Aid / 援助

Aid / 援助


In Europe, like in other major industrialised donor countries, aid is broadly understood as the transfer of resources from rich (donor) to poorer (developing) countries, with the aim of promoting social and economic development. A commonly held view is that aid should be charitable, or at least with a gift element, even though in many cases aid demonstrably has been dominated by the political, strategic, and economic interests of donor countries.

In Chinese usage, aid” is largely understood as mutual and reciprocal. Chinese official discourse distinguishes between “development aid” (发展援助) from the West and Chinese “foreign aid” (对外援助) to other states. This is to emphasize that China is not a “donor country” and does not provide “development aid”. China defines its foreign aid as South-South Cooperation and frames it in terms of “equality” (平等), “friendship” (友谊) and “mutual benefit” (互利). While aid may be reciprocated directly through the exchange of goods or resources, politically, it is linked to an expected increase in relational power – namely, that having received Chinese aid, recipients will return the favour by politically supporting Chinese positions, e.g., in international organisations.


The first recipients of Chinese foreign aid were North Korea and North Vietnam in 1950. After the Bandung Conference of 1955, aid was extended to numerous recently decolonised countries. From the beginning, foreign aid was understood as a strategic tool to help China break through international isolation: in return for giving economic aid, China received diplomatic recognition. Zhou Enlai explained in 1956 that despite its own poverty China was helping other countries because “we have understood that economic independence is fundamental to political independence” – meaning – from the West. In 1964, Zhou toured ten African countries and promulgated the “Eight Principles of Chinese Foreign Aid”, the core of which – namely, that aid should not be tied to any political conditions except for the non-recognition of Taiwan – is still valid today. It was also thanks to foreign aid that the PRC was voted onto the China seat in the UN in 1971 with the votes of developing countries, while Taiwan was excluded.

With the onset of the reform and opening-up policy in 1978, high foreign aid spending came under scrutiny, as China – ranked among the world’s 20 poorest countries – needed the scarce resources for its ambitious development and modernisation program. However, Deng Xiaoping concluded that giving aid would always be a strategic necessity for China. Thus, the State Council noted in 1980, referring to China’s UN accession, that “China helped others, and they supported us [in return]. The international status China has achieved is inseparable from the support of friendly countries”.[1]

Continuing aid was underpinned by the assumption that since aid was reciprocated in the past, it would be reciprocated in the future. In that same logic, Chinese aid peaked again after 1989, when China was subject to international sanctions following the Tiananmen Square crackdown and Taiwan attempted to re-enter the UN in 1990. To date, Chinese officials stress in talks with African leaders how grateful China is for the support it received in the UN. In his address to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in 2021, Xi Jinping expressed his “heartfelt gratitude to the vast number of African friends who supported China […] in restoring its rightful seat in the United Nations.”

The term “aid” is very widely defined in Chinese discourse: almost everything in the range of “you need it – we have it” can be termed as “help” or “aid”. It can mean helping least developed countries fight poverty, or refer to foreign investment or construction by Chinese companies done with the help of export subsidies. And, since aid is often packaged with trade and investment, all Chinese development finance, whether commercial or charitable, may appear as aid to recipients. The Official Development Assistance (ODA) databases in Cambodia and the Philippines, for example, include both Chinese aid concessional loans and non-aid preferential export buyer’s credits. This makes Chinese aid look bigger than it actually is, also relative to aid from DAC[2] donor countries.

A controversy, which pointedly illustrates the different understandings of the term “aid”, erupted in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic when in March 2020, China sent protective gear to Italy labelled with the words “The friendship road knows no borders.” While the Italian “Five Star Movement” presented it as a “gift”, European and American journalists accused China of masking a commercial deal as “politics of generosity”. However, a press statement of Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggests that the misunderstanding was on the European side: Wang stated that despite its own medical supply shortage, China would “provide medical aid to Italy and increase its efforts to export much-needed supplies and equipment”. For China, export was aid.

The Chinese approach to aid is more pragmatic than charitable. To be sure, China expects – explicitly and implicitly – reciprocation. But by ascribing to developing countries, unlike DAC donors, the ability to reciprocate and by embedding its aid in the rhetoric of “equality”, “friendship”, and “mutual benefit”, China symbolically creates a relationship of equals. This dimension often does not receive sufficient attention in the West.

[1] Party Literature Research Centre of the CCPCC (PLRC). 1982. ‘中共中央、国务院关于认真做好对外援助工作的几点意见 (1980 年 11 月 8 日) [Several Suggestions by the CCPCC and the State Council on Doing Good Work in Foreign Aid (8 November 1980)].’ In 三中全会以来重要文献汇编 1 [Collection of Important Documents since the Third Plenum. Volume 1], 727–29. Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe.

[2] Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.