Did My Aid Do That? Chinese Aid and Human Rights Performance


This study examines the effects of Chinese foreign aid on human rights performance in the recipient country. Previous studies have focused on U.S. foreign aid's relationship to human rights. These studies have found mixed results. Some postulate that U.S. foreign aid has no relationship to human rights performance, while others have found negative and positive correlations. It is important to examine the effect of Chinese foreign aid because it has no stipulations, and, as a result, may decrease recipient's countries respect for physical integrity rights because there are no requirements to pursue a functioning democracy or human rights policy. Therefore, the results of this study will help to determine whether Chinese foreign aid has detrimental effects on human rights.

Table of Contents: 


    Chinese aid is increasingly replacing aid from the West, especially in Africa. Arguably, this is a result of the lack of stipulations to Chinese aid, respectively allowing governments to shop for the aid that matches their necessities. The integrity of this sort of aid has come into question; unstable regimes and violent conflicts have possibly been spurred and bolstered as a result of the lack of regulation, such as in the cases of Sudan and Zimbabwe. As a result, there is growing debate on whether China’s increased involvement on the global stage has been positive or negative. In order to better understand this question it will be important to analyze whether Chinese aid affects human rights performance.

    Previous scholarly research on human rights performance and the causes of repression is very thorough. There is broad consensus that economic development, inequality, polity, population size, and growth are all factors that can lead governments to use repressive tactics to stay in power. Since China’s ascendance to the global stage is a recent phenomenon, there is very little literature on whether Chinese aid is also a factor. Previous studies have focused on China’s policies (Samy 2010) and weapon’s sales (DeSoysa and Milford 2012), but in order to take this research further, I examine China’s engagement from a broader perspective of foreign aid and the impact it may have on human rights performance.

    China’s involvement on the world stage is becoming ever more competitive with the developed world. This relationship is becoming evident in Africa, where China has begun to marginally increase its investment and foreign aid. This has caused the United States to take a greater interest in the continent, culminating in President Obama’s June 27th to July 2nd 2013 trip to Africa, which many believe held undertones and may have been an attempt to begin to counter China’s growing influence in Africa. Chinese engagement in Africa has been mainly investment and aid. Furthermore, Chinese aid may cause human rights violations because it has no stipulations regarding pursuing better human rights performance or governance, and as a result may support unstable and repressive regimes. Interestingly, USAID’s new policy will allow more aid to be allocated without stipulations, which makes it increasingly important to see if such aid has negative effects on human rights.

    If Chinese aid demonstrates a significant relationship with human rights violations, it should imply a re-evaluation of China’s involvement in developing countries and serve as a possible model for a better understanding of what constitutes effective aid policy. On the contrary, if Chinese aid does not demonstrate a significant relationship with human rights violations, it should add to the debate on whether Chinese foreign aid without stipulations of democracy and human rights is positive or negative for recipient countries. Thus the results should draw broader questions on foreign aid and China’s involvement in Africa.

    In the first section of my paper I will outline the previous literature pertaining to human rights, foreign aid, and the early effects and opinions on Chinese aid. In the second section of the paper I will develop my theory. In the third section I will discuss my hypothesis and research design. In the fourth section of my paper I will analyze the results of the test. Finally in the last section I will conclude my research by developing the implications, contributions, and future of this research.

    Literature Review


    Chinese foreign policy, as any country’s foreign policy, is complex and tends to have altruistic rhetoric executed less-altruistically. I will begin by explaining Chinese foreign policy and foreign aid policy, and then address the literature pertaining to Chinese aid in two sections. The first addresses the arguments that Chinese foreign aid is not a threat to human rights, and the second addresses the arguments that Chinese foreign aid is a threat to human rights.

    Chinese Foreign Aid Policy

    Ramo (2004) explains China's rhetoric, offering the ability to look at China's stated ambitions from the beginning and how China is pursuing them. China's early goal, beginning in the Mao era, was to reduce dependency on Western aid and increase Sino-Africa partnerships. China's justification for its policy has been what Ramo (2004) describes as a "Westphalian system of national sovereignty,” which respects a government's individual sovereignty to pursue its own policy domestically. As a result, Chinese policy argues that aid should be given without requirements that the recipient country pursue democracy or human rights.

