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.

Tecno in Africa- Selfies and Technology; Business or Chinese Colonialism

Clara talked about how American tech companies such as Google use algorithmic neutrality and I wanted to discuss Chinese capitalist imperialism as a counter example to Anglo-American “liberal” imperialism.

Overview: “brand penetration and market dominance in Africa”:

  • present in 35 African countries
  • 41.1% and 31.1% market share in Tanzania and Nigeria
  • has sold over 45 million mobile phones in Africa as of 2017
  • 25% – 40% of the African mobile phone market

Why it succeeds in Africa: 

  • advanced technology
  • relatively reasonable price: $120-280 (The annual average Kenyan wage is $1,200)
  • “most innovative designs”:

Four-sim phones

“Tecno also noticed that the African telecom market is highly fragmented, which means customers using different telecom operators need to pay hefty fees to call and text each other.

Given this situation, local people tend to use dual-sim phones to save money. Tecno pushed the envelope and introduced four-sim handsets, enabling customers to use up to four carriers.

Again this is not groundbreaking technology, but the minor adjustment made Tecno phones hugely popular in Africa.”


“The look is also crucial. Most global mobile brands have shifted toward simplistic designs, but Africans prefer sharp colors and shiny handsets. Tecno wasted no time in appealing to the local taste.”

More Tailoring for each different African country

“For example, in Nigeria customers wanted a mobile phone that had a longer battery life due to the electrical power shortage and in Kenya, customers wanted mobile phones with better picture quality. These requirements were looked and the Camon CX was launched (Tecno’s new product of 2017). “

Most interestingly – 

Specialising in making selfie camera for dark-toned faces 

“…the picture system of most mobile phones is based on white or yellow skin tones. When African users take selfies, the pictures are often either too dark or blurred.”

“To solve this problem, Tecno collected a large number of pictures taken by African customers and tweaked the picture function of its handsets based on the data. The superior selfie quality soon became a major selling point.

“The Camon CX uses a smart image sensor which composes of 16-megapixel sensors in the front camera ‘which detects light, captures individual images and converts the information into signals before forming the final image, resulting in selfies that are 30% brighter, making it the ultimate selfie phone.’”

Technology and the Selfie Culture in the 21st century 

“Generally globally people like to take photos of themselves and then share it on the social networke, we have been in the African market like Kenya for a long time and we do studies…one of the demands from consumers is Selfies and so because of this insight that really drove us to bring the latest visual technology in our latest smartphone..’ – Marketing Officer at Tecno

Techno clearly realises the contemporary global phenomenon of selfies. Having done thorough investigation on the African market, it realises the overwhelming selfie culture applies to Africa just as much as everywhere else across globe. However, the selfie cameras on all the mobile phones were designed for light-toned skin, namely Apple. Tecno is the first and mobile phone company that aims to provide selfie camera for dark-toned skin. What is more is that the technology market of Africa is still relatively underdeveloped and new compared to many other parts of the World, Tecno saw an opportunity and made use of its discovery in Africa. In contrast, Apple’s lack of specialised strategy in Africa and high prices have led its unpopularity in the African mobile phone market. By 2017, it had only 5.2% market share in Africa.

Attai Oguche, a Lagos-based deputy marketing manager for Tecno, told CNBC via telephone that Chinese companies are “good at spotting trends.”

They “adapt easily and come up with a product that everyone likes,” he said.

Oguche added that the “very conservative” European approach means companies risk falling short of their Chinese competitors.

A 21st century kind of (Chinese) colonialism/imperialism? 

“In big ways and small, China is making its presence felt across the continent.’

“China has also spread its influence in less visible ways.”

Clearly, Chinese mobile phone companies like Tecno, have really dived into the African market and it is interesting to consider their intentions and implications.

Business & Opportunism

It can be argued that they are in Africa for the profit. Africa is the fastest growing mobile phone market and Tecno benefitted from thinking outside the box in terms of some novel ideas such as selfie camera suited for dark skin and making 4-sim phones. The ideas of tailoring for different African countries and communities and specialising in the African market are to be considered as a huge success from a business point of view.

Neo-colonialism & Capitalist Imperialism 

On the other hand, regarding China in African in general, the term neo-colonialism has been raised very often.

But in the case of Tecno, it is hard to see how it neo-colonises Africa in terms of cultural intervention – it specialises its products for Africans and there is essentially nothing ‘Chinese’ about these phones apart from it is designed and made by a Chinese company.

Further, it sets out a sharp contrast against Anglo-American mobile phone companies such as Apple who do nothing like what Tecno does, and still sell their phones at a very high price for Africans. Is Apple only targeting on the richest Africans? Or it simply does not care much? It is hard to say who embodies neo-colonialism more.

However, it has been argued by Lenin that imperialism is spread across the globe with the help of capitalism and the division of territories are divided by the biggest global capitalist powers. Contemporary scholars have renewed Lenin’s theory by adding that technology has helped the growth and expansion of capitalism. Here we can see how Chinese tech companies like Tecno gradually capitalises and dominates Africa’s market, hence a rising global power of capitalist imperialism.

Dal Yong Jin (Jin, 2013) has argued that with the rise of new technologies in the context of globalisation from the end of 20th century, brought about a new meaning of imperialism, namely technology and information imperialism. Jin suggests like Lenin thought, cultural imperialism is spread with the help of capitalism.

“capitalism at that stage of development at which the domination of monopolies and fi- nance capital is established: in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced im- portance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all the territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed (Lenin,1917, 237, cited in Jin, 2013).

Moreover, the idea of capitalist imperialism in the 21st century is helped with capitalising technological products.

“Capitalist imperialism, which focuses on the flow of economic power across and through continuous space through the daily practices of trade, commerce, capital flows, labor migration, technology transfer, flows of information, cultural impulses and the like”.  (Harvey, 2003, 26f, cited in Jin, 2013)

Social and Racial Preferences 

In addition in a globalised and anglo-americanised world, Tecno’s approach to Africa and its success inspires us to rethink how much social preference and here more importantly racial preferences weigh in business and even development approaches.

“We read quite a lot about the economies of other countries. We read about their political situation. It’s more unusual for us to read about how they function as societies and what their social preferences are and how these might differ from those of neighboring countries and how there might be different social preferences within a given country.”

“The UN’s Efforts in International Development: Relevant or Not?”, David Malone’s speech at the Carnegie Council of Ethics in International Affairs, May 2015




“Africa’s leading mobile maker, TECNO, is disrupting the global mobile market with its latest flagship duo”, Ventures Africa, Sep 2016


“African’s crave for selfies Inspires Tecno latest Smartphone”, PulseLive, March 2017


“TECNO: China’s home grown smartphone manufacturer has quietly taken over the African smartphone market”, Kapron Asia, Sep 2017


“How a little-known brand conquered African mobile phone market”, Ejisight, Jan 2017


“Why Africa’s Smartphone Market Still Dragging”, Tech in Africa, Dec 2017


“China goes to Africa”, The Economist, Jul 2017 


“‘China is everywhere’ in Africa’s rising technology industry”, CNBC, July 2017


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


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