Understand China’s Foreign Aid to Africa from a Historical and Chinese Ethical Perspectives Since 1955

Authors: Han Yi, Zhang Quanyi [1]


Over the past several decades there has been a significant increase in the provision of foreign aid by the international community in particular, from the developed economies towards the developing economies. The delivery of foreign aid in the current era may be traced historically to the end of the World War II, starting with the USA’s Point Four Program[2] and the Marshall Plan[3] and these two programs generated significant FDI related-researches worldwide. In this context, FDI activities were viewed from the perspective of geopolitics, and political realists and world system theorists pointed to national interest and industrial exploitation as the most important motives underpinning foreign aid (Burchill, 2005:32). Foreign aid however, may be viewed from another angle, that is the ethical perspective, and this has historically been an important part of foreign aid programs. This is consistent with the argument that “foreign aid cannot be explained on the basis of the economic and political interests of the donor countries alone, and any satisfactory explanation must give a central place to the influence of humanitarian and egalitarian convictions upon aid donors” (Lumsdaine, 1993: 29). In other words, morality is an “important aspect of international economic relations” and hence by extension also of foreign aid “because of its focus on poverty, and its empowerment of the weakest groups and states in the international system” (Lumsdaine, 1993: 29). If this is true, then it is essential that foreign aid be also examined from an ethical point of view.

There are undoubtedly sharp differences between how the east and west defines or conceptualizes ethics in accounting for national behaviors. Chinese ethics for instance, is based on the blood or family-binding relations of its agrarian societies; and are also embedded deeply in the idea of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC) who believed that the family was central to such societies. The teachings of Confucius have impacted heavily on Chinese societies economically, politically and socially and this has endured despite the political transformations of China over recent decades (Lin & Ho, 2009). In particular, Chinese foreign policies have been deeply influenced by ethical discourses such as harmony (he和), justice (yi义) and righteousness (wang王). These ethical discourses have found expression in Chinese foreign policy which is based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence[4] and which stresses, among other things, the principles of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

The case of China’s foreign aid to Africa offers an opportunity for examining the way in which such aid has historically been based on these ethical premises. Chinese trade to Africa originated in the period of the Tang dynasty which ran from 618 to 907AD (Jinyuan, 1984). Sino-African relations became significantly more enhanced after the end of the Second World War when China commenced its foreign aid programs to Africa (Li, 2010:5) and consequently this drew more attention from the international community. The past several decades have seen changes in the modes of Chinese aid to Africa from purely free assistance to economic cooperation, and with it a shift in emphasis from supporting African countries in their pursuit of national independence to market-oriented economic cooperation. These changes have spawned both international attention and numerous debates among policy makers and scholars, but some aspects of Chinese aid programs have remained misunderstood nonetheless. For instance, it has not been fully understood how China could make good on its promise to Tanzania to construct the 1,860kms long Tan Zara railway while it was itself an impoverished country at that time (Shi, 2009:57); or, why China kept on increasing its aid, cancelling debt and increasing Sino-African economic cooperation dramatically even after the end of cold war. The tendency has been to view such actions as China’s neo-colonial attempts at relentlessly pursuing its own geo-political agenda in Africa (Global Policy Journal, 2014). Given the above, the argument which is put forward here is that China’s foreign aid to Africa has traditionally been widely influenced by the ethical concepts of harmony (he), justice (yi) and righteousness (wang). These concepts have remained core to China’s foreign aid over the decades, including to its current Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The rest of this paper will be structured as following: Section 2 provides an overview of the international background, political and economic foundations for Chinese ethics’ impact on China’s foreign aid to Africa, and its evolution. Section 3 then scrutinizes the influence of the three specific Chinese ethical concepts, i.e., harmony (he), justice (yi) and righteousness (wang) in three stages of China’s foreign aid to Africa since 1955. Section 4 concludes by providing a synthesis of the key findings and by suggesting how China could strengthen its foreign aid programs to Africa.

Investigating China’s Foreign Aid to Africa

2.1 Foundations for the Impact of Chinese Ethical Factors on China’s Foreign Aid to Africa

The impact of Chinese ethical factors on China’s foreign aid to Africa has a close relationship with their historical interaction and the political assistance China has received from Africa in contemporary era besides their distinct geographical relationship[5].

