Utility Imperialism v. Liberal Imperialism

In this post I will discuss the contrast between Chinese and Anglo-American Imperialism and its implications in both development and politics.

Aside from imitating American business and development strategies like we saw in the cases of Huawei & IBM tech centres in Africa, Huawei also practices China’s famous ‘no-strings attached’ policy when doing business abroad. One big example is the telecom deal between Huawei, ZTE and the Ethiopian government. It is an $800 million deal that aims to expand the country’s mobile phone and internet infrastructure. Here we can see how China specialises in providing utility to foreign countries and in this way perpetuates its imperialism.

No strings attached, providing infrastructure  – utility imperialism & critics

But it draws attention that the Ethiopian telecom business is state owned and Ethiopia has refused to liberalise its telecom industry, critiques have said this Huawei and ZTE deal further ruled out the chance of liberalising Ethiopia’s economy.

“The deal with Huawei and ZTE will preserve Ethiopia’s state dominance and further put off the opening up of one of Africa’s largest economies. ”

This was back in 2013. Last year Xi has announced the strategy of one belt one road which is doing more business and investment abroad by providing infrastructure. Some have said it is similar to the post WW2 Marshall Plan America offered to Europe and China’s imperialist ambition is revealed.

“Some analysts have compared the One Belt One Road enterprise to the Marshall Plan. After World War II, the United States was such a strong manufacturing entity that it was forced to seek markets for its industrial products. The Marshall Plan required that aid to Europe involve a quid pro quo of U.S. investment and imports.”

On the other hand, 

“If Trump is too tied up with the Deep State and China leaves a bit of clean water, electricity, and road infrastructure – so be it.”

However in general China’s warns us how the West might not understand Africa better than anyone else – that might be a beneficial insight risen from the power rivalry between Chinese and American Imperialism, from a development point of view. One could say that developing countries and their people might want to seek their own way into democracies or whatever they want to and can achieve for their own good, ideally without Western intervention such as aids that come with patronising conditions and sometimes what locals see as hypocritical charities.

I have noticed, in recent years there has been a gradual shift in Western commentators’ judgements on Chinese business and developed approaches abroad – from mostly critical to curious and reflective nowadays.

“The fact that Western media sources consistently condemn China’s no-strings-attached attitude towards dealing with African regimes as proof that this is a disservice to Africa’s peoples actually demonstrates a certain lack of understanding that the West has of the worldview of many Africans.”

“If China is ultimately successful in bringing about a new surge in African economies, something the West has tried and failed to achieve for decades, then the global conversation on development will be rewritten. At the same time, China find itself one step closer to achieving the “Great Power” status it so longs for.”

Let’s see some local African’s opinions:

“As an African, I don’t really think they care. They’re here for business anyway. What i think many Africans like about them is that they don’t meddle in our affairs. Sorry to say this but the west treats Africans as objects of pity that need to be controlled like kids. Not that we don’t appreciate being helped but stuff like aid has done more harm than good here, in my opinion.”

“We rather work hard to buy the things we need than having someone give it to us as charity in the name of caring. Why subject myself to pity and charity when I have the ability to earn the money fairly?

Some Western professionals actually recognise this concern and have similar opinions too:

“These are fundamental shifts in thinking about what is achievable in the developing world and what the developing world wants to achieve for itself.”

“David Rieff, a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and contributing editor to The New Republic, says: “The problem with aid, in short, is that it sets itself up as the kind of know-all and end-all. …Aid, by definition, is outsiders telling people in a place how to do it, and telling them if they don’t behave satisfactorily — that is, the best practices that you now see in humanitarianism: if you’re not democratic, if you are not transparent, if you don’t do this, that or the other thing — then we will withdraw the aid. Well, if ever there was an example of any unequal form of relations, I would submit to you that that’s it, which is why, precisely, in depriving people of their agency, aid does more harm than good.”

“Foreign aid atrophies, and weakens, the state in Africa, and the only people who grow stronger are the donors: governments and NGOs. It damages the prospects for ordinary people to better their lives, and turns ordinary Africans into victims. Africans are hard-working people who like to have an enterprise culture. They are natural capitalists and do not need to be patronised by NGOs, who often have left-wing agendas.”

