As China expands its worldwide economic footprint through ambitious policies such as the Belt and Road Initiative, an increasing number of average people are exposed to Chinese workers and China’s business practices. These experiences in turn shape their perceptions of China. One facet of China’s foreign economic activities at the center of scholarly and policy debates is foreign aid.
While IPE and China scholars have focused on the economic effects of China’s official financing, few studies examine how aid shapes citizen’s opinions of China in recipient countries. I examine one mechanism through which aid influences perceptions—direct exposure—and predict that China’s financing has differential effects by flow class and donor intent. I test my theory by pairing 2016 Afrobarometer survey results with geocoded data on over 1500 Chinese foreign aid projects from AidData and examine the impact of aid on two aspects of China’s image within recipient countries: the perceived economic efficacy of its aid and negative-positive valence towards its political and economic influence.
Findings confirm my expectation that salient projects which improve economic welfare lead to more positive views towards donor countries. These projects tend to be intended more for commercial purposes and fall into the Other Official Financing flow-class, i.e. do not meet traditional OECD standards. Contrary to expectations, however, exposure to Chinese projects that meet Western standards are perceived as less effective and have no bearing on attitudes toward China. There is also mixed evidence regarding whether projects exacerbate xenophobic attitudes toward China.