China-African interaction can be traced back as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) or earlier to the Silk Road which was about two thousand years ago (Rotberg, 2008: vii). Perhaps the most prominent period of Sino-African relationship in the history was China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), featured by Zheng He (1371–1433 or 1435) and his voyages to the East African coast. Although there are numerous comments on the motives of Zheng’s fleets, he was been satisfied to be taken merely as the “ambassador of friendship” (Wade, 2005). That China at the time did not attempt to colonize Africa despite its power relative to African countries shows that the way it viewed its international partners differed from that of European powers. Rather, Zheng carried large amount of gold, silver, porcelains to Africa for an exchange of local products (Arab America, 2015), which could be accounted as the expression of “putting harmony as the top priority (he wei gui)” and an epitome of China’s traditional diplomatic polices.

Although bilateral relationship between China and Africa did not cease since then, it was not as thriving as the time after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the independence of Africa. The Chinese government believed that both China and Africa had been suffered from colonialism, imperialism and hegemony of the two global super-powers and consequently people in China and Africa were not really in control of their own development. China therefore proposed to unite each other and to pursue independence in an all-round way[6]. Based on this, China advocated Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and Eight Principles for China’s foreign aid[7], composing guide policies for China’s foreign aid to Africa. As China conducted foreign aid in a different way from Western countries, it received a consensus from Africa and promoted Sino-African relationship to a new height.

There is another reason to explain why China insists on providing foreign aid to Africa, and this has to do with China’s appreciation for Africa’s support for its remaining the seat in the United Nations. For China, twenty-two years’ waiting for being accepted by the international arena was humiliating and it could not be realized without an affirmative vote by twenty-six African countries’ in the United Nations General Assembly in 1971. It was the proposal made by Albania and Algeria to recover the right of the People’s Republic of China in the United Nations and one third affirmative votes offered by African countries that enabled the new China to be admitted by international arena (Xinhua News, 2011). That’s why the then Chinese President Mao Zedong expressed: “we are always appreciated for the efforts made by African siblings in helping China to return to the United Nations” (Pei, 1994:290).

In a nutshell, China’s foreign aid to Africa is attributed to their similar historical experiences, mutual assistance and the attraction of aid principles China proposed. In specific, China’s foreign aid principles have an origin in Chines ethics.

2.2 Three Stages of China’s Foreign Aid to Africa

Three distinctive phases can be divided for China’s foreign aid to Africa based on Chinese domestic development situation and Sino-African interaction: a period of solidarity (1955-1978), a period of reform (1978-2000), and a period of comprehensive development (2000- ).

1955-1978: a period of solidarity

In accordance with the guiding ideology of “seeking common grounds while setting aside differences”, China began to expand its foreign aid from socialist countries to a wider range of developing countries in 1955 and Egypt became the first African country to be assisted in 1956. In this period, China’s foreign aid to Africa was characterized by free assistance despite the fact that China’s economic development itself lagged behind that of the more developed economies (Rotberg, 2008: 25). The $2.467 billion Chinese government had provided to thirty-six African countries during 1956 and 1977 had accounted for 58% of the total amount of its foreign aid (Li, 2006: 14), which was, to a large extent, dominated by morality and ideology to the international background that there was a harsh competition between east camp and west camp. Focused on the achievement of political independence in Africa, China’s foreign aid to Africa was guided by the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the following Eight Principles of Foreign Aid and China took Africa as an ally in its combatting imperialism, colonialism and hegemony.

1978-2000: a period of reform

Corresponding to the Reform and Opening up Policy China adopted in 1978, there was a transition of its foreign aid policy in this period. The figure of China’s foreign aid to Africa declined between 1978 and 1982 due to China’s reduction of budget as a result of its Cultural Revolution (Rotberg, 2008: 26). Aid to Africa was not increased until 1982 when the then Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang paid an official visit to Africa. It was also notable that the Four Principles of China’s Foreign Aid Policy was relieved in 1982. According to the Four Principles, there was a continuation of the former Eight Principles but a special emphasis was placed on “mutual benefit”. Besides, there was a shift of aid method. Chinese government hold a more active manner in advocating economic cooperation between China and Africa and both Chinese private sectors and international organizations became Chinese partners in offering foreign aid.

