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Tracking Chinese aid reveals shifts in aid exports before and after the COVID-19 outbreak

Date:06 December 2022
Assistant Professor Feicheng Wang
Assistant Professor Feicheng Wang

In the past decades, China has become one of the world’s leading donors of foreign aid. However, an official dataset on China’s foreign aid did not yet exist. In one of their projects, Assistant Professor Feicheng Wang and co-authors from the University of Göttingen introduce a systematic way to measure China’s foreign aid in almost real time through official customs records and assemble a Chinese Aid Exports Database, which the researchers make available for public use. Relying on it, the authors depict a comprehensive picture of China’s aid exports and find remarkable shifts in aid allocation before and after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

China’s aid exports increased substantially after the outbreak, largely due to drastic increases in medical aid exports -including the highly visible face masks - at the expense of non-medical aid. Wang: “The Chinese Aid Exports database allows us to understand which countries receive significantly more or less aid than needed during critical times. This is crucial for the successful coordination of relief efforts among donors to avoid abandoning aid orphans’.” The data show that China has extended its aid export coverage from the Global South to the Global North. This shift of aid exports from traditional to new recipient countries has created ‘aid darlings’ and ‘aid orphans’.

Setting up the database

There is a ‘customs regime’ variable in China’s official customs data that has not really received much attention among trade economists, but formed the basis for the new aid exports database. Wang made his colleague, Andreas Fuchs, Professor of Development Economics at the University of Göttingen, aware of this ‘customs regime´ variable and together they discovered that it allows them to distinguish between commercial exports and aid exports. Wang explains: “Since existing databases on Chinese aid mostly rely on unofficial sources and often cover only the Global South, this ‘customs regime’ variable in customs records made it possible to create the first China aid database that relies exclusively on official data and has global coverage.”

The Chinese Aid Exports Database is the first that records all in-kind aid flows from China to all countries in the world on a monthly basis, and it will be updated regularly. Wang, who is part of FEB’s Department of Global Economics and Management, set up the database together with Fuchs and four other colleagues from the University of Göttingen: Lennart Kaplan, Krisztina Kis-Katos, Sebastian S. Schmidt, and Felix Turbanisch.

Vaccine diplomacy

Wang and his colleagues show that the economic needs of recipient countries and political alignment played a less important role in the initial phase of the pandemic, whereas they gained importance in the vaccine diplomacy period of 2021. “Correlating China’s aid exports with various economic and political factors implies that China’s aid exports do not only follow the economic needs of recipient countries but are also correlated with Beijing’s geopolitical interests. Political relations matter: recognition of Taiwan locks countries out of Chinese aid deliveries of medical and non-medical products alike. Countries that are more politically aligned with China received significantly more aid before the pandemic and during the vaccine diplomacy period of 2021.”, the assistant professor explains.

Widely used by researchers and policymakers

Wang finds it surprising, but also worrisome to discover that countries that were hit more strongly by the pandemic did not receive more medical aid, such as face masks, from China. He and his colleagues expect that the newly published Chinese Aid Exports Database will be widely used by researchers and policymakers who are interested in Chinese aid. ‘‘We look forward to working on further projects that investigate the causal mechanisms behind the political economy of Chinese aid allocation and its effectiveness, for example, in the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.”

More information:


Andreas Fuchs, Lennart Kaplan, Krisztina Kis-Katos, Sebastian S. Schmidt, Felix Turbanisch, and Feicheng Wang

Questions? Please contact Feicheng Wang