China beats bad image with big aid to Africa

China beats bad image with big aid to Africa
Workers unload medical supplies from a plane on Aug 11, 2014 at the Robertsfield international airport, near Monrovia. The supplies from China were destined for countries hit by Ebola.

Pushing back against criticism that its presence in Africa is mercenary, China has extended unprecedented generosity to the Western African countries in the grip of an Ebola epidemic.

It is the first time that China has extended humanitarian aid to countries facing public health emergencies; state media characterised this as "fulfilling the duty of a big country" and "selfless".

Last week, Beijing announced that it was sending US$5 million (S$6.2 million) worth of medical supplies, including protective clothing, disinfectants and thermo-detectors, to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the three most affected countries in a region where over 1,000 people have died from the deadly disease.

This is dwarfed by the more than US$14 million that the United States government has given to the response efforts in the region for the most recent outbreak that started six months ago.

China also dispatched three teams of Chinese infectious disease experts to those countries to assist local medical professionals.

This, noted analysts, came as American, European and Japanese aid groups withdrew a large portion of their medical personnel and volunteers from these countries for fear of infection. In the US, the medical aid groups that pulled back personnel in Western Africa included Heartt and Wellbody Alliance, and the Peace Corps evacuated over 300 volunteers from the region last week.

Observers found it notable that China did not pull back its personnel and instead sent more in.

"Even by dispatching just a few teams, it was a signal of recognition from the Chinese of the gravity of the situation as an international emergency," said Dr J. Stephen Morrison, director of Global Health Policy Centre at Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "They are not running away from it, they're running towards it."

The large numbers of Chinese nationals living and working in Africa have contributed to domestic pressure on the Chinese government to assist the Ebola-stricken countries. There are 20,000 Chinese in the three most affected Western African states.

Analysts noted that the move was also a pointed rebuttal to the charge that China's aid to Africa is primarily self-serving and is concentrated on building infrastructure to access the continent's natural resources.

A White Paper on foreign aid published by the Chinese government last month showed that only 0.4 per cent of its US$14.4 billion of foreign aid between 2010 and 2012 went to humanitarian causes. Last year, it initially offered US$100,000 to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. The US offered US$20 million while Japan offered US$10 million.

"China is basically saying 'we are not just accessing their markets and their natural resources, we are not neo-colonialists'," noted Dr Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations. "What it is doing now for these countries will help China spread its soft power in West Africa."

Zhejiang Normal University's Institute of African Studies director Liu Hongwu said China's overall history of health-care assistance to African countries has been "completely overlooked by the Western media". In the past few decades, it has built more than 20 anti-malarial centres in Africa and more than 100,000 Chinese doctors have done stints in African countries, treating and training locals, he noted.

Meanwhile, China is on high alert against Ebola infiltrating the country. Planes from West Africa are being made to land on runways relatively far from terminals, and some African athletes have been barred from competing in the Youth Olympic Games now taking place in Nanjing. The latter move prompted the Nigerian delegation to withdraw altogether in protest against what they said was "stigmatisation".

Compounding anxiety is the fact that China has no experience with Ebola. Still, China's experience in sealing off infected populations quickly to prevent the spread of disease would be useful to the Western African countries, said experts. Dr Huang noted that China is startlingly quick in invoking extreme quarantine measures. Last month, the authorities sealed off part of Yumen city in Gansu province after one man died of the bubonic plague.

"The Chinese had a transformative experience with Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), from putting in force infection control measures to public education campaigns... That body of experience is very relevant to this," said Dr Morrison.

For now, Chinese state media is revelling in China having the moral high ground over Western countries and Japan.

The China Foundation for International Studies' African Centre director Cheng Tao wrote in The Global Times newspaper on Monday: "What they have done in Africa is not just failing to send charcoal in snowy weather (xuezhong songtan), but to take away the firewood from under the cauldron (fudi chouxin)."

This article was first published on August 21, 2014.
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