Since 2000: A period of Comprehensive Development

China’s reform and opening up policy has facilitated the Chinese economy dramatically, and transformed it from an impoverished state to an economic superpower (McCurry & Kollewe, 2011). Due to China’s further development and continue prominent in international arena, its relationship with Africa has been strengthened as well. The establishment of FOCAC in 2000s has trigger China’s aid to Africa in an overall way. According to statistics, Africa has been the top recipient country for Chinese foreign aid who has received 45.7% of the total PRM 256.29 billion China has provided in 2009(He, 2010). Concessional loans, taking China-Africa Development Fund as the main form, and cooperative projects rather than interest free loans were stressed by Chinese government and two Chinese banks – the Export-Import Bank of China (EIBC) and China Development Bank (CDB). Besides, technological cooperation and large-scale infrastructure construction, medical care assistance and humanitarian assistance have been developed and feature as key components of China’s aid programs to the continent (Xinhua News, 2015).

In short, in the first phase, China’s foreign aid to Africa was characterized by the establishment of a united front where common interests were pursued; in the second phase, as China focused on economic construction, China’s foreign aid to Africa served the country’s entire goal; and in the third phase, when China had made great strides in its economic development, its foreign aid was conducted in a more comprehensive way.

Impact of Chinese Ethical Perspectives on China’s Foreign Aid to Africa

3.1 The Advocate of Harmony (he) and China’s Foreign Aid to Africa (1955-1978)

Confucianism plays a pivotal role in Chinese morality, which conjures up Chinese way of thinking or roots of their culture. In business terms, such correlation is labeled as “Confucian businessmen” (ru shang) in history as it is now.

The perception of he has several meanings in Chinese. It refers to a state without warfare or conflict (he ping), and also a harmonious state where different opinions can coexist (he er bu tong). In terms of China’s foreign aid to Africa, the implementation has been well exerted by the discourse of he er bu tong, which was proposed by Confucius in the Analects. According to the Analects, the emperor is taken as the superb moral symbol of all under heaven. Emperor or people alike are called gentlemen (jun zi) while his citizens or little men are called humble men (xiao ren). “The gentlemen’s virtue is like wind and humble man’s, weeds. The wind blows over the weeds, the weeds bow.” (Chai, 1966:54). In dealing with the relationships between gentlemen and humble men, Confucius said, “Gentlemen are friendly to each other while they hold different opinions; humble men are hostile to each other when they blindly follow the others (jun zi he er bu tong, xiao ren tong er bu he)” (Wang, 2015), according to which, there is a sharp distinction between gentlemen and humble men. Different opinions can be harmoniously coexisted among gentlemen by seeking common grounds but it is not the case for humble men in that they always follow others’ idea without serious thought. Further, regarding the way of getting along with people of different ideas, Confucius said, “Never impose on others what I do not desire (ji suo bu yu wu shi yu ren)” (Wang, 2015). This coincides with the idea of harmony as there is a state in which “the application of the rites of harmony is to be prized”(li zhi yong, he wei gui) (Wang, 2015). This conception is also closely related to forbearance (Shu), which means putting oneself in the place of another especially when there are differences in between.

Accordingly, when it comes to China’s foreign aid to Africa, the impact of he is embedded in its practice as well as its conception, which could be manifested in the period of 1955 – 1978 in particular.

By conception, China and Africa share some similarities. China’s aid to Africa in this period has witnessed the sort of specific common grounds which is based on the fight against imperialism and colonialism. Due to the international circumstances China faced, i.e. it was challenged by isolation, impoverishment and international issues (Botberg, 2008: 297), China divided the whole world into socialist and capitalist camps, taking economic backward countries as intermediate zones to act as a buffer between the two. According to the Chinese government, aid to Africa during this period, for example, the Tanzania-Zambia railway which was financed by a $500 million interest-free loan from Beijing was on the basis of shared experiences and motivated by solidarity (Peng, 2017). This can further be learned from China’s foreign aid report in 1958 (Cpc.people.com.cn.,1958), from which, it said African recipient countries should be those who are economically backward but in the process of pursuing national independence (Communist Party of China, 1958). Also, this idea was reiterated by Chinese leaders since 1950s (Shi, 2009). For example, when Mao Zedong talked to Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda in 1958, he said, “It is the obligation for first independent countries to offer hands to those who are still struggling for independence” (Qin, 2017).

To make the concept more clearly, both the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence advocated by China in 1955and the Eight Principles of Foreign Aid in 1963-1964 have stated that there is a possibility for China and Africa to seek common grounds although some of them are of dissimilar social systems. Even there is divergence in human rights, China insists that human rights as well as political issues are originated endogenously that cannot be shifted by other countries. Bearing the confrontation against imperialism and colonialism, China offered $2.476billion in the form of free interest aid to thirty-six African countries in this period, accounting for 58% of its foreign aid amount (Li, 2006:14). Even some countries who had not established diplomatic relations with China were offered aid as well. In fact, China took aid as an approach to pursue more common grounds with these countries to create a comforting political environment especially when there was contradiction and conflict between recipient countries and American imperialism (Zhou, 1990:53).

