New head of CIDCA Luo Zhaohui writes an essay in the People’s Daily to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Chinese aid
In 2021, China is officially celebrating the 70th anniversary of its foreign assistance. On 5 July, the People’s Daily (人民日报) published an essay by CIDCA’s new director Luo Zhaohui 罗照辉, with the expressive title “Seven Decades of Foreign Aid. Braving Wind and Rain on Five Continents” (七十年援外路 五大洲风雨情). In there, Luo presents the new official narrative on the past and the future of Chinese aid. Before you read the translation below, here are 5 takeaways (and a bonus).
1. (Re)periodisation: Periodisation is an essential tool of Chinese official history writing. How something is periodised and judged, what is mentioned and not, says a lot about the current political line. In Luo’s essay, we see a new periodisation, which is quite different from the periodisation of the Hu/Wen era. Luo divides the history of Chinese foreign aid into three phases, which in a nutshell can be summarised as Mao-era, Xi-era and the rest. It goes:
- 1950-1978: From the founding of New China to the Reform and Opening-up foreign aid focused on political effects (政治效应) and culminated with the PRC assuming the China seat at the UN
- 1978-2012: From Reform and Opening-up to the 18th Party Congress, foreign aid focused on economic effects and was constantly undergoing reform
- Post-2012/18th Party Congress: In the New Era under Xi Jinping characterised by Xi’s ideas and guidance, innovation, continuous institutional improvement, expansion and proposing Chinese solutions to global challenges.
Though the “New Era” is so far the shortest, the respective section is longer than the others, implying that Xi’s contributions overweight what came before him. For comparison, previously, the periodisation in official documents (e.g. in the 2011 Chinese Foreign Aid White Paper (中国的对外援助. 白皮书)) or in academic and policy articles that discussed the official line (e.g. in Zhou Hong’s 周弘 2017 volume China’s Foreign Aid. 60 Years in Retrospect) was as following:
- 1950-1978: The same as in Luo’s essay
- 1978-the 1990s: From Reform and Opening-up on transition from politically motivated economic aid of the Mao Era to multi-form mutually beneficial cooperation
- the 1990s-2004: From the market-oriented reforms of the 1990s to the beginning of the Hu/Wen era, which is the period when the “Grand Strategy of Industry and Trade” reforms under Minister of Trade Mme. Wu Yi 吴仪 in the mid-1990s started to link aid with trade and investment. The reforms were characterised by setting up foreign aid joint-ventures, the establishment of the Exim Bank, and the introduction of concessional loans as the main form of foreign aid (issued by the Exim Bank) – which they are till today.
- foreign aid in the 21st Century/since 2004: A period of rapid development, with scale expansion (especially to Africa through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation FOCAC), a rapid increase of foreign aid volumes, new focus on “people-centred” assistance (social projects and humanitarian aid) and institutional reforms.
Except for the Mao era, Luo’s essay merges everything else into one period. What could be the reason? See next point.
2. The main characteristic of foreign aid in the New Era means “the political and the economic benefit each other” (政经相长). Luo writes that
Since the 18th Party Congress, foreign aid work has entered a New Era. Top-level design and strategic planning have been strengthened so that the political and the economic benefit each other, domestic and external goals benefit
During the Mao era, foreign aid had been under the personal oversight of Zhou Enlai, who was both the Premier the top diplomat. With the onset of the Reform and Opening-up period, foreign aid was transferred to the Department of Foreign Aid (对外援助司) within 1982 newly established Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade (对外经济贸易部) headed by Zhou’s protegée, Mme. Chen Muhua 陈慕华. Chen was an aid veteran; she had been in charge of Chinese aid Africa since 1961 and reporting directly to Zhou. Since then, foreign aid has always been under the roof of Chinese ministries in charge of foreign trade and since its establishment in 2003 under the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM 商务部). Their main line of thought was how to best use aid to support China’s own economic development, particularly the internationalisation of Chinese companies. For long, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA, 外交部) wanted to gain more control of foreign aid, which has also always been a strategic foreign policy tool.
