Last April, 29th an organization called AidData presented the China.aiddata.org project, consisting of a collaborative platform whose aim is to collect accurate information on all Chinese financial support to Africa, particularly aid. You can check their website at http://aiddatachina.org/content/about_the_project. Data sources are not official reports and statistics as it would be the case for any other traditional donor, but, media reports, which, according to the promoters is the most reliable source, even the only possible source.
Contrary with what happens in the West, development aid in China is not a distinct foreign policy: “There is clearly no official definition of ‘aid in China and some considerable ambiguity about what constitutes ‘aid'” (Power and Mohan, 2010: 483). Aid is structured through individual projects that are agreed bilaterally with individual countries and which are mostly tied to the acquisition of Chinese goods and services, and with other forms of tied cooperation (ibidem, 484). No individual agency has a specific mandate related to aid within the Chinese regime, but, instead, “A labyrinthine network of bureaucratic ministries and agencies collectively make up China’s development finance apparatus”(Strange et al., 2013: 4).
Development aid is though not an erratic policy, but, on the contrary it is subjected to a direct control by the State Council, led by Premier (idem). This seems to indicate a considerable strategic value attached to it (Power and Mohan, 2010: 483). Specific information on aid is never publicly disclosed; China does not report to the OECD-DAC system. (ibidem: 12). In this context it is not a surprise that media report are the most reliable data one can get on Chinese development aid.
The spectacular increase in the amount of Chinese development aid since 1989, its strong visibility through the realisation of big infrastructure projects and the heterodox modalities this aid takes have awakened a considerable degree of public interest. In spite of the described lack of reliable data, Western media often represent China as an irresponsible donor, who, in is able of anything in order to secure its national interest. The Chinese State is accused of exchanging environmentally unsustainable development projects against access to African mineral resources with the recipients’ countries elites, without taking either the peoples’ need or human rights considerations into account. In the absence of objective data this can be claimed to be at the very least, inexact and value loaded.
This overtly negative view of Chinese is often operated through a stereotyped comparison with Western donors who are presented as fair players whose aid policy are based on solidarity and have as its ultimate goal sustainable development in recipient countries.
In other words, the type of political influence China exerts on other countries through aid is at the core of critiques. This kind of influence is presented as differnt and/or opposed to that of the altruistic West
We will discuss these critiques in light of the report of the China Aid Project and through a comparison between the Chinese way with the Western way, in order to discern whether the kind of political influence China tries to exert is as different as suggested from the one traditional donors try to exert. For doing so, we will formulate two arguments of the arguments that most often appear in the media.
While traditional donors set political conditions on aid in order to prevent corruption and to impede reinforcement of crony regimes, China does not.
There are at least two academic works that explore the linkages between respect for human rights by a developing country and aid allocations by donors. (Neumayer, 2003 and Lebovic and Voeten, 2009). Both coincide in its main conclusion which is that respect for human rights plays no role in bilateral allocation, and a marginal role in multilateral aid allocation.
Chinese aid is guided solely by its national interest, the quest for natural resources, while the main Western donors’ purpose is the development of the recipient country and the welfare of its citizens.
China is explicit about the fact that aid is an instrument of political influence in the world. Its successful economic development has boosted its demand for natural resources, in particular fossil fuels and gas. This is why, according to the report, the eight countries receiving most Chinese aid are oil and/or gas producers. A brief google research allows us easily to track agreements on oil exploitation between these countries and China: Ghana – http://www.newstimeafrica.com/archives/25036-; Nigeria – http://www.vanguardngr.com/2013/04/how-real-are-chinese-investments-in-nigeria/-, etc. Another fact that supports the view of China does not allocate any aid to a state that recognizes the government of Taiwan.
However, if one compares top Chinese aid recipients, US aid recipients and OECD top recipients the image of an altruistic West immediately falls apart.
Lebovic, E. and Voeten, E. (2009) ‘The Cost of Shame: International Organisations and Foreign Aid in the Punishing of Human Rights Violators’, Journal of Peace Research, 46(1), pp. 79-97
Neumayer, E. (2003), ‘Is Respect for Human Rights Rewarded? An Analysis of Total Bilateral and Multilateral Aid Flows’ Human Rights Quarterly, 25(2): pp. 510-527
Power and Mohan (2010) ‘China’s Engagement with African Development’ in Geopolitics, 15(3): pp. 510-527
Strange et al. (2013) China’s development finance to Africa: A Media-Based Approach to Data Collection, Centre for Global Development, available at http://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/chinese-development-finance-africa_0.pdf