    Chinese Foreign Aid is Not a Threat to Human Rights

    Some have argued that Chinese foreign aid does not affect human rights performance. This line of reasoning postulates that Chinese aid is used to promote economic development. For instance, some argue that Chinese aid focuses on trade, development, and investment through the creation of infrastructure projects like building the conference center for the African Union and creating development funds to encourage Chinese investment in Africa (Samy 2010). These examples clearly benefit a country and continent’s stability, and may help to decrease inequality which is a cause of repression (Henderson 1991).

    Samy (2010) argues that the effects of Chinese aid have been distorted. He states that Chinese aid has not become a threat to human rights, and with proper supervision can greatly benefit African development. For instance, he declares negative cases of countries receiving Chinese foreign aid, such as Zimbabwe and Sudan, always make media headlines, but China also supports well-functioning democracies such as Mauritius and Botswana. This may lead an observer to question whether Chinese aid really has a relationship with human rights violations, or whether cases like Zimbabwe and Sudan are merely isolated incidents. Samy concludes that regardless of whether one believes the relationship is positive or not, it is an unavoidable one and the international community, China, and Africa must continue to work together to make this relationship constructive and aid effective.

    DeSoysa and Midford (2012) argue that the United States contributes more arms to autocratic countries than China. Their findings imply that Chinese arms transfers to countries that respect physical integrity rights, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are more than those of the United States, and that the United States transfers more arms to autocratic regimes. They further argue that this may not correlate with the United States trying to undermine democracy or physical rights or vice-versa, but that each country makes arms sales according to its strategic interest. Arguably, despite a country’s strategic interest, it is an important finding because the autocratic countries that America deals weapons to may support repressive governments and contribute to physical integrity abuses. On the contrary, weapons transfers to democracies and countries that respect physical integrity rights, as in the implied case of China, are less likely to contribute to human rights abuses.

    Chinese Foreign Aid Contributes to Human Rights Abuses

    In contrast to the preceding arguments, a majority of observers agree that Chinese foreign aid contributes to human rights abuses. In order to accurately understand whether China's foreign aid contributes to human rights violations it is important to begin by looking at the current system and how the West structured its foreign policy to encourage respect of human rights and democracy among recipients of foreign aid. It is also important to look at conclusions from previous studies on why repression occurs, and to observe the climate of the current debate on China's foreign aid.

    Clair Apodaca (2006) defines foreign aid as amounts of resources given to a foreign government, on concessional terms, for broadly defined economic development or for the improvement of social and political conditions. She further states that development of human rights has been an American project that the Western world has adopted. Others have concurred that without the international community’s support, human rights may not develop (Meyer 1999). This situation leads to an interesting paradox that has lead countries to turn towards Chinese aid.

    The paradox of America's foreign policy that has indirectly contributed to Chinese foreign aid and human rights abuses is the fact that the United States partially grants or denies recipient countries aid based on their human rights conditions (Gibler 2008). Gibler's (2008) study further demonstrates that U.S. foreign economic aid affects human rights policy in non-recipient countries. He concluded that US assistance had no relationship with human rights in non-recipient countries, but receiving U.S. aid could alter policies in those countries. This demonstrates how U.S. aid changes policies in recipient countries and how denial of U.S. aid changes policy, which may in turn change behavior and cause countries to rely more on aid from other sources, such as China, who will give aid regardless of the humanitarian situation.

    Poe and Tate's (1994) research demonstrates why repression occurred in the 1980's. They state that many factors including democracy, participation in civil or international war, economic development, population size, and regime type all affect repression. They also disprove a relationship between repression and British cultural influence, military control, and population growth. These factors should not be considered obsolete because of the age of the study, but arguably the onset of China as a rising power will change the equation. Chinese aid may bolster the negative effects of dysfunctional democracies and regimes, as can be seen in the case of Zimbabwe, where China supports the corrupt democracy of President Mugabe. Also in Sudan China's military aid appears to have bolstered civil conflict. In the cases of Zimbabwe and Sudan, China gave arms, infrastructure, and resources to the government despite its repressive nature. This may have become a catalyst to the destructive nature of these regimes. If repressive regimes are supported militarily, their power to further suppress citizens is increased. These situations all demonstrate the possible negative effects of Chinese aid.