Up to the Xi era, MOFCOM was on the winning side, in particular, because its ministers were promoted to the State Council and ranked higher than those held by former MFA ministers. This changed under Xi, giving MFA more power than it had ever before. In the foreign aid reform of 2018, MOFCOM lost the coordination of foreign aid. The new vice-ministry level China International Development Cooperation Agency CIDCA (国家国际发展合作署) incorporated MOFCOM’s Department of Foreign Aid took over all the aid coordination responsibilities from MOFCOM. The reform moved aid much closer to foreign policy. CIDCA reports to the State Council, and in there to Wang Yi 王毅, who also happens to be the Foreign Minister. Luo Zhaohui, who was appointed as CIDCA’s new director in April 2021, was previously the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs. He may have a new post, but he is still reporting to his old boss. Given all that, it is not surprising that in the new periodisation, the reforms put on track by trade and commerce ministers, including the introduction of concessional loans that remain the main form of Chinese aid till today, are kind of swept under the rug.
The New Era characteristic that “the political and the economic benefit each other” implies: first, that from MFA’s point of view, under the MOFCOM-led aid system, foreign aid benefit primarily the economic and not the political; and second, that foreign policy has won this round and now has a much stronger say in foreign aid than it had ever before. Nevertheless, the question remains how much influence the MFA has on the actual implementation. After all, the responsibility for implementing projects has remained with MOFCOM, which still sees it as its task to support the “going global” of Chinese companies.
3. There is a strong focus on the CCP: The Party visibly occupies a very central position in the text. The word “party” 党 alone is mentioned 21 times, and the essay is full of references between foreign aid and the Party:
China’s foreign aid is […] a great practice of the CCP’s original aspiration and founding mission in the cause of human progress
中国对外援助是 […] 中国共产党初心使命在人类进步事业中的伟大实践
China’s foreign aid […] is an important chapter in the CCP’s century-long glory
中国对外援 […] 是中国共产党百年辉煌的重要篇章
We have always adhered to the centralised and unified leadership of the Party over foreign aid work. Foreign aid work is the responsibility of the central government and a state act, therefore we must firmly uphold the centralised and unified leadership of the Party. Since its inception, China’s foreign aid has been carried out under the direct leadership of the Party. The Party’s leadership of foreign aid work has remained rock-solid despite several adjustments to the institutional mechanism. The new round of institutional reform of foreign aid embodies the Party’s centralised and unified leadership in the core of the foreign aid system
we have always adhered to the core mission of serving the Party and the State
China’s foreign aid has inherited the essence of Chinese excellent traditional culture and has manifested the Chinese Communist Party’s global vision.
For comparison, the Party is not mentioned once in the 2011 Chinese Foreign Aid White Paper, and neither in the 2014 White Paper.
4. There is a strong focus on Xi Jinping: The argumentative structure of Luo’s essay elevates Xi to the level of Mao Zedong in terms of ideological leadership and to Zhou Enlai in terms of contributions to foreign aid. The equation with Mao is clear from the re-periodisation discussion in point 1; Xi’s contributions in the New Era are described as following:
General Secretary Xi Jinping has put forward the idea of building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind and the “Belt and Road” Initiative, as well as such important concepts as the correct approach to justice and interests, and principles of sincerity, real results, affinity, and good faith [for developing relations with other developing countries] and the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness [for expanding relations with neighbouring countries] to provide strategic guidance for foreign aid work in the new era.
Xi’s equation with Zhou Enlai is clear from this passage:
In the 1960s, Premier Zhou Enlai announced the Eight Principles of Economic and Technical Foreign Aid, centring on equality and mutual benefit with no conditions attached. General Secretary Xi Jinping has put forward the correct approach to justice and interests.
