe, who uses it to brutally repress his real and imaginary opponents.

“Africans do not need another external power enabling abusive regimes – they need all powers, including China, to place human rights at the center of their policies,” said Richardson. “A truly revolutionary approach for any power in Africa, particularly those that pride themselves on their solidarity with the developing world, is to defend human rights.”