China has sent a plane full of emergency medical supplies to Sierra Leone, part of $4.9 million worth of equipment and funds that Beijing has pledged to African countries suffering from a deadly Ebola outbreak. The shipment, which arrived in Freetown yesterday afternoon, underlines a broader Chinese campaign to turn around its mercantilist reputation in Africa
As Quartz has reported, over the past three years China has devoted only 0.4% of its foreign aid to humanitarian causes like emergency relief. In 2012, China donated $27 million in humanitarian, second to last among the world’s top 30 government donors, just above Portugal and below Greece, Qatar, and New Zealand. China’s paltry donations have earned it criticism from neighbors like the Philippines when China at first offered just $100,000 after Typhoon Haiyan last year.
In Africa, most of what China classifies as foreign aid has gone toward building roads, ports, bridges and railways—infrastructure projects that critics say are as much for China’s sake, in its quest for natural resources and economic developement, as the wellbeing of recipient countries. “Beijing has been striving to craft new action plans and a new narrative about China in Africa,” Yun Sun, a fellow at the Brookings Institution wrote last month. “China has been downplaying the role of natural resources and mining cooperation in Sino-Africa relations, and instead focuses on cooperation on development issues including..medical services and health care in Africa.”
Africa’s Ebola outbreak could affect China too. Government data show that about 20,000 Chinese nationals live in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the three countries where the outbreak is most severe. Already, seven Chinese doctors and one nurse who were treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone have been quarantined.
As for relations with Sierra Leone, the shipment seems to have helped. The country’s the deputy health minister said the aid supplies marked a milestone in China-Sierra Leone relations. Sierra Leone’s deputy minister of foreign affairs said Beijing had demonstrated that “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”