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.