Zhou Enlai can be legitimately described as the father of Chinese foreign aid. His “Eight Principles of Economic and Technical Foreign Aid” (对外经济技术援助八项原则) have been the guiding principles of Chinese foreign aid since their proclamation during his Africa tour in 1964. It can be deduced from Luo’s essay, that according to the official line, Xi’s “correct approach to justice and interests” (正确义利观) is as important a contribution to Chinese foreign aid as Zhou’s Eight Principles. The “correct approach to justice and interests” means 义利并举、以义为先, upholding justice while pursuing shared interests with giving priority to justice. (Official translations also sometimes translate 义 as “righteousness” and 利 as “benefit”.) The concept was first brought up by Xi Jinping during his visit to Africa in March 2013 and is now named as a core principle of Xi’s thought on diplomacy. Official sources define it as: showing more consideration for the interests of poor countries; seeking mutual benefits rather than zero-sum games (which Chinese diplomats often accuse the US of); providing aid at the expense of their own interests when needed, and not shading their interests to China’s advantage.
5. Aid now, per definition, promotes “stability” (稳定): This point is probably noticeable only to someone who has read enough official texts to notice small differences. This one was like a stumbling block. In fact, Luo mentions “stability” only twice:
Our Party put the Marxist ideas of internationalism and humanitarianism into practice by using foreign aid to support economic development, social stability, and the improvement of the people’s living standards in recipient countries.
Foreign aid has contributed enormously to developing countries’ economic and social development and the world’s prosperity and stability.
But, this line of foreign aid contributing to (social) stability in developing countries has not been in earlier White Papers or any important foreign aid texts. (If it was somewhere, and I missed it, please let me know.) Judging from more recent texts, stability in this context is clearly linked to regime stability or the absence of social unrest. I recommend reading Jerker Hellström’s entry on “Peace” in the Decoding China Dictionary for more context. Though not specifically part of foreign aid, China is exporting surveillance technologies through Huawei’s “Safe City” and ZTE’s “Smart City” projects, and there is a significant worry that the flipside of “stability” is negative repercussions for civil liberties.
Bonus – There is what they call in cinema an Easter Egg: Despite the strong reorientation towards Xi Jinping and “the new era” (新时代), the past is still present in Chinese aid and in Luo’s article. Luo starts off with a Mao quote:
When the New China was just founded, comrade Mao Zedong proposed that “China should make a greater contribution to mankind.
What he does not mention is that Mao is referring here to the first president of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen, whom both the CCP and the Guomindang regard as the father of modern China. This quote originates from an essay written by Mao in 1956 to commemorate Sun Yatsen and is often used in the aid discourse to explain the philosophical roots of Chinese aid and China’s relations with developing countries. The whole passage goes:
In memory of the great revolutionary forerunner Dr. Sun Yat-sen!
To commemorate his great achievement in developing the “Three Principles of the People” […]
He left us a lot of useful things in political and ideological aspects.
[…] Being a country with 9.6 million square kilometres of land and 600 million people, China should make a greater contribution to mankind. In the past, we have contributed too little, and it makes us ashamed.
But why Sun Yat-sen? Because Sun’s 1918 book The International Development of China (which was only later translated into China as 实业计划) was, in the words of William Easterly, “the world’s first development plan”. China would receive international development assistance for its economic and industrial revolution in exchange for access to its natural resources. Sun failed to get support for his plan at the League of Nations at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, but his ideas of mutually beneficial aid and technocratic development are still the core of Chinese aid thinking.
Seven Decades of Foreign Aid – Braving Wind and Rain on Five Continents (People’s Daily, 5 July 2021, p. 12)
China’s foreign aid is a concrete embodiment of the sinicization of Marxist internationalist ideology, a great practice of the CCP’s original aspiration and founding mission in the cause of human progress, and the epochal interpretation of the traditional Chinese culture’s concepts of great harmony of everything under heaven. When the New China was just founded, comrade Mao Zedong proposed that “China should make a greater contribution to mankind.” General Secretary Xi Jinping stressed, “The CCP is a political party that strives for the happiness of the Chinese people and fights for the cause of human progress.”
China’s foreign aid has gone through a glorious history of more than 70 years and is an important chapter in the CCP’s century-long glory. Especially since the 18th Party Congress, China’s foreign aid has ushered in a new era and has assumed a new role.
