China’s aid transparency woes.

“They need to to undestand it better,” said one western official. “It’s disappointing, but maybe they do not want to be put in the same box as traditional donors.” (Guardian)

In light of the current aid effectiveness negotiations at the High Level Forum in Busan and increased pressure on China to improve the transparency of its foreign aid program, I have been reflecting on the often overlooked domestic context of China’s aid policy.

A challenge for the Chinese Government as it increases information about its foreign aid is managing how it is received domestically. With more than 200 million people still classified as ‘poor’ and a nascent civil society that concentrates efforts on domestic poverty alleviation and development issues, a ‘domestic lobby’ that pressures improvement in aid quality (and quantity) – as seen in traditional donor countries – appears a long way off.

That’s not to say that there is no domestic influence on China’s aid program: Chinese companies who implement the projects or receive procurement contracts have an interest in the expansion of the aid budget, and in the continuation of China’s ‘mutual benefit’ tied aid policy. This in itself is not altogether unusual – similar business lobbies exist in Japan and Korea (and no doubt many other countries). What I’m finding particularly interesting though is the way that Chinese people – especially the ever-vocal netizens – are responding to specific information on Chinese foreign aid.

The most recent example relates to the Chinese Government’s donation of 23 school buses to Macedonia. Information was reported on the Chinese Embassy in Macedonia’s website on Friday, 10 days after a horrific incident in Gansu Province where 19 preschool children were killed in a school bus crash (in which 64 people were overloaded into a 9 seat bus). People were already angry about the poor quality of school buses and netizens had circulated a photo montage comparing Chinese buses to those in America (collated by chinaSMACK here but warning: some images may distress). Awareness of the announcement of the foreign aid donation prompted more than 500,000 mostly angry comments on Sina Weibo, many expressing sentiments along these lines: ‘Chinese children don’t have fine buses to deliver them to schools, and the Chinese government is actually sending buses to other countries’.

Jing Gao on the Ministry of Tofu website has an excellent overview of netizens’ reactions, including a chart made by an internet user that compares the disparities in living standards between Macedonia and China, and this telling cartoon.

The outcry prompted a response from the Global Times. It firstly reflects on the timing of the information:

‘The coincidental release of information should have been avoided’

But then seeks to defend the aid program:

‘However, China cannot simply stop its aid programs to foreign countries. There is not evidence to prove the excess of these programs’

And back to unfortunate timing:

‘The school bus donation to Macedonia would have gone unnoticed if the Gansu incident had never happened’

While not directly involving Chinese Government foreign aid, two controversies earlier this year – the ‘Guo Meimei Red Cross Scandal’ and the issues surrounding the China Africa Project Hope – raised related responses from the Chinese population. While both scandals were actually bound up more in issues with rich young Chinese and their misuse of charities, people were also concerned about the (in)appropriateness of helping other countries when there remain so many problems within China.

Traditional donors have spent considerable effort (and resources) to try to educate their domestic populations about their foreign aid programs. As China’s program continues to expand, and scrutiny of government spending (across all areas) increases, the Chinese Government will have to find effective ways to explain its foreign aid program to a domestic audience.

To coincide with the 60th Anniversary of China’s aid to foreign countries, celebrated in August 2010, and the release of the White Paper on Foreign Aid in April 2011, the Chinese media launched significant information initiatives, including special lift-out sections of the China Daily, a TV program, and summaries of key points of the White Paper. This was notable but generally shied away from specific details of individual projects.

Some voices are emerging that promote the idea of China providing foreign aid. One article, by Jin Chen (and translated here), for example, argues that ‘the Chinese Government, entrepreneurs, and NGOs should all participate more actively in international philanthropy’, as ‘this will impact on China’s global reputation and also global strategy in the future’.

However, the fact that people were ringing the bus manufacturer asking if they’d made the donations to Macedonia themselves (as reported in this Shanghai Daily article) is indicative of the lack of knowledge about how China’s foreign aid program works.

Whilst the potential is potentially there for social media channels to be leveraged to get transparency onto China’s aid agenda, the risk (and perhaps more likely scenario) is that the scrutiny makes the Chinese Government think twice about improving information about its foreign aid activities, particularly as the Government is already struggling to negotiate the changing boundaries and expectations of its citizens regarding domestic policies and accountability. Nevertheless, with an aid budget growing at almost 30% per year in recent years, and pressure from the international community to undertake its fair share of global responsibilities, the Chinese Government would be well advised to begin a conversation with its people about its foreign aid program.

We are starting to see signs of how it might be framed. It is unlikely to be presented as an ethical endeavour of ‘helping the poor’. And although promoting ‘win-win’ outcomes may help to explain the aid activities, this may be hard to explicitly prove, particularly if scrutinised at the level of specific individual projects. Given the increasing dislike about the unreasonable power of large state owned enterprises amongst some sectors of Chinese society, presenting Chinese aid projects as also benefiting these companies through contract and investment opportunities may not be the smartest way to go.

Instead, the Chinese Government may continue to explain its foreign aid program through the concept of China acting as a ‘responsible great power’ (of course whether or not it actually is is another question). In fact, under the headline ‘Nurturing nations: China practices global giving’, in the China Daily’s 2010 ‘Special Report’ on Chinese aid, examples of humanitarian assistance, multilateral programs, regional cooperation, debt relief, and assistance for achieving the MDGs are cited as evidence of the Chinese Government’s responsibility in global affairs. China Daily reporter, Yang Cheng, has also opened an article on Chinese aid stating: ‘As a responsible socialist and developing country, the nation has taken foreign aid as an important path to building a harmonious world.’

The Government response to the outcry of the school bus donations to Macedonia seem to be following this line too: ‘China is living up to its international obligations to help other countries as they had supported China during hard times’.

China is facing international pressure to improve the transparency of its foreign aid, but if and how it does this will in many ways be based on how it will be received in its own domestic context.

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Philippa Brant

Philippa Brant is completing a PhD on Chinese aid and the implications for the international aid regime. She is a Prime Minister's Australia Asia Endeavour Award Holder (2010) and has recently returned to The University of Melbourne after living in Beijing. She can be contacted via plbrant[AT]gmail.com.

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