“Giving money can feed the hungry, and help the sick — but it does not free people from the institutions that make them hungry and sick in the first place.”


This would also beg the questions asking whether developing countries know the best about themselves and whether their people understand the significance of long-term development vision and the importance of issues such as human rights.

It is true that Western conditions might just be imperialist expansion in disguise in the name of liberalism and politicians might not really care about Africans. But you cannot say there aren’t indeed countless Western institutions, professionals as well as commoners that continuously offer genuine ideological and educational help and research in their pursuit of a better Africa and a better World. In direct contrast, China’s focus on business partnerships and providing utility and infrastructure might be seen as opportunist, self interested and short-visioned.

“I believe that certain types of health aid — offering vaccinations, or developing cheap and effective drugs to treat malaria, for example — have been hugely beneficial to developing countries.” (Ibid.)

“Humanitarian aid, mostly, does a lot of good. It saves lives and helps rebuild livelihoods. When you think of this, think 15 million starving people in the Horn of Africa in 2011 who would have mostly perished had it not been for aid.”

“I would say, though, it is important to remember, while all of that is true, for the overwhelming majority of the developing world, the story is good rather than bad. Of course, the stories we focus on are the stories of great distress, but in much of the developing world, where people would certainly like to be richer than they are and they would like to have more opportunities for their kids as they grow up as well, the last 30 years or so have been very, very good, and those countries have had more to do with that than we have.”

All in all,

African development: utility first or ideals first? Perhaps both can work side by side in pushing the development of Africa forward and it is also of great importance that cultural, regional, social and racial preferences should always be taken into account in tailoring particular development strategies and approaches.

Politics: But African development falls under the eyes of global powers like the US and China and might have been and will probably continue to suffer from their power contest and imperialist pursuit.

Social Constructionism

Having used the sociological and psychological theory of social constructionism for a couple of times in our project, I finally came to summarise some key definitions and key terms linked to this theory. To simply put, social constructionists think that there is no absolute reality or truth, as subjective perceptions are all ‘constructed’ by external ‘reality’. Namely when we say people especially millennials have been ‘socially constructed’ by the use and spread of social media, and not to mention the news, ideas and opinions on social media. (Clara has done case studies on Facebook and Emojis.) Such influence is powerful yet ‘invisible’ and a gradual process which is convincingly a part of Anglo-American cultural (platform) imperialism.

“Social media feeds the society with a constructed reality instead of depicting it.”

SOCIAL MEDIA: How Reality is Constructed

  • Definition of Social Constructionism

“An approach to social psychology that seeks to study the ways in which people and groups create and institutionalize social phenomena by constructing their perceived reality. Socially constructed reality is interpreted as a continuous, dynamic process, with reality emerging from people’s interpretations.”

— Oxford Index, http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100515201

Key terms

“cognitive construction”
“symbolic universe”
“subjective reflection”
“social objectivation”

“One may and typically does live natively with a symbolic universe.”

— p. 104, Berger, Peter L., & Luckmann, Thomas (1966), The Social Construction of Reality, Anchor Books

  • Brainwashing

Furthermore the term brainwashing is directly linked to this idea, as it means how politicians control peoples opinions by making things up. It is also interesting to consider the shift from tv and newspaper brainwashing to social media brainwashing – older generations were more socially constructed by tv and newspaper but again, millennials are more exposed to social media brainwashing.

‘The term “brainwashing” comes from the time of the Korean War, when Americans speculated about the thought reform regime in communist China, and later the techniques used on the American POWs in Korea who went on to criticize the war, and even in a few cases to renounce the US and refuse to come home after the war was over. It’s such an evocative term that it caught on almost immediately as a way to describe someone’s views as rote, robotic, or even unthinkable.

We see a lot more of this rhetoric in the new millennium, with the advent of openly partisan cable news networks, and now with the phenomenon of social media “bubbles” where users often see largely the views of those who agree with them ideologically.’

