The rhetoric around this week’s China-Africa summit in Beijing is reaching new extremes. To hear Beijing tell it, it’s an opportunity to promote “equality, friendship and mutual benefit,” and an occasion that is bound to create new economic opportunities, free of imperialistic conditionality, for a desperately poor continent. To hear China skeptics tell it, the summit is evidence that a major power without principles has arrived on the diplomatic scene.

Both sides will find ammunition for their arguments in the guest list. Beijing is welcoming leaders from countries with strong human rights records along with governments guilty of appalling abuses.

As Chinese leaders reconsider their approach to foreign policy as an increasingly global player, they must acknowledge that with greater power comes greater responsibility.

For half a century, China has insisted that involvement in other countries’ domestic politics is not only inappropriate but profoundly destabilizing. How can foreigners know what’s best for any given country? This approach gives cover for the Chinese Communist Party’s terrible domestic human rights record. It also makes Beijing appear wholly unsympathetic to other states’ campaigns of repression, famine or even genocide. Botched international efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq have made it harder to counter China’s opposition to interventions.

China is becoming more active on the international stage, dispensing greater amounts of economic and military aid, and dramatically increasing its participation in peacekeeping operations. Beijing now makes many more critical diplomatic interventions – quietly – than many realize. This approach serves China’s interests and is consistent with its historical view of the proper relations between states. But it has its limits. According to senior Chinese foreign affairs officials in Beijing, the spectacular failure of China’s behind-closed-doors approach to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions has prompted “a sober review of our approach.”

As Beijing’s budget for, and interests in, Africa have expanded over the past decade, China’s unwillingness to use its relationship with repressive governments like Sudan and Zimbabwe has drawn increasing opprobrium. Beijing has defended its approach, arguing that its economic development is a way of promoting rights, but in reality Beijing’s approach has weakened others’ ability to leverage human rights concerns, particularly at the UN.

The killing campaign in Darfur is the result of Khartoum’s policies, not Beijing’s. But China’s investments in Sudan – undertaken without commensurate effort to use it as leverage to stop the fighting – makes China’s commitment to solidarity with the people of Sudan ring hollow. And such a public failure to use leverage certainly doesn’t make China look like the responsible world power it wants to be. Chinese diplomats have argued that suspending involvement in the oil industry will damn more Sudanese to poverty and hurt China – a cold and perhaps cynical calculus sadly employed by many other powers in many other places, yet no more justifiable in the face of the slaughter of more than 200,000 in Darfur.

Robert Mugabe’s 2005 trip to Beijing caused some discomfort even amongst his long-time “revolutionary friends.” Following what could only be described as a three-hour rant at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ College, Mugabe left China with less than what he had hoped to gain in trade and aid deals. Although Beijing is suspicious of Mugabe’s tactics – most notably his willingness to literally starve his opposition and destroy the Zimbabwean economy – China has continued to sell the Zimbabwean government technology to monitor electronic communications.

There have been laudable aspects of China’s relations with Africa. China began criticizing the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1960s, well before other more powerful states were willing to speak out against state racism. The economic ties have prompted unprecedented growth, with Sino-African trade tripling in a decade to $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. And Chinese officials now say they have pressed the Sudanese government to accept a United Nations force in Darfur.

But if China is truly interested in “good friends, good brothers and good partners” in Africa, and if it wants to show the rest of the world that it intends to play a constructive role there, Beijing must do all it can to act in the interests of the people of Sudan and Zimbabwe.

This summit could well result in new economic aid and trade agreements, but it should also underscore Beijing’s interest in African peace. That means suspending aid that could be used in Khartoum’s brutal campaign against the people of Darfur. It also means continuing to press Sudanese President Omar El Bashir to permit the presence of a United Nations peacekeeping force even though he has now publicly rebuffed Beijing. Finally, China should refuse to sell censoring technology to Mugabe, who uses it to brutally repress his real and imaginary political 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. A truly revolutionary approach for any power in Africa, and particularly one that prides itself on its solidarity with the developing world, would be to stand with the people of Africa and support their basic human rights.


Sophie Richardson is Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director.