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What you need to understand about Chinese humanitarian aid

Written by Hanna Krebs


​When it comes to humanitarian aid from China, people are quick to judge. Take the November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, for example: When the Chinese government initially pledged USD100,000, international media condemned the amount as ‘meagre’ and ‘measly’

But there’s more to Chinese approaches to aid than you would expect. Contemporary Chinese aid strategy is shaped by two competing ideologies; how this tension plays out will set the direction for future Chinese humanitarian action.

The first is a certain mentality of introversion when it comes to humanitarian action abroad. Chinese humanitarian officials often refer to the traditional proverb:

‘Sweep your own house before you sweep the world’ (一屋不扫何以扫天下 yiwu busao heyi sao tianxia)

Or in other words, get your own house in order before you start messing in other people’s houses. A Chinese academic referred to this proverb to explain how China would rather perfect its skills at home - learning to deal with its own crises by working on its domestic disaster relief capacities or development problems within its borders - before applying them abroad.

Adding to this is the culture of ‘face’ (面子 mianzi) which can be loosely translated as prestige, image or reputation, connected with pride. And the desire of ‘keeping face’, and the fear of ‘losing face’, drives Chinese action or inaction. This is particularly important, because in China, effectively responding to domestic disasters directly translates into state legitimacy. It is also why China prefers methods and approaches it is comfortable with, such as investing in infrastructure projects rather than large scale humanitarian assistance.

But at the same time, China has adopted a ‘Going Out’ (zouchuqu) policy which was endorsed by the Politburo in 2000 as a national strategy. Its wish to be noticed on the world stage has taken on increasingly ambitious dimensions.

These global ambitions have also trickled down to humanitarian aid, with the Chinese government increasingly contributing to international disasters such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, and Cyclone Nargis in 2008. This year, the Chinese government’s search and rescue team was reportedly the first international rescue team to arrive in Nepal in the wake of the Gorkha earthquake.

More and more, China is also using the multilateral system for humanitarian cooperation. It has started to channel aid through UN agencies, become an active member of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), and participated in WHO coordination of foreign medical teams in disasters abroad. On top of that, a fair amount of China’s humanitarian efforts, such as deployment of medical teams, isn’t usually reported as humanitarian aid. As a result, neither news headlines nor overseas aid contributions tell the whole story.

Chinese NGOs, which have experienced a watershed moment of growth after the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, are also increasingly going abroad, with numerous organisations and foundations actively operating in Nepal both in the relief and the recovery phases.

So as China’s approach to humanitarian assistance changes, this transformation is unfolding within the tension between introversion and extroversion, between the inward-looking China and the outgoing China.

And although its increasingly extroverted humanitarian role is encouraging, it is not quite enough just yet. China is the world’s second largest economy. With greater power comes greater responsibility, and China should step up its contributions to international humanitarian assistance to an amount at least remotely worthy of its GDP, as well as getting more involved in global governance and policy discussions.

China will also need to find ways to engage internationally on the more uncomfortable humanitarian topics such as international humanitarian law, protection or humanitarian aid in conflict settings if it really wants to matter on the world stage.

As China seeks to carve out its place in the humanitarian landscape, the key now is to develop mutual understanding and challenge preconceptions (such as the idea that only China ’s humanitarian assistance is driven by political and economic objectives – most Western governments would be equally culpable).

We’re seeking to contribute to this understanding, most recently with our conference in Beijing with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Chinese Academy of Governance, and later on with an upcoming study on the Chinese government’s humanitarian action as part of HPG’s state humanitarianism project.

So next time Chinese humanitarian aid – or the lack thereof – makes it into the global media, let’s take a step back to understand what’s happening behind the scenes as China strives to settle the tension between going out and staying home. What they ultimately decide, and how it manifests, will have serious consequences for the humanitarian system writ large.