Will Pressure Make Chinese Aid More Transparent?

Mar 29, 2012

China: Will strong-arming the government to boost transparency - and aid efficacy - may hurt countries in need?

1220 Shut out of environmental impact assessments. PHOTO: Mike IvesStrong-arming China into transparency will lead to a “backlash” of even less transparency, he added. “They value their sovereignty more than most countries. They see it [as] inviolable.”

Still, said Christiansen, the group’s approach is credible because it does not require “changing what they [China] are actually doing, but about becoming more transparent on the approaches they are already taking.”

South-South rules

The country is increasing aid transparency at its own pace, say observers. On 1 December 2011, China publicly declared transparency a principle it upholds when it signed an agreement at the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held in Busan, South Korea.

The word “transparency” appears four times in the document, which includes a pledge of “zero tolerance for all corrupt practices”. It also notes that “the nature, modalities and responsibilities that apply to South-South cooperation differ from those that apply to North-South cooperation”, and the complexity of “new actors”, who may still face poverty at home but want to share lessons and experiences along the way.

Unfavourable attention may have prompted China to become more public about its aid policy, said Wang. “The Chinese government does care about its international image and the international media.”

Even with the will to boost aid transparency, China still faces a “diplomatic dilemma” in enforcing it: to meet compliance both sides must be willing and able, and recipient countries with weak governments often have poor aid oversight.

“To carry out this principle [transparency] is not so easy in practice because it is influenced by circumstances of the governance structures of recipient countries and diplomacy, sometimes requiring some form of confidence,” Wang said.

Labelling the Chinese government as a “rogue donor” is disparaging and inaccurate, noted Germany-based researchers in their study of determinants of China’s aid in October 2011.

The researchers concluded that contrary to reigning perceptions of Chinese aid, the country is not a “rogue donor” - it disburses grants within national interests, as do other government donors.

Countries that do not recognize Taiwan as an independent country, and vote in line with China in the UN General Assembly, receive more aid, for example.

In 1950 during the Chinese Civil War a breakaway faction fled to Taiwan and established a separate government known as the Republic of China, but the People’s Republic of China on the mainland does not recognize the island state and continues to assert itself as the sole government over both the mainland and the island in what it calls the “One China” policy.

Criticism of aid transparency is not directed at China alone - Publish What You Fund lists the US Department of Treasury as “very poor” in aid transparency, with a ranking of 49 out of 58, only six slots above China - but China has further to go in aid governance than most, Joshua Kurlantzick, Southeast Asia fellow at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, told IRIN.

Most US government agencies have an inspector general, strong requirements under the Freedom of Information Act, and “release most of what they do to Congress [parliament]. You can't say the same for China,” Kurlantzick said.

Ear commented: “China surely understands that its aid policy is a work in progress.”

This article was first published in IRIN.