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.

The Chinese Approach to the Development of Africa, Ideology and Background

To start with, the big question is: Chinese or Anglo-American, is there really a perfect model or approach to the development in Africa? We will firstly look at the big picture by comparing the Chinese ideology with that of the Anglo-American one (which Eamon will research on) in regard to development in Africa in order to understand their approaches and interpret their implications to African development. Later, we will narrow down the scope and will focus on the investigation regarding how China and the Anglo-American world have approached the development of African countries in terms of technology.

Arguably, the idea behind China’s approach to the development in African is deeply rooted in its own ideology and inspired by its own dramatic rise seen since the end of 20th century. The rise of its economy and improvement of its welfare system have been one of, if not the most predominant in its rapid development and its rising status in international politics. Furthermore, needless to argue, the domestic post-1978 economic reforms with the help of globalisation, have led to China’s opening to the World economy and are significant factors of its rise. In addition, China’s abundant domestic labour supply, both skilled and unskilled, has been crucial factors in the rise.

But are African countries in similar situations as post WW2 China? If so, how similar? Consider –


Similarities: poverty, hunger, poor health and welfare system, unemployment, lack of industries, business and trade, etc.

Different situations:
China: damage from the war; one-party system led by socialist and communist ideology and leaders, which came with dictatorship and corruption, but unified goals and strategies not only at the leadership level but also at national level, not to mention a rather unified national identity in terms of history, language and culture for a big country with an enormous population.

Africa: its struggles with the legacies of colonial rule; corrupt and dictatorial leadership; and most importantly, the African continent is made of many different countries with different cultures, languages, societies, history and politics. Moreover, the size of Africa is immense: 30.37 million km² – bigger than the combination of China, India, the U.S. and most of Europe.


Similarities: lack of international power and little share of global trade, underdeveloped technology compared to the West

Different contexts:
China: mid and late 20th century saw the Cold War, from an International Relations point of view, the World, especially the US whose main focus was its rivalry with Russia, certainly overlooked China’s potential. So many scholars such as G. John Ikenberry have stated that the World failed to predict China’s dramatic rise and it came as a surprise.

African countries: both China and Western countries, in terms of both states and international organisations in the 21st century are paying more attention, time, research, manpower to the development of the developing world especially Africa.


Echoing with the overall theme of our group, we choose to focus on investigating how the West and China have approached the development in Africa in terms of technology. Technology in the West has rapidly grown and developed from the 20th century and into the 21st century. China clearly recognises the importance of technology is essential to its development, especially telecom and internet in today’s world of globalisation. This part of historical context has been looked into by Sean but to briefly summarise, there have been hard and concerted efforts of China trying to catch up with the modernisation and development of technology after WW2, since as early as the 1960 and 1970s. The strengthening of technology has been one of the goals of ‘Four Modernisations’ which was set to invigorate the economy of China and has clearly achieved impressive results in contributing to its economic and political rise.


In the next post, Eamon will discover what some Western tech companies are doing in Africa and discuss their ideology in order for us to eventually compare and contrast with the Chinese one. To follow, I will elaborate on the strategies and results of Chinese companies such as Huawei, ZTE and TECNO in developing the technology in Africa especially in terms of telecom.



  • “China’s Investment in Africa: The New Colonialism?” , Harvard Politics Review, Feb 2017


  • “How China’s Approach Beats the West in Africa”, Harvard Business Review, Sep 2012


  • Ikenberry, G. John (2008), “The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 1
  • Cox, Michael (2012), “Power Shifts, Economic Change and the Decline of the West?”, International Relations, 2012 26: 36