The Politics Of Disaster Relief

After a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, the aftershock reached China in ways that few observers could have anticipated. After all, the link between the world’s most powerful rising economy and one of its most troubled states is tenuous. China and Haiti are worlds apart in almost every conceivable sense: profoundly separated by geography, levels of development, language and culture. Moreover, Beijing and Port-au-Prince are diplomatically estranged, as Haiti remains one of 23 countries that still maintain official relations with Taiwan. Still, the powerful seismic event that has claimed the lives of as many as 150,000 Haitians so far also posed an unexpected challenge for the Chinese leadership, which found itself viscerally drawn into the crisis and its aftermath in ways that tested its newfound diplomatic mettle, and provoked conflicting conceptions about its expanding role on the international stage. Faced with a skeptical audience abroad and a supportive one at home, the Haitian earthquake forced Chinese leaders to navigate the tricky politics of disaster relief.

According to China’s foreign ministry, there were about 230 Chinese nationals in Haiti at the time of the earthquake (China Daily, January 19). Yet, eight were in the most sensitive spot imaginable, meeting with the chief of the United Nations mission in Haiti, Hedi Annabi, at the Hotel Christopher, which served as the head of the 9,000-member strong U.N. peacekeeping force that has patrolled Haiti since the ousting of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. The five-story building collapsed when the quake struck, and China suddenly found itself at the epicenter of a tragedy that killed more U.N. staff in a single day than any other event in the 65-year history of the United Nations. Hundreds of U.N. staff were initially unaccounted for, and by January 29th, more than two weeks later, the U.N. had officially confirmed 85 deaths, while dozens more remained missing (BBC News, January 29).

Haiti, the poorest and most vulnerable nation in the Western Hemisphere, has long been caught in a war of attrition between China and Taiwan that has at times threatened to undermine international efforts to bring the country back from the brink of state failure. Haiti has been a firm ally of Taiwan since 1956, and has received millions of dollars in foreign aid as a result. In recent years, Taiwan stood virtually alone among the international community in continuing to support the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti when Western donors, like the United States and Europe, imposed a devastating bilateral aid cut-off from 2000 to 2004. When Aristide was forced from power in 2004, Taiwan maintained smooth relations with the interim government and is especially close to Haiti’s current president, René Préval, who was elected in 2006. China, by contrast, has made a minimal investment in Haiti, but Beijing began to loom larger for Haitian leaders since 2004, when China contributed 125 riot police to the Brazilian-led U.N. stabilization force deployed in Haiti, and then subsequently leveraged its permanent member status on the Security Council to prevent Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang from attending the inauguration of Rene Préval in May 2006. (BBC News, May 13, 2006). In recent years, however, tensions had cooled and a fragile détente appeared to emerge between China and Taiwan with regard to resolving the issue of diplomatic status with Haiti.

Against this backdrop, the Chinese government’s response to the earthquake was driven by a mix of overlapping and potentially conflicting domestic and international motivations. These included protecting Chinese nationals still in Haiti, recovering the bodies of their fallen countrymen, acting as a key stakeholder in the multilateral system, and assuming the humanitarian responsibilities of an emerging great power. Equally important was the desire to manage domestic political sentiments regarding China’s role in the world in a manner that would strengthen—or at least do no harm to—the cause of Chinese nationalism. Efforts to deepen cooperation with the United States, bolster China’s standing in Latin America and the Caribbean and possibly further isolate Taiwan were also relevant, though of less immediate concern. Given the multiple motivations that drove China’s engagement in Haiti, it is no surprise that Beijing reacted quickly, only to achieve uneven results.

To its credit, China was among the first nations to respond to the Haitian catastrophe with rescue workers, aid and supplies. China’s 60-member search and rescue team soon departed Beijing and arrived in Port-au-Prince at 2 a.m. on the morning of January 14, making the 20-hour trip on a chartered plane with minimal refueling stops. The Chinese government also announced a donation of humanitarian aid valued at $4.4 million while the Red Cross Society of China pledged an additional $1 million (Xinhua News Agency, January 16). China had itself suffered a devastating earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008, which killed more than 80,000 people, and Chinese leaders stressed that their actions were motivated by genuine sympathy and supplemented by practical experience in disaster relief (China Daily, January 14). China’s relief efforts were focused on excavating the Hotel Christopher and the team was credited with retrieving the body of U.N. Mission Chief Hedi Annabi.

Yet, once China’s eight-member police delegation was recovered, the team ceased its work at the U.N. site and was later seen departing the country, provoking criticism that China’s efforts in Haiti were motivated by narrow-minded nationalism. The allegations incensed China, prompting foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu to fume: “These comments are false and are made out of ulterior motives . . . these actions are not selfish and brook no accusations. The accusers should be accused.” (Agence France Presse, January 19). In fact, while some members of the initial Chinese rescue mission soon returned to China, a subset of the team stayed behind to deliver medical care to a badly damaged sector of Port-au-Prince (Xinhua News Agency, January 19).