    Dennis Tull (2006) presents two strong reasons why China's aid is contributing to human rights violations. The first is that China's aid is elite centered and, as a result, only benefits leaders who provide diplomatic support to China. The second is that when it is in China's best interest, they even defend autocratic regimes. China may also provide aid to autocratic regimes in order to pursue its economic interests. China acting upon self-interest despite the existential consequences can be seen in the previously mentioned cases of Sudan and Zimbabwe, where China supports the leadership of President Mugabe, possibly because of Zimbabwe’s resource wealth. Sudan also boasts wealth in oil reserves, which may explain China’s pique in interest. While these cases are strong, they may also be outliers where one cannot make a broad conclusion about Chinese foreign aid.

    This Study's Contribution

    In my study I will build upon the previously mentioned arguments, and will attempt to further the literature. In order to accomplish this, I will examine the many factors affecting whether Chinese foreign aid has a relationship with human rights violations. For instance, since the publication of Samy (2010), Chinese aid has become more transparent and watched by the international community. Thus, this paper will empirically test the relationship between Chinese aid and human rights performance. Also, the many other factors stated by authors Gibler (2008), and Poe and Tate (1994) must be controlled for in furthering the study of the causes of human rights violations. Furthermore previous studies appear to have overlooked a few important factors that will be important in determining whether China's foreign aid has detrimental effects on human rights. For instance, if human rights abusing countries receiving Chinese aid previously had human rights violations, thus Chinese aid cannot be the causing variable.


    My theory attempts to demonstrate the relationship between Chinese foreign aid and human rights performance. This theory assumes that human rights stipulations with foreign aid will lead countries to change their human rights policy, so Chinese foreign aid may cause greater repression because there are no stipulations.

    In recent years China has increased its economic engagement in the developed and developing world. In the developing world this has manifested itself in an increase in foreign aid, with aid recently increasing over 100 Billion dollars (French, 2010). Foreign aid is defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD-DAC) as, "grants or loans to developing countries, territories, and to multilateral agencies which are undertaken by the official sector with promotion of economic development and welfare as the main objective and at concessional financial terms." In addition to financial flows, technical co-operation is included in aid. It has also been agreed that assistance to refugees, scholarships for developing country students, peaceful use of nuclear energy, and funding relevant research are further included, as well as specific types of peacekeeping, civil police work, and social and cultural programs (Strange 2013). However, Chinese aid is very different from the OECD-DAC consensus and has been labeled a non-DAC donor. Chinese aid is characterized by lacking governmental stipulations and including military aid (Strange 2013). This aid can also come from private and state-owned firms. As a result, some recipient countries increasingly revel in accepting Chinese aid instead of western aid, which tends to come with democratic and human rights stipulations. While China's public rhetoric has stated this aid is meant to help recipient countries strengthen their development capacity, enrich and improve their people's livelihoods, and promote economic growth and progress, the lack of regulation may produce unintended consequences.

    As a country turns away from Western aid, any incentive to pursue human rights decreases. This manifests itself in policy (Gibler 2008) and practice. When a recipient country accepts Chinese aid over western aid it has no governmental or human rights stipulations. China is further willing to count military aid as foreign aid. The resulting lack of focus on human rights by policymakers and possible arming of an unstable government creates a dangerous situation, where a government is weaponized and has few human rights constraints. The negative consequences of this situation are seen in Zimbabwe. While fueled by Chinese aid, President Mugabe's government has violently fought resistance groups and arguably contributed to the country’s instability and hyperinflation.

    This situation occurs because China's aid is elite centered and as a result only benefits leaders who then provide diplomatic support to China, and when it is in China's best interest they even defend autocratic regimes (Tull 2006). Elite centered aid with no stipulations is dangerous because leaders have no incentive to pursue broader human rights policy and such a regime, whether autocratic or not at the outset, can turn repressive if there are no checks to its power. Chinese aid gets rid of previously established international checks and regulations.

    H1: As a recipient country receives more Chinese aid, their human rights performance decreases.

