Along with China’s drastic economic development, the focus of its official assistance to Africa has shifted from pure financial assistance to trade and investment. On the other hand, the Chinese government has always been reluctant to expose its foreign aid data to the outside world, which gives rise to negative assumptions based mostly on independent cases and incomplete information.
In order to provide empirical foundation for future research on the Chinese foreign aid, AidData, an initiative to increase aid transparency and data availability, released findings of its data collection project that tracks China’s financial flow to Africa via media-based approach. The findings reveal unanticipated patterns of Chinese development activities in Africa.
The developed nations’ aid distributions usually align with the rules of OECD, which defines the official development assistance (ODA) as the flows to DAC recipients or multilateral organizations by countries’ official agencies. According to OECD, ODA’s goal is to promote developing countries’ economy and welfare and it should be “concessional in character” and maintains 25% grant element.
By contrast, emerging economies, including China, feel reluctant to follow OECD’s “guidelines” because these rules were constructed by a group of financially-advantaged countries. In fact, there have been collaborative deliberations from the developing world to move discussions on aid allocation to a different forum, like the United Nations. As a result, these new aid donors apply different definitions to their development assistance. For example, the Chinese include military aid towards their ODA, but exclude scholarships for foreign students
Encountering such divergence, AidData sets up a data-defining scheme for the Chinese development finance. The scheme includes eleven categories, including ODA-like, FDI with government involvement, FDI without government involvement and “vague”, which refers to finances that cannot be strictly categorized.
Using this design, AidData creates an open platform for identifying and verifying project-level Chinese development aid to Africa. Projects were identified through media resources. Such information can be further tracked, verified and corrected openly online.
New insights of Chinese aid to Africa
1,422 projects to 50 countries are ultimately examined. Analysis shows that 648 projects (approximately 46%) are financed by ODA-like grants with the monetary value of about US$5,014 million. Further, data reveals that China has been contributing almost the same amount of money to Africa as US since the early 2000s.
More surprisingly, the four major sectors where the Chinese aid was headed, are Government and Civil Society; Health; Education and Transportation & Storage, according to AidData. It comments that China has made distinctive contributions toward the Government and Society sector, noting that aid has funded the building of “presidential estates and executive official suites”. Accordingly, Chinese ODA has focused more on “government” rather than “civil society.”
AidData however rebukes conventional theories that condemn China’s official finance for exploiting natural resources, violating environmental, and labor guidelines. While Chinese development activities in Africa are easy to criticize due to the lack of transparency, China’s involvement in Africa is not for pure economic and strategic gain. Rather, China also wants to establish itself as a “leader in the developing world.”
China’s “dominating” presence in Africa was not established overnight but with years of financial and ideological engagements within the region. The first African country to receive China’s foreign aid was Egypt in 1956— only seven years after the PRC was founded in 1949. Even during the formidable social turmoil such as Great Leap (failed plan to transform China to an industrialized country that caused large-scale famines from 1958-60) and the ten-year Cultural Revolution, China’s engagement with Africa had rarely been suspended, let alone terminated.
China has long been putting itself in line with other developing countries. Such ideology is rooted in Mao Zedong’s “Three Worlds” theory launched in 1974.
“In my view, the United States and the Soviet Union belong to the first world. The in-between Japan, Europe and Canada belong to the second world. The third world is very populous. Except Japan, Asia belongs to the third world. So does the whole of Africa and Latin America”
Later in the same year, Deng Xiaoping further emphasized Mao’s theory and declared on the 6th Special Session of the UN General Assembly that China was not and would never be a superpower. Indeed, they would have never imagined the collapse of Soviet Union and the economic boom of China and the Asia-Pacific afterwards, but such theory has always been reflected in the Chinese government’s domestic agenda and its foreign policy making. Thus, Chinese foreign aid policy has its own ideological limitations, which will not be altered if the central authority continues refusing to recognize the change of China’s global role and responsibilities in nature. On the other hand, understanding Chinese foreign aid is a demanding project that requires more data collection and a better understanding of Chinese goals and actions.