The Chinese fatalities in Haiti quickly emerged as a top item in China’s domestic politics as Beijing officials commemorated the victims in a series of elaborate ceremonies that adroitly straddled sentimentality and nationalist pride. In recent years, China has placed increasing importance on its contribution to U.N. peacekeeping missions—and the successive rotations of 125 riot police that have served in Haiti since 2004 are part of a broader strategy that has seen more than 14,000 troops participate in 24 separate missions. Prior to the Haitian earthquake, only eight Chinese officials had died in U.N. missions around the world; the eight Chinese fatalities in Port-au-Prince instantly doubled that figure to sixteen. The loss of the Chinese peacekeepers in Haiti dominated the country’s headlines for days, and the official People’s Liberation Army Daily hailed their return to China, stating “Peacekeeping heroes, the fatherland greets you on your return home” (The Associated Press, January 20). China’s Ministry of Public Security named all eight of the deceased peacekeepers as “martyrs,” and three were posthumously awarded the title of “peacekeeping heroes” by the State Council and the Central Military Commission, while the other five were named “hero models” (Xinhua News Agency, January 25). China dispatched four additional peacekeepers to replace their fallen colleagues in Haiti (the other four who died were part of a visiting delegation).

A burial ceremony was held at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing, an honor bestowed only upon those of national importance. The ceremony was also attended by top Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. While China’s official press praised the outpour of sympathy for the officers and their families, it also reported several critical comments that had been posted to online mourning sites. One person cited “mixed feelings” owing to alleged incidences of police brutality in southwest Guizhou Province, while another surmised that the peacekeepers were corrupt and had been sent abroad for “other purposes.” The Chinese official press emphasized that such postings “were immediately blasted by other netizens, who said lives were precious and the dead should be mourned” (Xinhua News Agency, January 18).

In any case, such allegations against China surely pleased Taiwan, which moved to match Beijing’s aid to Haiti. Interestingly, however, Taiwan did not seize the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake as an opportunity to substantially surpass China’s response, although this would have been well within its capabilities. The reason may lie in Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou, elected in 2008, who has struck a “diplomatic truce” with Beijing that has led to a cooling of diplomatic tussles over the sovereignty question. Still, Taiwan rebuffed a suggestion by Chinese officials to increase cross-strait cooperation in Haiti, although Ma did speak positively about the role of Chinese peacekeepers there.

Taiwan has long been a strong supporter of Haitian President René Préval and prioritized aid to both Haiti and neighboring Dominican Republic as part of a strategy to keep the island of Hispaniola from shifting its allegiance to China [1]. While the total amounts of Chinese and Taiwanese aid to Haiti immediately after the earthquake totaled about $5.4 million each, Taiwan sent its rescue mission and medical relief workers through the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo. Two weeks after the earthquake, President Ma also met personally with Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive during a “transit summit” at the Santo Domingo airport. After delivering 10 tons of food and medical supplies, the Taiwanese leader outlined a four-point assistance plan for Haiti in the areas of public health, housing, job creation, and the adoption of orphaned children (Taiwan News, January 29).

The Taiwanese team also focused its efforts on the devastated U.N. mission headquarters, rescuing a Haitian security guard and locating a French staffer who survived under the rubble (Central News Agency [Taiwan], January 18). Due to its ongoing disarray, the Haitian government did not respond substantively to these overtures and, in any event, Haitian authorities are too consumed in managing the earthquake’s aftermath to pay much attention to the Taiwan question in the short term.

Now that the initial calamity in Haiti has begun to subside, China is positioning itself to support multilateral relief efforts while sidestepping any wider leadership responsibilities, such as dramatically increasing the role of Chinese peacekeepers in Haiti or stepping in as a major donor. In the days after the earthquake, the U.S. mobilized 10,000 troops and hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private assistance, and appears likely to play a dominant role in Haiti for months, if not years, to come. In Latin America, many countries have noted that the Chinese response, while admirable, was more consistent with a small, activist country than with a rising global superpower. More Haitians may ultimately be pulled from the rubble by the various teams from Belgium, Iceland, Poland and Turkey than by the Chinese responders, and China’s financial donations to Haiti represent just a tiny fraction of the promises made by the developed world.

Given China’s limited interest in Haiti, it is probably sensible that Beijing take a backseat role to other, more engaged actors as the international community begins to calculate the costs of the long-term reconstruction of the country. China emerges from the Haiti disaster with a bruised ego and a fortified sense of national identity. In addition, China has once again confirmed its deeply held belief that, as far as Latin America and the Caribbean is concerned, Beijing should focus on economics, avoid the politics and respond to crisis helpfully while leaving the serious work of disaster management to Washington.


1. In addition to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in the region include: Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

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