    Research Design

    The primary interest of this study is to examine the relationship between human rights performance and Chinese foreign aid. To examine the human rights performance of regimes, the Political Terror Scale (PTS) will be used to specify a country's annual human rights violations, while Aid Data’s media based dataset of Chinese official finance flows to Africa from 2000 to 2011 will be used to specify the amount of Chinese aid given to recipient countries. As a result of temporal and geographical limitations of data on Chinese aid, this study will examine the years 1998 through 2011, and will specifically focus on Chinese aid to Africa. The three variables being analyzed in this study, annual human rights performance (PTS 1-5 Scale), Chinese foreign aid per year (Aid-Year), and Country per year (Country-Year), will allow to measure the relationship between Chinese aid and human rights performance, while possibly demonstrating whether polity affects the use of Chinese aid.

    Dependent Variable

    In order to test the hypothesized relationships, I rely on a dependent variable, human rights performance,  that is measured according to the Political Terror Scale (PTS). PTS uses five levels to measure a given state’s human rights performance, with level one being the least repressive; these regimes are characterized by being under secure rule of law, people are not imprisoned for their views, torture is rare or exceptional, and political murders are rare (Strange 2012). The most repressive regimes are level five and are characterized as having terror expanded to the whole population, and the leaders of these societies place no limits on the means or thoroughness with which they pursue personal or ideological goals. Therefore the measure of human rights is taken from PTS on an ordinal probit scale of one through five. Also since PTS observations are divided by Amnesty International’s data and the State Department’s data, two tests are run as such.

    Key Independent Variable

    In order to test the hypothesized relationships I rely on an independent variable, Chinese foreign aid. It is important to refer to the previously stated Chinese definition of foreign aid, which is reciprocal to the OECD-DAC's definition as any assistance from the official sector that has to do with promotion of economic development and welfare, except for one important criteria; it includes military assistance as aid (Strange 2012). Aid Data provides data on China’s aid since 1998.

    Since China’s definition of aid is official finance flows and military assistance, I will examine China’s foreign aid from those parameters. Official finance flows are defined by Aid Data as including ODA-like (Official Development Assistance), OOF-like, Vague Official Finance, and Official Investment. This data only includes project records which are NOT cancelled, suspended, or sourced from suspicious reports (Strange 2012). Military Assistance is defined as all military aid activities that are earmarked for non-developmental or non-humanitarian purposes (Strange 2012). Also, as previously stated, the secretive nature of many of China’s external activities has been a mystery to observers, and there is little data predating 1998, so the years 1998 to 2011 will be examined. Furthermore, this data set is composed of only African countries that received Chinese foreign aid, which includes countries ranging from Cape Verde to Madagascar.

    Chinese foreign aid data is also complex and compiled in many different monetary values and variables. For instance, monetary values for projects range from the U.S. dollar to the Chinese Yuan, to no monetary value at all for training and assistance aid. As a result, the data is coded into one single currency, the U.S. dollar and is averaged into the mean amount of data China provides to each country for each year.

    Other Independent Variables

    I also control for several variables which have been previously shown to have an impact on human rights performance. The first variable that is important to control for is polity. While all governments are capable of repressing their citizens (McGuffin 1974), the degree of democracy is important in limiting repression because limiting government and accountability are important factors in reducing repression (Henderson 1991). Thus, regime type is an important variable in decreasing repression.

    Inequality as measured by GDP per capita must also be controlled for because it also affects levels of repression. In many countries if there was an equal distribution of resources, all would live a life of poverty, so elites use the state to pursue their economic interest and possibly impoverish the masses (Ophuls 1977; Sloan 1984). Thus, inequality is an important variable in analyzing repression because inequality is greater in poorer countries, resulting in these countries’ governments being more likely to use repression. An accurate indicator of GDP per capita is the World Bank’s annual reports. The data is organized by year, country, and GDP per capita.

    Economic Development must also be controlled for because the higher level of development, the more citizens will be satisfied and the less repression will be used by elites (Duff and McCamant 1976). Contrary to the negative effects of inequality, the higher level of economic development, the greater the degree of equality (Henderson 1991). Economic development is measured by its economy per capita, potential for resources, and potential for policy choices (Henderson 1991). As a result, energy consumption per capita is an accurate barometer to measure economic development and industrialization. This data will also control for another variable that affects repression, economic growth.

