The Chinese Response to Natural Disasters: Indicator of Unusual Interests?

Posted: 8th December 2010
The Chinese Response to Natural Disasters: Indicator of Unusual Interests?

Countries with global reach tend to reach out and help other countries in need, especially in times following a natural disaster. Because of the boom in China’s economic and military power, the major nations of the world have been forced to give China outsized attention.  It is fair, then, to wonder whether China will reciprocate, specifically in taking part in the standard diplomatic “country outreach” after disasters occur. To find out, we can use Recorded Future to measure such outreach, using both statements by countries’ government officials following disasters and by analyzing the media from around the world, including a number of Chinese sources.

Consider the plot below.  It charts the number of statements made by various Chinese officials about a country before and after the occurrence of a natural disaster in that country.

Number of quotes made by Chinese officials before and after a natural disaster in a country

In the cases of Chile, Haiti, and Italy, we see a dramatic increase in Chinese official quotes following a natural disaster. In contrast, following a disaster in countries in Asia, Chinese quotes about those countries actually decrease.

These results stand in contrast to those showing US quotes following a natural disaster.

Number of quotes made by US officials before and after a natural disaster in a country

Statements made by United States officials about a country following a natural disaster increase in nine out of the eleven observed instances

With the risk of being somewhat cynical, the data shows that in the case of Haiti, the whole world stepped up attention wise, which is not to say that every country actually provided help. Still, China might have done the same simply to stay in pace with the pack.

In Chile, meanwhile, China has very specific interests. This Nov 17 Xinhua article highlights recent announcements between China and Chile, including trade collaborations and WTO approval. Remember also that Chile has a very long coast line to the resources of South America.

The next chart shows overall official quotation numbers for a wider selection of countries before and after every natural disaster.

Number of quotes made by country officials about other countries where natural disasters occurred

We see quotation increases pre- and post-natural disaster for every country listed here, with 50% or more increases for the United Kingdom, Russia and Iran.  The lowest percentage increase is for China.  In general, responding to the natural disasters of other countries appears low on China’s list of priorities, particularly if the natural disaster happens to a neighbor.

These results highlight China’s combined historical insularity (it is a country known for building a really big wall) and ethnocentrism (the word “China” in Chinese, Zhōngguó, famously means “Middle Kingdom”, or center of the world).  Failing to be a good citizen of the planet, and only taking part in diplomacy when they want something in return, will frustrate their attempts to grow into the world’s main power center.  The instinct to not respond diplomatically is the same one that resists immigration and a free flow of ideas, which are anathema in a global information economy where countries fight for the best people and companies. China’s economy relies on the world to buy its goods, but China’s culture still resists being a partner on the world stage.  Its hesitance to reach out to countries in need from whom it has nothing to gain is a symbol of that internal conflict.

With these historical baseline behaviors defined, we can now monitor responses to future disasters to look for changes in response by any of these countries.  Perhaps even more importantly, we may look for countries that China does reach out to – perhaps a strong indicator of unusual interest, behavior, and future alliance!

As well as increases in quotations about a country after a natural disaster (P=0.02), we also observed increases in both official traffic to a country (P=0.02) and in Force Majeure events (P=0.02). These findings were based on windows 60 days before and after selected natural disasters and were based on the 100 most prevalently cited people in the dataset.

Analyses like these turn news into data and data into insights.