Tracking Chinese aid figures in Chinese government’s budget documents

One good outcome of China’s governance reform was a push for “government transparency” (政务公开), meaning that it has become a little easier to find information about Chinese aid data. But to understand what the numbers mean, one sometimes must search different documents.

All the budget items of the Chinese government are listed in the yearly “Central Level General Public Budget Expenditure” (中央本级支出出算表) of the Ministry of Finance (MOF), published on its website.

Taking a look at the most recent 2022 document, “foreign aid” (对外援助) is listed under the section “diplomatic expenses” (外交支出). This illustrated that China views aid as part of its foreign policy. In addition to aid, “diplomatic expenses” include:
– embassies and consulates (驻机构)
– international organisations (国际组织)
– external cooperation and exchanges (对外合作与交流)
– international development cooperation (国际发展合作)

Notably, “foreign aid” and “international development cooperation” are separate budget items. In fact, “international development cooperation “refers to funds used to run China’s International Development Cooperation Agency CIDCA – CIDCA’s staff, public expenditures and administrative items. This is not explained in the MOF document but in CIDCA’s budget, available on CIDCA’s website.

According to MOF’s report, in 2022, China spent 21.05bn RMB on “foreign aid” and 49 million RMB on “international development cooperation”. In CIDCA’s 2022 budget, the number for “international development cooperation” is the same as in MOF’s, but the number for “foreign aid” is much lower: 35.13mn RMB. Btw., in 2022, CIDCA overspent by 31.05% on “international development cooperation” and underspent 22.5% on “foreign aid”. In 2021, it underspent by 47.5.%.

CIDCA’s minuscule share of the foreign aid budget is explained by the fact that it does not implement foreign aid projects by itself and doe not host the relevant funds. The main aid-implementing body is still the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM). MOFCOM’s 2022 budget lists 17.45bn RMB for “foreign aid”.

This means that of the total “foreign aid” budget, 21.05bn RMB, listed in the MOF budget document, 35.13mn RMB are attributable to CIDCA, and 17.45bn RMB to MOFCOM, which is in charge of the execution of aid projects. The remaining part probably belongs to other ministries involved in foreign aid, e.g. the Ministry of Health that sends Medical Teams (医疗队) to Africa, or to the Ministry of Agriculture, or to one of the other institutions.

in bn RMB

2019 2020 2021 2022
foreign aid 对外援助 21.55 20.3 20.05 21.05
international development cooperation 国际发展合作 0,081 (of 1.6 allocated) 0,053 0,038 0.049 (of 0.035 allocated)
Total in bn RMB 21.63 20.35 20.08 21.09
Total in bn USD 3.09 3.10 3.15 3.02

The figures from the budget documents indicate that Chinese foreign aid spending remained stable over the past four years. Moreover, the numbers are much lower than the international estimates. For 2019, for example, Kitano and Miyabayashi (2020) estimated US$ 5.9bn, while the AidData project estimated US$8.5 bn – compared to US$3.15 bn stated by the Chinese government.

This suggests that activities that could be classified as ODA-related or comparable from the DAC perspective are not defined as such by the Chinese government – with corresponding implications.

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