Presently, the COVID-19 epidemic is still raging, virus mutations are accelerating, the vaccine gap is growing, the global economy is struggling to recover, and economic inequality is widening. More than ever, the world needs to support each other to jointly respond to these challenges.
China has bravely stepped up the challenge. Under the personal command and deployment of General Secretary Xi Jinping, China has taken the lead both in the fight against the epidemic and in economic recovery, while at the same time carrying out emergency humanitarian operations in the shortest time and in the broadest scope since the founding of New China.
This operation can be divided into two halves. Last year, China provided 150 countries and 13 international organisations with large quantities of equipment to fight the COVID-19 pandemic such as masks, protective clothing and respirators, and sent 37 teams of medical experts to 34 countries, organising nearly 1,000 sessions of technical guidance and sharing China’s experience in fighting the pandemic. This is the first half of our assistance, which focuses on the provision of materials and the exchange of experience in fighting the pandemic. This year, we have resolutely implemented General Secretary Xi Jinping’s commitment to make vaccines a global public good, and have started the second half of the operation, which focuses on vaccine assistance. Despite its own huge demand and a tight supply of vaccines, China has, to the best of its ability, supplied more than 480 million vaccine doses to nearly 100 countries and many international organisations, making China the largest supplier of vaccines in the world. Since the end of April, the epidemic in South Asia has once again become an emergency. China promptly launched the “Emergency Support Plan for South Asia against the Pandemic”, making use of both “halves” of its approach and providing both equipment and vaccines.
This large-scale aid to combat the epidemic is still ongoing. By putting the idea of a Global Community of Health for All into practice, China has demonstrated the unique advantages of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, in sharp contrast to the cold response of some Western countries to the evolving crisis in other countries.
Looking back at history, even when we were not well-off, we provided a lot of aid. To date, we have provided all kinds of assistance to more than 160 developing countries, implemented thousands of turn-key and material assistance projects, carried out tens of thousands of technical cooperation and human resources development cooperation projects, and trained more than 400,000 people. 70 years of foreign aid can be roughly divided into three periods.
From the founding of New China to the Reform and Opening-up period (1950-1978), foreign aid started quickly and with great investment, focusing on political effects. The New China started to give foreign aid shortly after its founding, first to neighbouring socialist countries such as Vietnam and North Korea, and gradually expanding to support national liberation movements in many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The forms of aid ranged from the provision of goods to the construction of productive projects; all used to support the development of the national economies of the recipient countries. The Tanzania-Zambia Railway and the Karakorum Highway have become iconic symbols of Chinese aid. In the wake of the profound adjustment of the Sino-American-Soviet triangle, Comrade Mao Zedong put forth the “Three Worlds” theory, and the investment in foreign aid reached a new high, particularly in 1971 when the African brothers helped China recover its rightful seat in the United Nations. Our Party put the Marxist ideas of internationalism and humanitarianism into practice by using foreign aid to support economic development, social stability, and the improvement of the people’s living standards in recipient countries. At the same time, foreign aid also helped China break the Western blockade, expand its circle of friends and raise its international influence and status.
During the period from Reform and Opening-up to the 18th Party Congress (1978-2012), foreign aid underwent substantive reforms focused on economic effects. Our Party correctly determined that peace and development were the themes of the times, and the core mission of the Party and the State shifted to economic construction. Foreign aid work underwent major adjustments and shifted from the assistance to the construction of productive projects towards constructing landmark buildings such as stadiums and parliament buildings. Later, optimisation and adjustment were continued with a focus on the long-term effectiveness of projects and the diversification of project types, forms of financing and means of assistance, all while placing greater emphasis on equality and mutual benefit and using aid to facilitate trade. During this period, foreign aid has contributed enormously to developing countries’ economic and social development and the world’s prosperity and stability. At the same time, foreign aid created a strong impetus for Chinese enterprises to go global, playing a profound role in China’s reform and opening-up process, and deepened China’s political and economic cooperation with other developing countries.