However, there was one exception in deciding recipient countries, and this involved the international recognition of Taiwan. Once there was diplomatic relations between recipient countries and Taiwan, China would cease its foreign aid. Cases of Burkina Faso, Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe are examples of where this happened. Although China started to help Burkina Faso in constructing hospitals, government buildings, and stadiums and dispatched nine medical teams in 1970s, when the country established official relations with Taiwan, the Chinese government withdrew its aid to the country. The same was true for Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe. Once Taiwan started providing financial support to these countries for the construction of stadiums and health care centers, among other things, the Chinese government immediately discontinue its aid.

Challenges remain in the implementation of foreign aid in this period although the ethical belief of seeking common grounds while setting aside differences was followed. First, this period shows more aid goes to countries that stand typically opposite to the western camp and Soviet Union, which contains a strong sense of Chinese ideology (Bartke, 1989:114). Further, there is contentious comment referring to the balance between morality and national interest while more aid was offered to African countries that voted for China’s return to the UN General Assembly (Parks, 2015).

3.2 The Perception of Justice (yi) and China’s Foreign Aid to Africa (1978-2000)

There is no explicit definition of yi in the Analects. However, while Mencius defined justice as the right path of human beings (Wan and Lan, 2016:144), it confers the criteria to things that can be ethically accepted and morally justified. Chinese ethics attaches great importance to yi, which can be understood when yi was mentioned twenty-four times in the Analects and a hundred and eight times in the Book of Mencius. Among which, gentlemen were metaphorically referred to people who understand yi and humble men as people who keep his mind only on profits (Wang, 2015). Confucius said it is only with the hold of justice as the most importance can he be a true gentleman (Wang, 2015). In terms of pursuing li which refers to military and economic interest in politics, Chinese ethics asserts that people who chase li without a consideration of yi show a lack of ethics and this would consequently deprive them of power. In other words, li should be chased on the basis of conforming to certain ethical criteria as “riches and honors acquired by injustice, are to me as a floating cloud (Wang, 2015)”. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that yi has been given priority especially when it is compared with li.

Prioritizing yi does not mean an ignorance of material interest in Chinese ethics. Taking Mencius as an example, he mentioned that it is human nature and the appointment of heaven to “desire sweet tastes … beautiful colors … pleasant sound … fragrant odors … and ease and rest” (Wan and Lan, 2016: 318), which means that the pursuit of desire and appetites is acceptable. However, “there is a slight difference between human beings and beasts … it is gentlemen who preserve benevolence and justice while it is the humble men who lose the difference” (Wang, 2015). In this sense, while it is acceptable for people to seek li, it is still within the consideration of gentlemen to take yi as the first concern. Further, yi is supposed to be quested in an appropriate way. Benefit should and could be attained on the basis of sincerity, integrity and justice. While seeking benefit, people should always bear in mind the significance of justice (Wang, 2015). Benefit without justice is referred as dirty money in Chinese saying.

The emphasis of yi affects contemporary Chinese consideration of economic cooperation with African countries especially after 1978 when China adopted reform and opening up policy. As a matter of fact, it was mainly the open door policy that transformed China’s relations with Africa from political interest to combatting colonialism to economic and trade partners on the basis of market principles (Rotberg, 2008: 51). This could especially be drawn from Deng Xiaoping’s speech in 1979, in which, he said China’s foreign aid to Africa in the past decades was more than generous and was not sustainable, hence China should alter its offer in a different way in the future (Zhou, 2008). In accordance, the amount of interest-free aid during 1978-1982 fell from $100.9 million to $13.8 million (Snow, 1995: 306) and less aid was offered to communist countries (Copper, 2016). Rather, China shifted its interest-free loan to economic and technological cooperation with Africa. To make it more specific, the Ministry of Commerce began to be the leading department to manage China’s aid issues and it was stressed in the Opinions Regarding the Consolidation of Constructed Complete Projects that participation in technological cooperation with recipient countries were well encouraged (Zhang, 2014). As flexibility may emerge subject to the change of Chinese own security environment, taking Africa as a huge market with enormous potential consumers for Chinese companies driven by “going out” policy in the late 1970s, China has keep more balance between the two concepts of li and yi.