    Population size must also be controlled for because growth in population can create a scarcity of resources and under pressure governments may use authoritarian and repressive tactics to stay in power (Henderson 1991).  More populated countries may then be inclined to use repressive tactics (Poe and Tate 1994). I will use the World Bank’s annual data on international population to measure this variable.


    This study postulated that as Chinese foreign aid increases, a country may become more repressive because there are no stipulations attached to foreign aid. As such, states that receive Chinese aid can repress without fear of consequences. My expectation of the relationship of human rights as defined by PTS as compared to available Chinese foreign aid data, was that as Chinese foreign aid to a country increased, that country’s use of repressive tactics would also increase.

    Table 1 is an ordinal probit of the State Department’s PTS data and Chinese foreign aid. In the table above, Chinese foreign aid per year is represented by the variable “Chinese Foreign Aid,” which is the average amount of aid given to each country annually by China. The P value is .654, demonstrating an insignificant relationship between the Chinese foreign aid and the PTS’s State Department data on human rights. Furthermore, the control variables all demonstrate that they are significant because energy consumption, polity, population, and GDP Per Capita all have P values of .002 or .0. The test demonstrates that with energy consumption, polity, population, and GDP Per Capita, which are all regarded as factors influencing repression, there is still no significant relationship between Chinese aid and repression.

    The second ordered probit test used Amnesty International’s data on human rights and also found the relationship between human rights performance and Chinese aid to be insignificant.

    Table 2 displays an ordinal probit of PTS’s data from Amnesty International as compared to Chinese foreign aid. The P value is .933, which also demonstrates an insignificant relationship between Chinese foreign aid and PTS’s Amnesty International data on human rights. The two tests demonstrate that a significant relationship between China’s foreign aid and human rights performance is not present in the current data. This analysis demonstrates that repression may already exist in countries that receive Chinese foreign aid. It may also demonstrate that there are other factors that play a role in causing repression.


    China is becoming a global power that is different from a majority of the current global powers because it is an Eastern autocratic sovereignty. These differences manifest themselves in many ways, one of which is how China deals foreign aid. China offers foreign aid without stipulations of democracy and human rights performance. As a result, many believe China’s foreign aid is antagonistic to the pursuit of democracy and human rights. Contrary to this assertion, USAID is also making changes to allocate a majority of its aid without stipulations concerning democracy and human rights policy. The aim of this study is to better understand the effects of China’s aid on a country’s human rights performance, not only to gauge China’s influence in the developing world, but to also better understand the direction that foreign aid allocation is taking. In order to understand this phenomenon, Chinese aid from 1998 to 2011 is tested in its relationship to human rights, with controls for the other major causes of repression.

    Chinese aid from 1998-2011 as measure by AidData was found to not have a significant relationship with human rights performance as measured by PTS’s data from Amnesty International and the State Department. This demonstrates that Chinese aid does not cause countries to become more repressive. As a result, I argue two possible explanations for this phenomenon. The first is repression and the potential for repression already exists in countries that receive Chinese foreign aid. The second is that there are other factors that may cause repression in countries that receive Chinese aid.

    The implication that countries that receive Chinese foreign aid are already repressive is important to improving understanding of China’s development in Africa. Previous research argues that China’s aid to African countries is elite centered and defends autocratic regimes (Tull 2006). While these two contentions cannot be accurately addressed by empirical data, it is important to note that Chinese aid may not be the cause of human rights violations since Chinese aid has no relationship with an increase in repression as defined by PTS. This is contrary to my theory which argues that because Chinese aid has no stipulations for pursuing democracy or human rights policy and goes to elites and autocrats alike, it will be abused and cause an increase in repression. It is important to note that some countries in the study including Zimbabwe, Sudan, Ivory Coast, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, had high PTS scores and as a result are considered repressive regimes prior to receiving Chinese aid. In these cases repression may have already existed since before the country began to receive Chinese foreign aid. Thus, Chinese aid may not be the cause of repression in these cases, but merely another factor, and possibly a stimulating factor, in the behavior of repressive regimes.