We’re all a bit ‘brainwashed’ about politics

(Source: https://innerself.com/content/social/democracy/activism/13170-we-are-all-a-bit-brainwashed-about-politics.html)

Arguably imperialism normally is tied with negative implications and in fact much of our research has been focusing on those that come with the growth and expansion of technology and social media. However it is worth noting that technology and social media of 21st century that have been mainly developed by American companies have made contributions in easing our daily life and advancing our society. Where to draw the fine line between those benefits and Anglo-American cultural imperialism, neo-colonisation and ‘brainwashing’ comes down to individual cases but in any case a difficult question. It can be argued that in most cases innovations in technology and social media have not been designed to promote cultural imperialism, but many of them have been or can be manipulated to serve for different interests, especially in terms of politics (in our case, Anglo-American politics domestically and abroad – consider Facebook and Russian fake news during 2016 US election, and the latest news on Facebook and the Cambridge Analytical Data Scandal.

Cultural Imperialism, Anglo-Americanisation & Tech-Platform Imperialism

Some updates of key definitions that are essential to our project:

Cultural Imperialism

“Cultural imperialism is the economic, technological and cultural hegemony of the industrialized nations, which determines the direction of both economic and social progress, defines cultural values, and standardizes the civilization and cultural environment throughout the world.”


“the hegemony of western culture and the process that is leading to the establishment of a common world culture”

– Matti Sarmela, “What is Cultural Imperialism?”, in Carola Sandbacka (ed.), Cultural Imperialism and Cultural Identity, 13-36. Transactions of the Finnish Anthropolological Society 2, Helsinki 1977, (in Finnish 1975)

Technology Imperialism

“It is clear that the notion of imperialism has gained a new perspective in the midst of the rapid growth of new technologies.”

“The panacea of technology may reduce imperialism and domination to vestiges of the past; however, technology will always be the reality of human hierarchy and domination (Maurais 2003, Demont-Heinrich 2008), and digital technologies have buttressed U.S. hegemony.

Platform Imperialism 

In particular, when the debates reach platforms, non-Western countries have not, and likely cannot, construct a balanced global order, because Google (including its Android oper- ating system), Facebook, Twitter and Apple’s iPhones (and iSO) are indices of the domi- nance of the U.S. in the digital economy. These platforms have penetrated the global market and expanded their global dominance. Therefore, it is not unsafe to say that American impe- rialism has been continued with platforms. As in the time of Lenin between the late 19th cen- tury and the early 20th century, there has been a connection between platform and capitalist imperialism. Platforms have functioned as a new form of distributor and producer that the U.S. dominates. Arguably, therefore, we are still living in the imperialist era.

“Therefore, it is certain that American imperialism has been renewed with platforms, like the old form of American imperialism sup- ported by politics, economy, and military, as well as culture.”

– Jin, Dal Yong (2013), “The Construction of Platform Imperialism in the Globalization Era”, TripleC, 11 (1): 145-172

Huawei’s Tech Centre and Training Program in South Africa, Facts and Reflections

  • Huawei’s Vision and Strategy

• “Glocalisation” & “Tech innovations in South Africa’s emerging market”

In 2011, Huawei announced their strategy of “glocalisation” in South Africa, which was “customer-centric innovation, establishment and maintenance of local business partnerships as well as localised operations”.

• “Local” & “Future”

Huawei has stressed their focus on promoting local enterprise and encouraging local business, as well as educating locals with skills and knowledge that will help with South Africa’s long-term technological development.

“partnering with the local business community through local employees, sharing resources with local partners, as well as providing opportune to develop local talent that will form the next generation of telecom leaders”

  • Tech Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa 

“Huawei signed a Cooperation Contract with the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) on July 19th during the launch of their joint Innovation and Experience Centre in Johannesburg.”

“The centre cost $5 million, and is located in Sandown’s Vunani Office Park in Johannesburg. It will also serve as an open lab to 5 local universities, namely: University of Johannesburg, Tshwane University of Technology, Durban University of Technology, Vaal University of Technology. Huawei has also committed to training 1000 ICT talent in South Africa by the year 2021.”

There are more Huawei tech centres being built across Africa and they aim to provide technological education and training to students and entrepreneurs, offer a platform for innovative ideas, includes internship programs and potential job opportunities.

  • Huawei Bringing South African Students to Train in China

“In an agreement signed this week between Huawei and the government of South Africa, an investment by the Chinese telecommunications company will bring 1,000 South African students to China over the next five years to participate in a new training program. The students will be trained in telecommunications networking, cloud computing, and big data.”

