The donation of 23 minibuses to Macedonia by China's foreign ministry has sparked an angry backlash among netizens in the wake of a fatal school-bus crash in Gansu earlier this month.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Monday defended Friday's gift of the buses, which are to be used to ferry children to school.
"Chinese aid is a mutual thing," he told a regular news briefing in Beijing. "During the [Sichuan] earthquake, the Macedonian government overcame a lot of difficulties to offer assistance to China."
"Now that China is developing, it must take as its starting point its international duties and responsibilities," he said.
The donation hit a raw nerve among China's Internet users, who are still reeling from the Gansu crash, in which 21 children died and dozens more were injured.
A Lanzhou-based netizen surnamed Li said the buses that were given away were installed with the latest safety equipment, unlike the overcrowded minibus in the Gansu accident.
"I would guess that there aren't more than about 50 of these buses in the whole of China," Li said.
"The government has failed to meet the demands of Chinese people with regard to school-bus safety, caring instead about the safety of children in some other country."
Authorities under fire
Beijing University of Science and Technology professor Hu Xingdou said the gift had gone ahead in the shadow of the Gansu tragedy.
"The Chinese authorities were already coming under fire for not investing enough in education, and for not taking the safety of Chinese children seriously enough," Hu said.
"Against such a background, it is natural that people would be angry about the gift of buses to Macedonia."
Social media sites were awash with criticism in the wake of the announcement.
"Long live the great international humanitarian spirit," wrote user @shajingcaoku, in a sarcastic jibe at the gift of foreign aid amid an inability to ensure the safety of China's own children.
User @wuxierkuangwang apparently agreed. "How many Chinese schools are in disrepair? How many kids from mountainous regions have never even seen a computer?"
"How many kids are packed into unsafe school buses? Can't we save our own kids first?" the user added.
Xiamen-based blogger Peter Guo said ordinary Chinese feel as if their government is giving away their blood, sweat, and toil of recent years.
"This is entirely to serve political needs, with no regard for the welfare of its own people or for opposition at home," he said.
"This [reaction] is largely because [the gift] has struck a raw nerve, because of the terrible accident that happened in Gansu, in which some children lost their lives," Guo said.
"People are already very disappointed about the quality of [China's] school buses ... and they think the government should pay more attention to its own people's welfare," he added.
Many called into question the rationale for Chinese aid to a country which spent a higher proportion of its GDP on education than Beijing does: five percent compared with China's four percent.
"You may be Europe's poorest country, but your children are much happier than those in the world's second-largest economy," wrote another commenter on the popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo.
"The foreign ministry has become the aid ministry," Guo said, referring to a wave of satire to hit microblogging sites since the story broke.
"A lot of netizens have been leaving comments on the Macedonian government's website, saying they want them to give the buses back," he said.
"They say they were stolen and given to a rich country and they want them back."
Others drew comparisons between the diplomatic humiliation heaped on China during the reign of the Dowager Empress Cixi.
Social commentator Li Chengpeng said gifts to foreign powers could inflame popular anger against the government.
A lack of care?
Parent activist Zhao Lianhai, who has campaigned on behalf of children made sick by melamine-tainted infant formula, said the Gansu bus crash has come to symbolize a lack of care on the part of China's government for the welfare of ordinary people and their children.
"What hurts the most is that they are taking money from ordinary people in taxes, and giving it to another country," Zhao said.
"It's not just the bus crash," he added. "There are also the kidney-stone babies [affected by tainted milk], the tainted vaccine kids, the lead-poisoned children, and so on and so on."
Official media on Monday tried to play down the reaction to the donation to Macedonia.
"China cannot simply stop its aid programs to foreign countries," the Global Times, a paper with strong ties to the ruling Communist Party, wrote in a commentary.
"The school bus donation to Macedonia would have gone unnoticed if the Gansu incident had never happened."
The paper rejected criticisms of the foreign ministry, which it said "has no obligation to shoulder the responsibility that belongs to the ministry of civil affairs."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.