Watchdog Calls for More Transparency Over UK Aid for China

Watchdog Calls for More Transparency Over UK Aid for China
The union flag and the flag of the People's Republic of China, on March 2, 2015. (Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA Media)
Alexander Zhang

The UK government’s aid to China has fallen rapidly but there is limited transparency over where it is still being spent, a watchdog has said.

According to a new report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), UK aid to China fell to approximately £48 million in 2021-22—down from £82 million in 2019—and is expected to continue to decline.

It follows a 2021 announcement by the then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab that aid to China from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) would be reduced by 95 percent, with the continuing programmes focused on promoting democracy and human rights.
Britain’s then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab speaks at the Aspen Security Conference on March 17, 2021. (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office)
Britain’s then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab speaks at the Aspen Security Conference on March 17, 2021. (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office)
But the ICAI warned that there is still very limited information publicly available on which UK aid to China will continue, and called for more transparency from the government and British Council on aid spending.

‘No Clear Government Strategy’

Sir Hugh Bayley, who led the latest review, said: “While UK aid to China has fallen rapidly in recent years, taxpayers are still not being told clearly how much aid will continue and what it will be spent on.

“From the limited information shared with us, we’ve established that most aid funding to China from across government has ended. Remaining aid spend will focus on higher education, English language, arts and culture and, to a lesser extent, human rights.

“Average incomes in China will soon be too high for the country to continue to receive foreign aid and there appears to be no clear government strategy for how to manage this, which could put some of the benefits from past UK development assistance at risk.”

The report noted that the watchdog was “able to find only very limited information in the public domain on how aid to China was evolving and what it was being spent on.

“The British Council does not publish documents reporting on the design, implementation, and results of its substantial programmes in China.”

‘Lack of Clarity’

When Mr. Raab announced the 95 percent aid cuts in 2021, ministers said it signalled an almost complete ending of the UK’s aid to China.

But the ICAI said there was a “lack of clarity” in the announcement.

In an update to its information note, the watchdog said the 95 percent reduction applied to only a limited portion of the FCDO’s aid spend to China and did not include spending by other government departments.

The report said FCDO aid to China through the British Council is set to continue, though it has fallen consistently overall since 2019.

This funding supports programmes on education, including teaching the English language, arts, and culture. It has also been used in partnership with the Premier League to upskill grassroots football coaches.

At £6.14 million, it is expected to be the largest remaining block of UK aid to China in 2023-24.

The report also found that FCDO funding for Chinese Chevening Scholarships, which support international students who want to study in British universities, has remained stable at between £1.65 million and £1.7 million since 2019.

‘Committed to Transparency’

The British government is in the process of re-evaluating its wider relationship with China, amid increasingly frosty relations with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime.
Ministers have characterised the growing influence of China as an “epoch-defining challenge,” with many backbench MPs pushing for a more hawkish approach to Beijing.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: “We stopped direct aid to the Chinese government in 2011 and the FCDO committed to cut ODA-funded programmes in China by 95 percent from the 2021-22 financial year with remaining funding focused on specific programmes that support British values around open societies and human rights. No funding goes to the Chinese authorities.

“We remain committed to transparency and will continue to work closely with ICAI to ensure that all UK aid spending maintains our high standards of transparency and has the greatest impact.”

PA Media contributed to this report.