At a macro level, China’s engagement with Africa was fundamentally at a distinct contrast with Western countries, which could to a large extent, be influenced by the conception of yi. While western aid was featured by conditionality and selectivity (Burnside and Dollar, 2000), China insisted on its unique approach as a giver, featured by no conditional ties and out of the real need of recipient countries. Rather than Structural Adjustment Programs of OECD countries in 1980s and 1990s, which came to a limited or even negative growth of the recipient countries (Easterly, 2007), China claims that the aid to Africa was for the real needs of recipient countries and to advance their “hematopoiesis function” (Huang, 2007: 84), which means to help African people to develop their self-improvement ability (Xinhua News, 2015). This could be learned from the Five Principles of Sino-African Cooperation facing to the twenty-first Century[8] released in 1996 when the then Chinese president Jiang Zemin paid a state visit in Ethiopia. By this stage, China’s aid to Africa had increased from $110 million in 1990 to $3 billion in 2004, or roughly 26% of China’s total international aid (Kong, 2011).

The emphasis of enhancing “hematopoiesis function” as a way of expressing yi in aid could be explained by its heavy investment in infrastructure-centered sector. According to the Chinese saying that “to be rich, build a road first”, infrastructure was attached most importance to Chinese government based on its own development experience and also due to the failure of African government to provide those mandatories for development (UNDESA, 2007: 105). In this sense, the period from 1979 to 2000 witnessed 64% of Chinese investment going to the infrastructural sector, covering 800 construction projects, which has promoted employment to a large extent (Baah and Jauch, 2009: 18). Also, Chinese managers and workers in State-owned enterprises (SOEs) earned far less than their western counterpart, which has received welcome in Africa. Besides, Chinese government established Exim bank in 1994 to offer loans and up to 2006, the organ had provided financial support to 259 projects to 36 African countries with 79% of which were of industrial sector (He, 2010). Chinese government believes stressing on infrastructure is conducive to offer jobs and promote technologies, thus stimulating African entrepreneurs. In addition, there is a finding that Chinese investment is more prevalent in countries advantageous of skills, indicating that an exploitation of local comparative advantage is a big concern in the process. What is also convincing is that investment in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, which are capital-scarce ones are conducive for bring external financing to them (Chen et al, 2017). Taking the above information into consideration, the volume of Sino-African economic cooperation, which has been lifted from $1 billion to $10 billion could be viewed as a result of the melodious cooperation following the ethical perception yi.

When examining the micro level (i.e., the private sectors), there are some unexpected issues in practice. For private companies, it is undoubtedly that they hope profits can be made through contracting more foreign aid involved projects. Therefore, they will focus on areas that have better return such as cobalt and copper mining and they will hire more Chinese employees due to cultural differences and consideration on administrative cost. Further, as more Chinese private companies participate in infrastructure construction, some of them pursue instant outcome by drawing quicker and tangible results (Mohan et al, 2010). Those short-term results are probably at the cost of a high dependence on natural resources or ignorance of aftermath administration. For instance, some Chinese foreign aid projects are referred as turn-key projects, which mean they will turn over administration to local government after construction, resulting in executive inefficiencies (He, 2010). As the control of business has been challengeable with the liberalization process of market especially to those in far-off Africa (Taylor, 2009: 167), the micro level has seen inconformity with Chinese advocated yi.

With China’s increasing involvement in economic cooperation during this period, there was a stronger voice concerning China’s hunger for natural resources in the continent, which was a pure pursuit of sheer interest and runs counter to China’s advocacy of yi. While less than 9% of the amount went to energy and resources industry and a larger proportion was for the construction of transportation, communications and electricity infrastructure, based on China’s foreign aid policy report (UNICEF, 2011), suggest that these statements were somewhat groundless. However, no further detailed data is available concerning the respective benefit of China and Africa in the process. Nevertheless, given the continued criticism towards Chinese private sector in Africa, there is still a long way to go before the speculation of China’s motivation in aiding Africa be removed.

