Beijing — As President Xi Jinping gathered together leaders from almost all African countries for a summit in Beijing in recent days, some former Chinese officials and state media were mounting an unusually strong defence of China’s role in the continent. China has long bristled at accusations, mostly from western nations, that it is solely interested in Africa’s raw materials, and that its no-strings-attached approach to loans and aid has encouraged graft and brought unsustainably high debt. At the few news conferences during the summit, African reporters peppered Chinese officials with questions about corruption, environmental problems and concerns about a lack of Africans employed in some of China’s projects.

Cheng Tao, a former head of the Chinese foreign ministry’s Africa division and previously China’s ambassador in Mali and Morocco, said it is unfair to blame China for supporting governments accused of corruption. "An African friend told me, ‘our government is extremely...

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