The answer is no-one really knows because of China's reluctance to reveal details of its aid spending.
But a new database created by the Washington-based Center for Global Development and AidData may shed some light.
They've mapped nearly 1700 Chinese development projects between 2000-2011 in 50 African countries and worth an estimated $75 billion.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Brad Parks, researcher, College of William and Mary and executive director of AidData
PARKS: So the Chinese do not disclose country level or project level data on their overseas development finance activities. They treat this information as a state secret. We approached the Chinese government to see if they would be wiling to release their official data and their response back to us was that everyone who needs to know about our generosity already knows. And they sent a very strange signal to the international community at an aid effectiveness conference in Busan South Korea in late 2011, signallling that they were effectively opting out of global reporting systems for development finance.
EWART: So having received that official response from China how did you then go about gathering the information and to what extent can it be relied upon?
PARKS: Yeah we developed a methodology that draws on tens of thousands of media reports, English language and Chinese language media reports to collect private level information about Chinese development finance in Africa. We essentially triangulated from many different types of sources tracking a projects progression from the announcement stage into implementation. So it's an imperfect, it's as much art as it is science, but we think over a period of 18 months developing and fine tuning the methodology we think we've developed something that is reliable and we can use going forward to track not only development finance to Africa, but Chinese development finance to other parts of the world.
EWART: It's interesting that the information that you've gathered seems to paint perhaps a more positive picture of China than is the general view that Chinese spend a lot of money on for example exploiting natural resources around the world, but the evidence that you've uncovered suggests otherwise and you would wonder why the Chinese wouldn't want to talk about that?
PARKS: That remains a mystery to us. I think from our perspective it's in the Chinese government's interests, it's in the interests of local stakeholders in Africa, and certainly researchers and policymakers to better understand the nature, the distribution and the impact of Chinese development finance. So we don't quite know why the Chinese government takes this position.
EWART: Can you perhaps spell out for us some of the areas where they do spend their aid money in Africa which they've chosen not to advertise, in the health sector for example?
PARKS: It's quite striking, our data suggests that well China does play a very active role in the transport sector and the energy sector. They're also extremely active in health, in education and in the sort of bricks and mortar institution building work, so they'll fund parliament buildings, presidential palaces, even sport stadiums. So the diversity of their development activities in Africa is very striking. There was only one sector where we found no evidence of any Chinese development finance and that was in the environmental protection sector.
EWART: Now again there is this suspicion that you could argue that China has created itself by not wanting to talk about in detail at least how it spends its aid money, but it sounds as though the way they go about things is actually positive, whereas some other countries are a little bit more underhand. So maybe we need to look at other countries and scrutinise their activities?
PARKS: I think there's something to that. The approach that we took with this particular project is China's aid to Africa provokes very, very strong reactions both positive and negative, and yet we don't know a lot about the motives or the effects of Chinese development finance. So we're not sort of taking a position in this report on whether Chinese aid for Africa is good or bad, we just think that we've operated in an information poor environment far too long. It's high time that we had actual hard evidence, good data to test different claims being made about the effects of Chinese aid.
EWART: Of course we're talking about the Chinese being less than keen to talk in detail about what they get up to in terms of overseas aid spending, but then you have other examples, a report produced by a research group in the city of Bristol in the UK, Development Initiatives, they point to Japan and Germany collecting large amounts of money from developing countries in the form of interest on loans. But they don't subtract that sum from their overseas development aid numbers, so they're cooking the books just a little aren't they?
PARKS: Yeah again I think there is something to that and I think that the rules that were put in place many decades ago to count what is aid and what is not aid are questionable, and I think there are a lot of different research groups and advocacy groups beginning to ask tough questions about whether the rules that were put in place by western donors, whether those should be the very same rules that are applied to these non-western donors.
EWART: Now having put this database together about China and how it uses its overseas aid money in Africa, have you been back to them since to ask if they will now come and talk to you about it? Or do you plan to do that, because as we've said it points a positive as well as a negative side to the story?
PARKS: Yeah we have invited input and dialogue from the Chinese government and we are still awaiting their response. But we would like nothing more than to have this project and the data sort of instigate a response and in a sense if we had got the data wrong in places we'd like nothing more than for them to set the record straight. And hopefully at some point disclose their official data both at the country level and at the project level.