First, any donation should properly be judged against not against a country's absolute wealth but in relation to its wealth and population: i.e. wealth on a per capita basis. Seen from this perspective, China falls to #92 in the list of prosperity (using the World Bank's measure of 2012 GDP/pc, or per capita, PPP). With a per capita GDP of $9,233, the Chinese are far less wealthy than the countries that have contributed the most to the relief effort, so far: the UK ($32 million, $36,950 GDP/pc), Australia ($30 million; $44,598 GDP/pc), and the US ($20 million; $49,965 GDP/pc). (Many of these countries have also pledged in-kind assistance). Still, the response could have been more generous. Indeed, as I outline below, a historical perspective shows just how paltry the Chinese response has been so far, and how much it likely has to do with Chinese bitterness about the Philippine's recent actions in the South China Seas.
Second, China has been more generous in other humanitarian disasters. China is not a new player at humanitarian aid. Shipments of food in times of famine are a familiar element in Chinese assistance. The Chinese Red Cross has been providing disaster aid since at least 1981. In 1985, the Chinese Red Cross raised $5 million for famine relief in Africa. After the Haiti earthquake, the Chinese pledged over $7 million in cash assistance.
History helps put China's paltry assistance to the Philippines into perspective. Below is a section from my book on China's aid program, The Dragon's Gift, pp. 121-122.
... [Over the past decades,] China has given bilateral earthquake relief to Algeria and Iran, mud avalanche relief to the Philippines, tents, mosquito nets, and blankets to Iraq and Somalia, and even donated $5 million after the Katrina hurricane disaster in the United States...
... Today, China’s humanitarian aid has greatly increased, consistent with Beijing’s relatively new desire to project itself as a “responsible major power.” It is also increasingly being channeled multilaterally, as in Zimbabwe’s 2009 drought, when the Chinese made a $5 million cash donation to support WFP [World Food Program] operations.I anticipate that Chinese aid to the Philippines will rise, but Beijing will not be able to easily play down the conclusion that their response to this disaster was stingy, and petty.
This new multilateralism began during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. At first, China reacted unilaterally, as its foreign emergency response mechanism swung into motion. Wang Hanjiang, then head of the Department of Foreign Aid, met quickly with his counterpart in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to map out the first steps in China’s response. After getting approval from the State Council, they called in the Foreign Affairs Office of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which carried out the tasks.
The Chinese were proud that a planeload of supplies from China was the first foreign aid to arrive in Sri Lanka, flown directly from a Beijing factory only two days after the disaster. Chinese medical teams and engineers were posted to a number of countries struck by the tidal wave. But then China publicly pledged more than $60 million, and channeled almost a third of this through the UN – a first. (Some in the region speculated that China’s historic response was partly done to outgun Taiwan, which had pledged $50 million for the recovery effort.) Private citizens in China donated more than $61 million through the Chinese Red Cross and the China Charity Federation. With the disaster of the Pakistan earthquake following the tsunami, China’s official bilateral humanitarian aid for 2005 ultimately totaled nearly $128 million, with NGOs and Chinese companies raising an almost equal amount.