What does China’s white paper tell us about its foreign aid spending?

Ding Haitao/XinHua/Xinhua Press/Corbis

The Chinese government released its second-ever white paper, outlining its foreign assistance from 2010-2012. As the country continues to make itself an international development player, the new details about how it spent is money gives a better understanding into the country’s goals.

A total of $14.41 billion in aid was given to 121 countries with more than half of the money spent in 51 countries in Africa. China’s first white paper was released in 2011, reviewing the history of its foreign aid work dating back 60 years. The new white paper, while still light on details, has been considered a big deal in foreign aid circles because it gives a peak into what the tight-lipped nation is doing. Interestingly, one can see a shift in China’s investments away from building roads and towards issues like education and health.

“China’s aid program has diversified away from a focus on economic infrastructure and industry to include more emphasis on social and public infrastructure, donations, and training,” blogged Philippa Brant, a researcher with the Australia-based think tank the Lowy Institute who is an expert in Chinese aid.

Aid from China was came in three different forms, according to the paper: grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans. The breakdown and the report itself underscores the way that China sees itself in the world. The country is careful to point out that it does not attach conditions to its aid programs, a dig at the United States, World Bank and others who have done so in the past.

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“China adheres to the principles of not imposing any political conditions, not interfering in the internal affairs of recipient countries and fully respecting the right to independently choose their own paths and models of development,” says China in the white paper’s introduction. “The basic principles China upholds in providing foreign assistance are mutual respect, equality, keeping promise, mutual benefits and win-win.”

The reality of China realizing its own principles has come under question for years. Campaigners used the Olympics in 2008 hosted by China to draw attention the fact that the country had a cozy relationship with Sudan while its leadership were supporting atrocities in the Darfur region. More recently have been concerns about China’s investments in mineral-rich regions of Africa. Some see the actions as opportunistic and potentially harmful.

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Such concerns were shrugged off by Chinese officials when they were asked following the white paper’s release.

“China’s cooperation with Africa is far from being limited to the sphere of natural resources. [Foreign aid] is an important manifestation of China’s international responsibility,” said ministry spokesman Hong Lei in a press conference.

Overall, the paper gives some hints for what is to come. Officials from countries a part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) revealed last week that they will soon launch joint-development bank. The idea is not new, but there was pessimism that it would happen due to the fact that financing would rely so heavily upon China. As a comparison, the US spends roughly $30 billion a year on non-military foreign direct assistance, roughly ten times more than China spent on average over the three years covered by the report. That is why it comes at little surprise that regional cooperation is one of the main sections of the paper.

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“China will continue to increase the input in foreign assistance, further optimize assistance structure, highlight key aspects, innovate assistance means, raise the efficiency of capital utilization, effectively help recipient countries improve their people’s well-being and enhance their capability of independent development,” concludes the report. “China is willing to work with the international community to share opportunities, meet challenges, strive to realize the world’s dream of lasting peace and common prosperity, and make greater contribution to the development of mankind.”

What is left unknown is how China works in each country and what is specifically to come for its foreign aid programs. The reportedly $100 billion BRICS bank that will be formalized at the BRICS summit this week in Brazil.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.