Since the 18th Party Congress, foreign aid work has entered a new era. Top-level design and strategic planning have been strengthened so that the political and the economic benefit each other, domestic and external goals benefit, and bilateral and multilateral initiatives are developed simultaneously. In terms of concepts, there has been constant innovation: Keeping the whole world in his mind and the common people in his heart, General Secretary Xi Jinping put forward the idea of building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind and the “Belt and Road” Initiative, as well as such important concepts as the correct approach to justice and interests, and principles of sincerity, real results, affinity, and good faith [for developing relations with other developing countries] and the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness [for expanding relations with neighbouring countries] to provide strategic guidance for foreign aid work in the new era. In terms of institutional mechanisms, there has been a continuous improvement: Particularly, the establishment of the China Agency for International Development Cooperation (CIDCA) in 2018, as an agency directly under the State Council, has further strengthened the unified management and coordination of foreign aid work, providing important institutional safeguards to promote the quality and upgrading of international development cooperation. In terms of dimensions, there has been constant expansion: While focusing on serving head-of-state diplomacy, complementing major foreign policy strategies and the BRI, and promoting bilateral aid, foreign aid work has held high the banner of multilateralism and accelerated the transformation to international development cooperation. At several UN summits and other multilateral occasions, General Secretary Xi Jinping announced a number of major initiatives, including establishing the South-South Cooperation Assistance Fund and the Academy for South-South Cooperation and Development. China has proposed Chinese solutions and contributed Chinese strength to promote the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and solve global development challenges.
Foreign aid has made significant achievements and accumulated valuable experience over the past 70 years.
First, we have always adhered to the centralised and unified leadership of the Party over foreign aid work. Foreign aid work is the responsibility of the central government and a state act, therefore we must firmly uphold the centralised and unified leadership of the Party. Since its inception, China’s foreign aid has been carried out under the direct leadership of the Party. The Party’s leadership of foreign aid work has remained rock-solid despite several adjustments to the institutional mechanism. The new round of institutional reform of foreign aid embodies the Party’s centralised and unified leadership in the core of the foreign aid system and mechanism, and runs through the whole chain of foreign aid management, providing a strong political guarantee for foreign aid work in the new era.
Second, we have always adhered to the core mission of serving the Party and the State. At different stages of history, foreign aid work has always been subordinated to the Party and the State’s overall external strategy and has always fought on the front line of external relations. Foreign aid work has been unceasingly practised, explored, and innovated according to the changes in the domestic and external situation. From focusing on politics, stressing the economy, and the political and the economic benefitting each other, we have timely adjusted the investment of resources and continuously optimised the approach to foreign aid. It has played an irreplaceable and important role in the smooth progress of the core work of the Party and the State.
Third, we have always adhered to the path of foreign aid with Chinese characteristics. China’s foreign aid has inherited the essence of Chinese excellent traditional culture and has manifested the Chinese Communist Party’s global vision. In the 1960s, Premier Zhou Enlai announced the Eight Principles of Economic and Technical Foreign Aid, centring on equality and mutual benefit with no conditions attached. General Secretary Xi Jinping has put forward the correct approach to justice and interests. We uphold both justice and interests but give priority to justice. What we show are friendship and trust, and what we seek are cooperation and mutual benefit.
Fourth, we have always adhered to the concept of people-centred development. We have prioritised the people’s livelihood, putting the eradication of hunger and poverty at the top of our agenda, and putting great effort into increasing the sense of gain among ordinary people [literally: people at the grass-roots level] in recipient countries. Our foreign aid is a mutual help among friends. It not only actively promotes the improvement of people’s livelihood and economic development in recipient countries but also creates a favourable external environment for our development and people’s happiness, which also reflects the saying that “Giving roses to others leaves a fragrance in your hand”.