The students who are selected to travel to China for training are advised to “take advantage of the opportunity, and to “come back and develop ICT solutions that will answer some South African challenges.”

  • What Local Africans Say – Positive and Optimistic About Huawei At Best

“A few weeks after the Beijing recruitment event, after CVs had been reviewed and interviews had been concluded, I had a conversation with a friend from South Africa who was working in Beijing. He had participated in the recruitment drive and had been made an offer to work at Huawei. In our brief conversation, he spoke about how strange it was that he was negotiating the terms of his potential contract on Wechat, and how he hoped that he would be placed in Beijing and not in South Africa, at least not immediately. In many ways, this friend’s experience was living testament to the headlines that commend Huawei’s successes in Africa, its training of 1000 South Africans in China, its investment in African markets, its broadening reach. While certainly not a perfect company, Huawei continues to do an impressive job of solidifying its place as a top smartphone and network infrastructure provider in African countries.”

  • Reflections

     1.  Huawei in South Africa: “an aggressive publicity campaign”? “a propaganda”?

This could potentially be a legitimate and reasonable view, but –

     2.   An unsupported claim

However, virtually no evidence to assess the effects of Huawei’s training program – Huawei does not reveal any results of its training program and there is little or no research done from any outsiders.

     3.  Applying Social Constructionism to Anglo-Americanisation

I have found online commentators and scholars stating Huawei is doing propaganda and their tones are sometimes critical albeit there is no evidence to back up their claim. Is one accusing Huawei of propaganda simply because it is a Chinese company with a huge market share in the African telecom market? Yet would one say the same with what IBM is doing in Kenya (Eamon’s research)? Or because it is an Anglo-American company, its intentions are always justified? The psychology behind this is very interesting. I have mentioned the theory of social constructionism in an attempt to explaining how people, especially millennials are ‘anglo-americanised’ due to the fast expansion of technology and social media.Here again it could be said that many, including both ordinary people and professional commentators and scholars, have such a contrasting view on the intentions and ethics of Chinese and Anglo-American companies, are socially constructed by Anglo-Americanisation. This does not necessarily mean their considerations are not correct, but questionable in nature.

     4. The limitation of our research

In addition, I feel the lack of hard evidence of the influence of those tech and telecom companies in Africa, both Chinese and Anglo-American, has been the major limit of our research. This is due to two reasons. Firstly, we have chosen to study a very recent, not to even mention ongoing topic. Results and influences are always more comprehensive and clearer to be interpreted in retrospect. Secondly, it has been easy to find the announcement of the strategies and plans of these companies, but hard to find their own reports on what their training programs have achieved. It is worth noting that it seems that this does not only apply to Chinese company Huawei but also Anglo-American companies such as IBM.

     5.  Huawei’s concept of “glocalisation” = Chinese colonialism in Africa? Or bilateral partnership?

I will follow up on this bigger question which is directly related to our overall project in my later posts.



  • “Huawei Announces Strategy for Africa known as “glocalisation”, My Broadband, Nov 2011


  • “China’s Huawei to roll out 4G service in Ethiopian capital”, The Africa Report, Nov 2013


  • “Are Chinese IT Companies doing enough to train locals in Africa?”, The Chinafrica Project, Aug 2016


  • “What Huawei Has Done Right in Africa”, From Africa to China, Aug 2016


  • “Africa: Huawei Outlines Africa Digital Strategy”, AllAfrica, 15 Nov 2016


  • “Huawei launches its first innovation and experience centre in Africa’, PC Tech Magazine, July 2016


  • “Huawei training 1,000 South Africans in China”, The Stack, July 2016


Jigsaw – ‘Algorithmic Neutrality’ or ‘Anglo-Americanisation’? And some ideas on our overall theme.

I found Clara’s finding on jigsaw very fascinating so did some research that might lead us to discover some connections between her area of research and Eamon’s and mine, which would help us to start thinking about the bigger picture – where our project is likely to lead us to and the answer to our overall question.


1. Google as a leading example of the Anglo-America tech companies’ ‘algorithmic neutral’ ideology: 

This is an extremely intriguing article discussing the ideology behind Jigsaw and reflects on the bigger picture: it suggests a sense of self-claimed political neutrality of tech companies such as Google.

