Making sense of China’s meager typhoon aid

November 14, 2013

Faced with a devastating typhoon a mere 700 miles away, Chinese President Xi Jinping this week pledged financial support for the Philippines, as did nearly every other industrialized nation. Australia offered $30 million; the Europeans $11 million; the United Arab Emirates promised $10 million. China offered $100,000.

The media backlash was immediate. Within days, an embarrassed Beijing upped its pledge to $1.6 million. That’s still less than a sixth of the total offered by Japan, China’s main regional rival. In 2010, China overtook Japan as the second-biggest economy in the world.

What gives — or doesn’t give, as the case may be? Why is an economy so big, a government so willing to invest abroad, and a country so eager to win favor in the region stiffing a neighbor in need? Because China is still a new enough power that it has no tradition of shelling out helpings of foreign aid — and because the Philippines is not China’s favorite country at the moment.

And despite its successes, China is actually still a poor country. Its per capita income finally topped $9,000 last year, which ranks China about 90th in the world, depending on the exact measure. Nearly 130 million of its people live on less than $1.80 per day. With a renewed sense of urgency to tackle the country’s many economic reform challenges, China has far too many pressing needs at home to be cutting big checks abroad.

At least, that’s what its less-advantaged populations might well think. In 2008, nearly 70,000 people died in China when an earthquake struck outside the central Chinese city of Chengdu. And this year, nearly 200 died when a quake rattled the country’s southwest. This is a country that struggles with its own domestic disaster relief.

Let’s remember, too, that the Philippines is a former American colony. There are already hundreds of U.S. troops on the ground helping with the relief effort. There is also the small matter of the South China Sea, which the Chinese, as documented in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, want for themselves. For China, offering huge sums of money to a foreign community — especially one with which China has a beef over maritime borders — is a nonstarter.

It’s easy to think that the typhoon relief effort is an opportunity to break that impasse. But just because that’s how the U.S. uses foreign aid — as a tool with which to change public opinion abroad — doesn’t mean China thinks the same way. It has virtually no infrastructure to push aid abroad — there’s no equivalent of USAID or American nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity. The mandate of China’s diplomatic corps is largely determined by the work its state-owned companies do abroad. China courts favor by investing, not giving.

A rising China will lead to a radically different international response to crises over time. China says it wants a de-Americanized world, and the U.S. has lately stepped back from its traditionally activist foreign policy. But where will the world turn for disaster relief when a still-poor China has become the world’s largest economy?

After the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut a year ago, a quote from legendary TV kids show host Mr. Rogers went viral:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

What happens when the largest economy is a country that doesn’t want to do the things we expect the largest economy to do?

That’s a problem that extends well beyond typhoons, earthquakes and aid.

This column is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: A man smiles as he carries a sack of relief goods while others rush for their share during a relief distribution after super typhoon Haiyan hit Iloilo province, central Philippines November 11, 2013. REUTERS/Leo Solinap


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the US gave $500,000 for China’s Sichuan earthquake where many more thousands perished ?

Posted by yoong | Report as abusive

There’s usually a logical answer to questions about China, although they’re often unappealing to people from developed western nations. There are over 150,000 Filipino workers in China, many of whom are undocumented workers who do not pay taxes in China, yet they send home money to the Philippines. The Philippines is one of the largest recipients of foreign remittances in the world, with an estimated 13%+ of its GDP coming from its citizens working abroad. It looks bad to the international media, but there is no law requiring a nation to give charity, and the Chinese people probably feel they give daily to the Philippines via the workers.

Posted by adamt64 | Report as abusive

Interesting article. The last question does make you think. However, I fully believe that whether America is the number 1 or number 50 economy in the world you will still find American’s being some of the most generous people on the planet during times of disaster.

Posted by Hatorian | Report as abusive

The simple fact that US and China relief aid is a topic of Bremmer’s article and the form of article insures help for Philippines is in line with US pivot to Asia.
Btw, aircraft carriers are best relief aid vessels in littoral waters of archipelago.
And any argument to support vast US naval military presence 10000 miles off its borders is welcome.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

Chinese tycoons have billions to spend on fancy cars, watches, fur coats, ivory, and designer-label gifts for “friends” along with tens of billions in govt funding for loans to questionable “business partners.”

Would be interested to know if even one Chinese “mega-millionaire” has ever “given” to charity — at home or abroad. If they did, there would be some Chinese farmers sleeping in their own beds with full bellies today.

Charity is not a “law” — but when you have billions and see people hopeless, homeless and in dire need, giving is the right thing to do — whether they are your “good friend” or not.

Posted by Wry | Report as abusive

CHINA is not poor. China pretends to be poor.

Some people in China are poor — many due to government appropriations.

Posted by Wry | Report as abusive

Ian – this is a bit politically correct but the Chinese are a very racist people. They look down on most of their neighbors. Even in countries where they’ve migrated to (US, Canada, etc.), they haven’t really changed their thinking.

Posted by sbix | Report as abusive

Good article.
As proven by China’s continuous support of the mad dogs ruling North Korea, China simply doesn’t see itself as a responsible member of the international community, let alone one that can claim to a leadership role.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

Talking about politics of generosity, Chinese never complained American or japanese cheapskate wrt to Chinese charities because we understand people will always take care of their own blood 1st, and then their friends and allies.

With regard to humanitarian aids, American neocon dimwits, pls look at no one other than yourself, and look at no other countries other than phillipino or America, in the mirror — o_the_2008_Sichuan_earthquake

fact #1, the philipino sent US$0.0 — yes, a big fat gooze egg!! — to China in 2008 Chinese earth quake which killed around 80000 people, more than 10 times the casulty of the current Haiyan. I deeply sympathize every bit of the human tragedy and suffering of the philipinos; but from Chinese mainland’s point of view, is not this “the pot calling the kettle black”???

As for the big, fat, self-righteous American neocon dimwits, represented by all these mainstream rightwing media nutjobs here at WaPo,

fact #2, the US government sent US$20000.00 to China for the 1998 once in a decade flood; yes, that is not a typo, a big fat 20000.00!

In the 2008 once in a century Chinese earthquake, Chinese Hong Kong donated over $38,000,000.00 — yeah, you fat dimwits neocon brain will say Hong Kong’s government is forced; but the private Hong Kong Chinese donated over $128,000,000.00; and Taiwan, our sworn enemy but also brothers and sisters by blood, donate $65,000,000.00, this in comparision to American’s $4.8 million.

fact #3, have you or your family or any philipino ever donated a single penny to help a poor Chinese child?

my Chinese American family donate hundred, if not thousands times more to Chinese charities and victims than to philipinos or united way — that is simply how it is. Do not give me the BS that as an American Christian, you value a Chinese or even a Chinese American child the same as your own or even any white child — the fact is simply you do not and we do not either..

Posted by nuchang | Report as abusive

It really is none of our business whether China donates to a cause or not. Perhaps if the US paid back some of what we owe the government in China, they could afford to do so.

Posted by alwayslearning | Report as abusive

It’s a cultural thing – some folks look at any situation and can’t say anything ‘cept – “What’s in it for me?”

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

Why should this come as a surprise to anyone? China and Russia still are allied with all totalitarian and oppressive regimes, but some how have managed to convince their own people and leaders in the west they aren’t villains. The world needs to take a step back from the illusion and realize that though the names and titles are different, the distribution of freedoms and altruism have changed very little since 1989.

Posted by ReverendJim | Report as abusive