Seventy years of being combed by the wind and washed by the rain, seventy years of forging ahead. Looking back at history, we feel deeply proud. Looking ahead, we remain true to our original aspirations. In the next step, we will devote ourselves to promoting South-South cooperation. Taking the people’s livelihood as the priority, [our aid] will closely align with our position as a developing country. We will adhere to the character of South-South Cooperation, focusing on development, “teaching people how to fish”, joining hands to respond to global challenges, embodying great power responsibility and manners, keeping our promises, and doing the best we can within our means. We will devote our efforts to building a Global Community of Health for All. Taking health as a priority, we will fully support international cooperation against COVID-19, we will continue to provide assistance with equipment needed to fight the pandemic and vaccines. We will help affected countries improve their public health systems through assistance in building infrastructure, providing medical equipment and strengthening personnel training. We will devote our efforts to building a Community of Life for Man and Nature. We will focus on green [development], help developing countries build hydropower, photovoltaic and other clean energy projects, share our experience in green development, build the “Green Silk Road”, and help recipient countries build resource-saving and environment-friendly societies. We are committed to improving global governance in the field of development. We will firmly uphold the international system with the United Nations at its core, actively participate in the reform and construction of the global governance system, be open and inclusive, engage in exchanges and mutual learning, and work with others to help developing countries strengthen their weak links and remove bottlenecks in their development.
In his important speech at a ceremony marking the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party, General Secretary Xi Jinping emphasised that we must continuously push for the construction of a Community of Shared Future for Mankind and put forward that China’s new development will provide new opportunities for the world. In the new era, China’s foreign aid and international development cooperation will inherit its fine traditions. We will be bold and innovative, be bold and innovative and unite the fundamental interests of the Chinese people with the long-term interests of human society. We will achieve common development through positive interactions between China and the rest of the world, make new contributions to promoting the building of a Community of Shared Future for Mankind and realising the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.
(The author is Secretary of the Party Leadership Group and Director of the China International Development Cooperation Agency)
这次行动可分两个“半场”。去年，我国先后向150个国家和13个国际组织提供口罩、防护 服、呼吸机等大批防疫物资，向34个国家派出37支医疗专家组，组织开展近千场技术指导，分享我国抗疫经验。这是以抗疫物资和经验交流为主的援助“上半场”。今年以来，我们坚决落实习近平总书记关于将疫苗作为全球公共产品的承诺，开启了以疫苗援助为主的“下半场”。我国在自身需求巨大、疫苗供应紧张的情况下，尽己所能迄今向近100个国家和多个国际组织供应 4.8亿余剂疫苗，是世界上对外提供疫苗最多的国家。多国政要出席交接仪式并带头接种，媒体 广泛报道，形象地将中国疫苗称为“及时雨”。4月底以来，南亚疫情再度告急。我国及时启动 “南亚抗疫紧急支持计划”，上下“半场”并进，物资和疫苗同援。
新中国成立至改革开放阶段(1950—1978年)，援外起步快，投入大，聚焦政治效应。新中国成立伊始，即同步开展对外援助，首先从越南、朝鲜等周边社会主义国家起步，逐步拓展至支持亚非拉等多国民族解放运动。援助方式从提供物资，到援建生产性项目，支持受援国发展民族经济。坦赞铁路、喀喇昆仑公路已成为中国援助的标志性符号。随着中美苏大三角关系深刻调整，毛泽东同志提出“三个世界”理论，特别是1971年非洲兄弟力助我国恢复联合国合法 席位，援外投入达到新高。我们党践行马克思国际主义和人道主义思想，以援外支持受援国经济发展，社会稳定，人民生活水平提高，同时也助力我国打破西方封锁，扩大朋友圈，提升国际影响力和地位。改革开放至党的十八大阶段(1978—2012年)，援外改革力度大，注重经济效应。我们党准确判断和平与发展是时代主题，党和国家中心工作转向经济建设。援外工作作出重大调整， 从援建生产性项目，转向建设体育馆、议会大厦等标志性建筑。之后持续优化调整，注重项目长远效果，丰富项目类型、资金手段、援助方式，同时更加注重平等互利，以援促贸。此期援外极大促进了发展中国家经济社会发展和世界繁荣稳定，同时有力带动了我国企业走出去，深度参与了我国改革开放进程，深化了我国同广大发展中国家的政经合作。