“If the company sold access to water or electricity instead of information, it might be regulated like a public utility. But Alphabet tends to shy away from this analogy (though Jigsaw’s representative was surprisingly open to it), preferring to frame itself as an organization that can be trusted because of its commitment to “algorithmic neutrality.” (See point 3 for its meaning of  being sociopolitical neutral.)

2.  Connections with the rest of our group and reflections on the overall project: 

I feel like this is a case in point in connecting Clara’s research with Eamon‘s and mine: we might propose a contrast between the Chinese approach with the Anglo-American one that Chinese tech companies concentrate on providing tech as a utility, while Anglo-American ones such as Jigsaw label themselves as ‘algorithmic neutral’: “As described by Evgeny Morozov, a leading thinker on the political implications of technology, Google sees itself as an “algorithms-powered neutral intermediary that stands between a given user and the collective mind of the Internet.

3.  Sociopolitical implications: Jigsaw’s embodiment of classical western liberalism while it does not pick a side (but really?): 

“From a sociopolitical standpoint, Jigsaw seems to embody a form of classical liberalism… it is interested in extending liberties to vulnerable populations, not denying them….… Jigsaw is sympathetic to many of the same values as Western foreign policy, but it is not picking winners based on ideology. Take Project Shield. For an independent news publication to receive protection from hackers under Project Shield, it must prove only that it is not state-sponsored and is not on a terrorist watch list. (Jigsaw uses severa watch lists, not just the American one.) Jigsaw doesn’t screen for democratic, secular, pro-American or pro-Google leanings.

So does Jigsaw really not pick a side? It seems to be suggested that its so-called self-claimed standing of neutrality makes sure Jigsaw is not a biased, whitewashed means of westernisation whilst upholding liberty as the key principle. But can you really separate the two?

4. HOWEVER, “Neutrality is a messy business.” – Critics and challenges: 

The idea of sociopolitical neutrality, although captivating, is subject to many critics on attacking on its idealism and potential problems especially concerned with power structures, politics and state authorities.

“Unfortunately, the power structures that preceded the internet—governments, courts, and armies—have so far limited technology’s emancipatory potential. Even if Jigsaw’s users have free speech and access to information, they still have physical selves that can be taxed, threatened, or imprisoned by the state. As the political theorist David Runciman writes, thus far the “internet has not proved to be the autocracy-busting, freedom-generating machine that many hoped.””

“Jigsaw wants to be politically neutral, but it also wants to make an impact by assisting activists and journalists engaged in the messy business of real-world politics. That is not an easy balance to strike. ”

5.  How justified? How ethical? A good deed at best? But on what grounds? 

To go back to our project, which is to investigate Anglo-American social media and technology in relation to the expansion of neo-colonialism: Google and Jigsaw might help us present a counter-argument: “Professor Jacob Rentdorff, a specialist in business ethics at Copenhagen Business School, suggests that Alphabet can counter accusations of “ethical white-washing” by making sure the principles behind Jigsaw are “directly integrated into its business and strategy activities.”

In addition, it might be suggested that Jigsaw is a product of a globalised technological world that might bring about mixed results, among which there are arguably positive influences. Not to mention it is still at its early stages. With Jigsaw’s potential and Google’s vision, it would be interesting to see where its strategy and potential will lead it to in the future.

On the other hand,

Firstly, should Google and its Jigsaw, Facebook with its Free Basics, to be considered as an invisible and gradual way of western political, social and cultural intervention? Does globalisation mean westernisation – or in this case, Anglo-Americanisation

Secondly, the purpose proposed by Jigsaw implies a sense of helping and saving those who need help and are in danger. This is of course is a good deed, but could you say it might develop into a means of control over those countries and people, especially if authorities become interested in it and politics is involved? Consider, for example, the claim about Russia’s manipulation and the ‘fake news’ cycle during the US election of 2016 on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. 

6. Example, “Google and Jigsaw launching safeguarding tools for Kenya election”:


It states that Google and Jigsaw were teaming up to safeguard the Kenyan Election of 2017 by protecting the media from online attacks and hacks. Clara: this sounds like a big claim…it might be interesting to find out some details and results to see if they actually managed to do so? To add, it is worth noting that this is a case regarding Kenya, which is relevant to some aspects of the research that Eamon and I are doing (to be elaborated later).