3.3 The Concept of Righteousness (wang) and China’s Foreign Aid to Africa (2000- )

The concept of righteousness (wang) has been evolved with the debate against hegemony (ba) in Chinese history. The concept was first proposed by Chinese philosopher, Mencius. When Mencius proposed his idea of differentiating wang from ba, he believed that wang was a kind of management that wins people with morality or benevolence (ren), while ba was characteristic of conquering others through military force. For Confucius, wang refers to winning other nations by virtue rather than through military force. It is especially understandable that the viewpoint that “the one who is rich should help those who are being poor at the moment (qiong ze du shan qi shen, da zhe jian ji tian xia) (Wan and Lan, 2016: 288) be combined with Confucius’ perception that “all under heaven are of one family (jia tian xia). According to this Chinese mentality, all the world belongs to one big family, which not stress on the importance of blood linage within individual families, but rather puts emphasis on the inter-connectedness of society and the world. This conception does not seem very different from the current idea of interdependence liberalism that believes that security, interests and development intertwine and help each other.

To establish a harmonious tian xia, Confucius combined the idea of self-cultivation, family harmony, country management and world peace (xiu shen qi jia zhi guo ping tian xia) and differentiate the self-discipline of nations from the self-examination of individuals, which comes to the saying that one should examine himself three times every day (yi ri san xing wu shen) (Wang, 2015).

The 21st century has seen further development of the conception Wang to the backdrop of globalization, during which countries were more integrated and interdependent with each other. It is repeatedly claimed by China that the country did not seek military force or commercial interest in its prosperous Ming dynasty when Zheng He made a number of distant voyages, hence it would never seek hegemony when it has been the second strongest economy in the world. Rather, it claims to be a “great power diplomacy with responsibilities’ (fu zeren de daguo waijiao) and a desire to help the poor out. For example, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi declared in the 68th General Assembly that China would fulfill its international responsibility and obligation in a steadfast manner (China News, 2013). To form it as a theory, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed to create a community of common destiny[9] among all the human beings and stress that Sino-African relationship should be an inevitable component of the common destiny (Xinhua News, 2017).

Both the implementation of FOCAC and the BRI in that period could serve as a way to express China’s understanding of the conception Wang, which is more like pleasing the near one and attracting the far one (jin zhe yue yuan zhe lai) and contrast to Trump’s “Make America great again” or “America first”, an assertion of nationalism (Wang, 2016,Economist. 2017).

Firstly, there is a series of debt exemptions under the framework of FOCAC. Holding the aim of “collective dialogue, exchanging experience in governance and enhancing mutual trust and cooperation in practical terms between China and Africa” (China Daily, 2006), China honored its pledge of relieving or reducing $2.81 billion debt of 35 African countries between 2000 – 2009 (China news, 2010) and further 16 debt relief in 9 African countries in 2010-2012, equaling to $0.21 billion (Xu, 2015). The new process of debt cancelation has boosted bilateral trade between China and Africa, producing mutual commercial benefit. In accordance with graph 1, the total amount of Sino-African trade has arrived at $ 198.49 billion in 2012 and it is still accelerating at a speedy rate.

(Source:  Brautigam, “China Africa Economic and Trade Coop. 2013”)

Secondly, when an assertion concerning China’s ambition of being the leader of the third world since it became an increasingly important economy (New York Times, 2005), there is a different mechanism designed by Chinese government in the form of FOCAC, a kind of pleasing the near one and attracting the far one (jin zhe yue yuan zhe lai). For example, taking the forum as a platform for consultancy and collective dialogue, topics for economic development and regional conflict of the continent are discussed (Xinhua News, 2006). In specific, while there was an upgrade of China’s FDI in Africa both in quantity and quality, which raised from $5.54billion in 2006 to $19.49 billion in 2013 and is still growing at an annual rate of 20.5% (Du, 2014), special funds and programs for the training of African talents including African Human Resources Development Fund and IMF-based fund for African professional courses were provided (Li, 2006). For example, the establishment of China International Poverty Alleviation in 2005 hosted two fifteen-day training courses for poverty reduction in African poorest areas. Working groups were set up by the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Agriculture to enhance collaboration on agriculture-related fields (Rotberg, 2008: 301).

When it comes to its relationship with conflict regions in Africa, China prefers to conduct economic cooperation rather than politically marginal or trade sanctions upon these countries. Take Sudan as a case. As the poorest and most violent country in Africa, South Sudan was shattered due to the onset of its civil war. Despite this, the Chinese government insists that economic integration is conducive for a stable Sudan hence political settlement, rather than military means, should be the only way to address Darfur issue (Xinhua News, 2017). With this acknowledgement, China offered RMB 0.16 billion ($24 million) as humanitarian aid to Sudan up to 2010 (Ifeng News, 2010). As peaceful development and non-interference mainly compose the Five Principles of Peaceful Cooperation, it is convincing that China abstained twice from voting sanction to Sudan in the UN Security Council. Nevertheless, China’s assertion of positive solution to the Darfur issue, contrasts sharply with that of the West. In the views of Washington post (2006), the reason of Sudan’s refusing UN peacekeepers is the lack of international pressure and China’s aid without taking this into consideration is irresponsible, hence more pressure should present by the international community for its acceptance of UN peacekeepers.