    The implication that there are other explanations for the causes of repression in countries that receive Chinese is also important to understanding the effects of Chinese foreign aid. This study took into account Chinese military aid to Africa, and the results were still not significant. This is also contrary to my theory which argued that repressive regimes would use military aid to further repress their citizens. As a result, one may question whether the previous studies pertaining to the greater amount of U.S. arms transfers to autocratic regimes should be examined closer (De Sosya and Midford 2012). It is possible that while China is engaged in and increasing its influence in developing countries, especially those in Africa, it is still insignificant compared to the influence of Western nations, particularly the United States.

    There is still also much mystery around China’s increased involvement in the developing world. This leads to a possible weakness in data on China’s aid in Africa. As a result, there were only 246 observations for China’s aid data in its relationship to PTS’s State Department data, and only 202 observations for China’s aid data in relation to PTS’s Amnesty International data. The current scope of China’s full involvement is still not fully understood. AidData is arguably one of the most up-to-date databases on Chinese aid, but its observations are still limited to what reputable sources publish as Chinese foreign aid projects. AidData even argues that the Chinese government has much more accurate information pertaining to its aid (Strange, Parks, Tierney, Fuchs, Dreher, and Ramachandran 2012) but its lack of transparency and arguably, unofficial transactions, make accurate data on its full involvement in Africa difficult to secure.

    While there are a few weaknesses in this study, there were also some strengths. For instance, all of the control variables for repression were significant and performed as expected. This leads to reliability in the measurement of the independent variable, Chinese foreign aid, because the control variables all controlled for spurious relationships. Thus, the impact of the Chinese foreign aid data on the dependent variable, human rights performance, was acceptably measured.

    Research pertaining to whether Chinese aid affects a recipient country’s human rights practice can be furthered a few ways. As stated earlier, some argue Chinese aid is elite centered. This creates the possibility of corruption in aid projects. Future studies should look to determine whether Chinese aid projects have been manipulated through graft and misuse of resources. This could promote inequality among the populace, which is cited as a cause of civil unrest. This situation may cause a repressive government to abuse citizens’ physical integrity rights in order to stay in power, thus making aid indirectly responsible for human rights abuses. This further would show the importance of certain stipulations to aid, whether it be policy, democracy, or other methods of ensuring the aid is used to benefit a specific area.  

    Also, future studies should control for foreign aid from other countries. Arguably, governments have multiple options for foreign assistance. For instance, it is possible that as the United States denies a country foreign aid based on its lack of democracy and human rights policy, Chinese foreign aid becomes ideal because it does not have a prerequisite of such policy. This can work in reverse, too, if China decides to lower the amount of aid it sends to a country, it is possible another country can make up the difference. As a result, foreign aid from multiple actors should be controlled for in future studies.

    Chinese aid may not have a significant relationship with human rights performance. As a result, it is possible that aid without stipulations of democracy and human rights policy is not used to repress citizens, but to pursue other projects like infrastructure and other forms of development in countries that previously would not have received foreign aid from America because of past issues of repression and lack of strategic interest. This appears to demonstrate that China does provide support, whether infrastructure or military, to autocratic and possibly repressive regimes. Furthermore, USAID may also be moving in this direction to provide aid to countries that once received little aid because of their repressive nature. It is possible that USAID’s interest and China’s interests are one and the same, with both entities pursuing strategically open markets in developing countries.


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    Table 1: Ordinal Probit of PTS State Department versus Chinese Foreign Aid, 1998-2011

    State Department Coefficient Standard of Error P-Value
    Chinese Foreign Aid 2.59E-12 5.77E-12 0.654
    Energy Consumption 0.00 0.00 0.00
    Polity -0.08 0.01 0.00
    Population 1.34E-08 2.66E-09 0.00
    GDP Per Capita -0.00 0.00 0.00

    Table 2: Ordinal Probit of PTS Amnesty International versus Chinese Foreign Aid, 1998-2011

    Amnesty International Coefficient Standard of Error P-Value
    Chinese Foreign Aid 4.74E-13 5.66E-12 .933
    Energy Consumption 0.00 0.00 .03
    Polity -0.08 0.01 0.00
    Population 1.30E-08 2.67E-09 0.00
    GDP Per Capita -0.00 0.00 0.05