Modern Hegemony as China Expands its Reach


Hegemony has taken many forms—in 1492 it meant ruling over vast swaths of gold encrusted Central America, in 1607 it meant controlling the fertile woodlands of the Atlantic coast, in 1789 it meant absolute rule of the old world, in 1885 it meant well placed colonies spanning a quarter of the globe. As the world entered the modern era, hegemony changed its face again. Gone were the days of land grabs; red coats and pith helmets are past and a more subtle game arose, of which the primary weapons are land use treaties and PR campaigns. Developed nations—and the corporations registered to them—have flocked to the old colonial havens in a process commonly called economic imperialism. Yet, while we are quick to associate any form of imperialism to its traditional perpetrators—Europeans—it seems there’s a new player on the field. An old colony itself, China has stretched beyond the traditional colony’s fate of stagnation and division and reversed its role.

For over a decade, China has been pumping 45.7% of its foreign aid budget—a sum total of 42.3 billion USD as of 2009—into building airports, stadiums, roads, and energy projects. Taken at face value, the endeavor appears to be expressive of high humanitarian aspirations. And to a degree, that may be true. Nonetheless, tensions have arisen as many claim that their intentions are less than virtuous—glass beads given to curry the favor of governments.

In fact, there are questions as to whether the projects aren’t doing more harm than good–major construction projects have disregarded local environments and instituted a form of economic and industrial development incompatible with sustainability. Upkeep for projects has put governments in debt, drugs and medical aid have been shown to be counterfeit—leading to a host of problems of their own—and African governments have borrowed excessive amounts indebting them to the Chinese government.

This recent drive to develop the continent and curry the favor of its government and—to a degree—its people, has not gone unnoticed. The United States has initiated a new push to compete, claiming the high ground and expressing a humanitarian interest rather than a purely economic one. In recent years, United States aid to China has decreased—a fact the Obama administration has tried to reverse. Regardless of what humanitarian ideals are claimed by either side, they both have a lot to gain: minerals are abundant and oil is plentiful. The question is, can virtuous intentions prevail when so much money is to be made.

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