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In 2010, the then Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, said the UK Government would end direct aid to the Chinese Government. While government-to-government aid has ended, some aid and technical assistance focused on China has continued.

As China is the world’s second largest economy, continuing UK aid has been controversial, particularly in the context of recent reductions in the UK aid budget. Since 2021, the UK Government has stated it will further scale back its aid on China, but also said that the UK will need to collaborate with the country to address global issues such as climate change and health security.

This briefing describes the UK aid relationship with China, including levels of spending and policy priorities, and commitments to further reduce or end aid.

What was announced in 2010, and why?

In 2010, the Department for International Development announced it would move away from a “traditional” aid relationship to a “partnership” arrangement with some middle-income economies, including China. Direct government-to-government aid was to be phased out, and there would be a greater emphasis on identifying shared interests (such as climate change).

The UK Government argued China no longer required aid assistance due to its economic growth and ability to finance its own development. In 2009, the Commons International Development Committee also judged that funding could be scaled down, but said continuing some aid would help support sustainable and green development in the country.

China is now classed by the World Bank as an upper-middle income country and has been the world’s second largest economy since 2010. World Bank data shows poverty in China has fallen substantially since the 1970s, and the Chinese Government invests significant amounts overseas through its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

How much UK aid has been spent in China since 2009?

From 2009 to 2021, UK bilateral aid to China totalled £537 million. During this period, spending was highest in 2009, at £75 million. Aid was focused on priorities such as economic prosperity, climate change, and human rights.

Between 2015 and 2022, recorded UK bilateral aid to China was primarily spent by two departments: the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and its predecessors, and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

No aid has been sent to the Chinese Government since 2011. Instead, UK aid has primarily been spent through civil society organisations and UK universities and diplomats. Aid related to research, universities and diplomatic engagement is mostly spent through UK-based institutions.

Reflecting the range and geography of China-related aid spending, the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) notes that while China “is formally recorded as the recipient, most of the assistance goes to UK research and government institutions working with China,” with the intention to benefit other countries and secure secondary benefits for the UK.

Will all UK aid to China end?

In 2021, then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said aid programming in China from the FCDO would be reduced by 95%, to £900,000. Any continuing FCDO programmes would focus on promoting democracy and human rights.

In July 2023, the ICAI, which scrutinises the UK’s official development assistance, said UK aid to China has “fallen rapidly” and is expected to total £10 million in 2023/24 (centred on educational and cultural engagement, which did not form part of the government’s 2021 commitment).

In 2023, some UK MPs have called for an end of aid to China. Speaking in February 2023, the Minister of State for Development and Africa, Andrew Mitchell, said there must be a “very strong case” for any future aid in China. However, he has defended education programmes such as Chevening scholarships and the work of the British Council that encourage people to study in the UK. These are currently counted within the aid budget for China. 

In 2022, BEIS minister George Freeman said his department would end all its bilateral aid in China by the end of the 2022/23 financial year, though non-aid assistance and research engagement on shared challenges would continue.

Update log

October 2023: Updated with spending statistics and July 2023 ICAI report 

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