China’s response to the disaster in the Philippines was shockingly inadequate, revealing how much this new world power has yet to learn
As money and support poured in from around the world, both from governments and individuals, to the disaster wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan on the Philippines, China’s official donation of just $100,000 led to amazement and outrage. The disbelief at the paltry amount from Beijing was such that even several state-controlled newspapers broke with the usual censorship protocols and criticised the government, while China’s active netizens displayed equal measures of shock and embarrassment online.
Just why did Beijing get it so wrong? The Philippines is technically a neighbour of China’s across the South China Sea. There is a strong trading relationship – in 2012, China ranked as the Philippines’ third largest trading partner.
The Philippines has a sizeable ethnic Chinese population and is a growing destination for Chinese tourists. Added to this is that Beijing has been waging a fairly ardent soft power campaign in the Philippines to strengthen Beijing-Manila ties in recent years.
Images of Typhoon Haiyan’s destruction played large on Chinese state TV. Newspapers ran it on front pages, and the Chinese people watched and read about the destruction, being themselves no strangers to either typhoons or natural disasters. But then, the meagre $100,000 donation.
It is true that Beijing has some political concerns with Manila. Primary among these is the disputed Huangyan Island (referred to as the Panatag Shoal by the Philippines) in the South China Sea. China is also generally wary of Manila’s historically strong ties with the US. Some have suggested Beijing’s apparent mean spiritedness is tied to these disagreements.
Beijing did eventually increase its aid after an international outpouring of disbelief – to $1.6m – though, as has been pointed out, this is still less than the Swedish furniture chain Ikea donated.
The amount looks especially paltry compared with other countries, large and small. And while aid at a time of disaster is not strictly about who can pledge the most, China did get it very wrong. Even while ordinary Chinese on the internet were decrying the amount as parsimonious, the Southern Daily newspaper in Guangdong, probably running an editorial composed in Beijing, fanned the flames by stating: “The Philippines is obviously not content or even appreciating of China’s ‘love’, only expecting ‘more love’ from China.”
Traditionally China has never been overly generous at times of foreign disasters. The government remains fixed in a mindset of concentrating on domestic issues rather than overseas aid. Of course China has invested overseas and sees no problem with funding giant mining projects in Africa and Latin America that suit its purposes. Similarly, while China only has one, largely untested, medical aid ship, it has despatched numerous naval vessels to stake its claim on Huangyan.
Of course you can argue that China should concentrate on its internal problems, rebuilding from its own natural disasters in recent years, continuing to lift large numbers out of poverty. It has little time for foreign disasters. And this would, perhaps, be acceptable had Beijing not been working so hard on its soft power campaigns across south-east Asia in recent years to present an image of responsible leadership in regional affairs.
The fact is that China is a comparatively new world economic power and so also new to the global responsibility business and isn’t quite “getting it” just yet. It seems the government does understand this, and that its traditional default position of insularity and using any crisis for its own political ends is not really acceptable any more, either internationally or among a sizeable segment of its own population.
One pro-government commentator, in the usually stridently nationalist Global Times newspaper, reflected the process of Beijing learning to feel its way. “In the future, China will face increasing pressure to take more responsibilities in regional affairs. For both the government and the public, there is a learning curve.”
Internationally, it’s too late for China to repair the damage done to its image in the aftermath of Haiyan. Its response will go down in history as paltry, slack and tawdry. What’s important is whether or not Beijing really is on the “learning curve” suggested by the Global Times. No one should expect China to emerge suddenly, fully fleshed out as a global power – it takes time. When, inevitably, the next regional humanitarian disaster comes along we will then see if Beijing has listened and learnt and can step up to take the leading role in regional affairs its economic clout demands.
Based in Shanghai, Paul French is an independent China analyst and writer.China China column China Government Natural disasters Philippines response