China’s propose of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013 could be accounted as another expression of its aid morality, featured by the claim of “New Conception of Yi and Li”, including harmony (qin), sincerity (cheng), mutual beneficiary (hui) and inclusiveness (rong), a perception delivered by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013. As China’s standpoint of globalization 2.0, BRI serves as a counterpoint to the current international economic system dominated by the US government. According to the initiative, the current international economic system dominated by the US is by far uneven and problems popped up in economic globalization as well. These problems, namely, lack of robust driving forces for economic growth, inadequate global economic governance and uneven global economic development (Xinhua News, 2017) has hindered development of backward economies including Africa. Therefore, BRI is to invite those lagged-behind countries to attend China’s fast track as China has achieved dramatically in the past several decades. In other words, China, as a rising power, is willing help Africa out of poverty by boosting economic and cultural ties.

Since its initiative, quite a few tentative achievements have been made including the completion of $3 billion Standard Gauge Railway running from Mombasa to Nairobi (Hayoun, 2017). However, questions still remain. For instance, there is a contradiction between China’s claim of its mutual benefit motivation through economic cooperation and the result of China’s better off in the process of outbound deals, which means the huge amount has literally better off China’s own advanced technology and for the benefit of its excessive industries and the channel of Chinese domestic poorer areas (John, 2017, Bennett, 2017). Besides, while China’s aid to Africa has attracted attention from the west, presuming it as a way to challenge the current global order, how can the country convince the world that it is not to practice another tribute system?


This paper has provided an assessment, based on Chinese ethics, of China’s foreign aid to Africa since the 1950s. During the evaluation, the ethical conception he (harmony) was embodied in China’s pursuit of common grounds with Africa due to their similar historical experiences in the first stage while yi (justice) was reflected in its economic cooperation with Africa, intending to put justice at the top priority and offer aid to the real need of recipient countries. In addition, wang was given expression to a comprehensive establishment of aid mechanism and an even more ambitious initiative of BRI, a different way with American nationalism since China became the largest developing country in the world.

The broad connection between Chinese ethics and China’s aid to Africa in the past decades is to a large extent coherent despite the diverse and changeable emphasis of the aid per se. It was revealed that China undertook aid to show who it considered to be its real friends during the harsh period of the cold war when there is a distinct difference between east and west camps. In this phase, altruism was dominant. Further, while the expression of Chinese ethics is still relevant, it received an obscure recognition from the west probably due to China’s emphasis on economic development. Despite of this, China’s stressing on ethics in foreign aid has circumvented the dilemma faced by the west, which has made it a positive image in Africa.

As China is in the midst of expanding its economic and corporate relations in Africa, which is often labeled as the “Beijing Consensus” (Sautman and Yan, 2007), and also, China introduced BRI for a better international cooperation and global governance, it is of vital importance for China to be better understood when it intends to implement its aid to Africa for a better African continent, based on its ethics. Therefore, this paper proposed the following suggestions:

Firstly, as a country with long ethical history which was stemmed from the spring and autumn period some 1400 years ago, China is supposed to make assiduous efforts on researches about its relationship with foreign aid, especially when the rise of Chinese foreign aid poses pressure to traditional donors. Since 2000, China has released a series of documents concerning its foreign aid including China’s African Policies in 2006, China’s Foreign Aid in 2011, 2013,2014 etc., there is still deficiency in detailed researches from ethical perspective. Due to its distinct different values concerning foreign aid between China and the west, researches in this regard will help Chinese foreign aid be better understood. Besides, for a deeper exchanges of aid values between China and the west, it is necessary for China to extend its cooperation with western countries or international organizations instead of the dominance of bilateral communication between China and Africa at present. Through which, a communication of Chinese ethics would be conceived and also, the efficiency of foreign aid would be improved.

Secondly, although there is a huge amount of China’s foreign aid in Africa since 1950s including interest-free aid and concessional lending, the leading department of the Ministry of Commerce in aid issue is subjective to create ambiguity, which intends to gain economic benefit in the process. Therefore, a specific organization, such as German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) for foreign aid or development assistance is suggested here to establish, taking responsibility for China’s foreign aid and international economic cooperation, which will be consistent to China’s advocacy of morality. Meanwhile, it is better to differentiate foreign aid from economic cooperation, as Chinese conduction at present contradicts the existing understanding of ODA set forth by OECDs. Detailed information is needed especially for the use of aid budget, say, how the budget is used in specific countries and how those recipient countries benefit from the aid. A greater transparency and standardization of foreign aid is beneficial to remove concern from the outside.

And finally, while there is inconformity between macro level and micro level in conducting foreign investment in Africa, much more can be done to standardize the implementation rules. For one thing, China needs to enhance the social responsibility among enterprises to make sure that the private sector goes in accordance with the central goal. For another, the increasing expansion of foreign aid in Africa is better to be accompanied by commonly recognized and practical standards. When the Ministry of Commerce introduced The Measures for the Administration of Complete Foreign Aid Projects in 2008, it was a kind of overall framework, which is hard to be put into practice. In this sense, more measurable terms and conditions are needed for standardization of projects from planning, auditing, implementing and assessing.


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[1] Hanyi, Foreign Affair Office of Jingan, Shanghai; Zhang Quanyi, Prof.  Zhejiang Wanli University, Institute of Ningbo Marine Silk Road

[2] The Point Four Program was given by former US president Harry Truman in 1949, when he had an inauguration speech. In his speech, Truman suggested his “new bold program” for a better world after the end of the Second World War, which include the avocation of making UN a stronger organ, the continuation of foreign aid for the recovery of the world economy, the assistance of “freedom-loving nations” and the initiative of scientific and technological programs to underdeveloped countries. (USAID,1949)

[3] Marshall Plan was issued by former US secretary George C. Marshall for the recovery of European economic infrastructure. Providing over $13billion by the form of “fuel, raw materials, goods, loans and food, machinery and adviser”, it is always known as “European Recovery Program”. (Hogan, 1987)

[4] The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence include mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence, proposed by then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1953, acting as the fundamental principle for Chinese diplomatic policy up to now.

[5]Chinese former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao once composed poem “I am back home “for Sino-African friendship when he had a state visit in Africa: “The friendship between China and Africa cannot be severed despite the Great Wall’s far away from Lake Victoria”. (Xinhua news, 2006)

[6] The precedent appeal was made in 1955 when the then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai made a speech in Bandung Conference.

[7] The Eight Principles of Foreign Aid was proposed by the then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1964 when he paid a state visit to Africa. It includes: 1, The Chinese Government always bases itself on the principle of equality and mutual benefit in providing aid to other countries. It never regards such aid as a kind of unilateral alms but as something mutual; 2, In providing aid to other countries, the Chinese Government strictly respects the sovereignty of the recipient countries, and never attaches any conditions or asks for any privileges; 3, China provides economic aid in the form of interest-free or low-interest loans and extends the time limit for the repayment when necessary so as to lighten the burden of the recipient countries as far as possible; 4, In providing aid to other countries, the purpose of the Chinese Government is not to make the recipient countries dependent on China but to help them embark step by step on the road of self-reliance and independent economic development;5, The Chinese Government tries its best to help the recipient countries build projects which require less investment while yielding quicker results, so that the recipient governments may increase their income and accumulate capital; 6, The Chinese Government provides the best-quality equipment and material of its own manufacture at international market prices. If the equipment and material provided by the Chinese Government are not up to the agreed specifications and quality, the Chinese Government undertakes to replace them; 7, In giving any particular technical assistance, the Chinese Government will see to it that the personnel of the recipient country fully master such technique; 8, The experts dispatched by China to help in construction in the recipient countries will have the same standard of living as the experts of the recipient country. The Chinese experts are not allowed to make any special demands or enjoy any special amenities.(Ministry of Commerce PRC,2017)

[8] The Five Principles of Sino-African Cooperation was released in 1996 when the then Chinese president Jiang Zemin paid a state visit to Ethiopia, which include:1, sincerity and friendly, form all-weather friendship between China and Africa;2, equality and mutual respect each other’s sovereignty, never interfere in internal affairs; 3, mutual benefit and strive for mutual development; 4,stress communication and emphasize cooperation in international arena; 5,create a future-oriented better world.

[9] The concept was initially proposed by Chinese president Xi Jinping in late 2012 when he represented his perception that “the world has increasingly grown into a community where one’s destiny is interwoven with that of another.”(Xinhua News, 2017).


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