World on Fire
by Amy Chua
We are, the pundits tell us, living in an age characterized by globalization and democracy. People and capital move ever more freely across national boundaries, while rulers everywhere are more and more obliged to pay attention to the desires of their citizens. The common opinion in the United States, propagated by the big-ticket media, the educational system, and the political establishment, is that both globalization and democracy are wonderful things that will liberate human energies and vanquish ancient rancors.
Well, here comes Amy Chua to explain that over a large part of the Earth's surface, globalization and democracy are at loggerheads, and may actually be incompatible. Ms. Chua, who is a professor at Yale Law School, knows whereof she speaks. Her family comes from the small but wealthy Chinese minority of the Philippines. Globalization has been very good indeed for that minority, opening up great new opportunities for them to practice their entrepreneurial skills and allowing them to network more easily with the overseas-Chinese commercial classes in other countries. It has probably benefited non-Chinese Filipinos, too, but by nothing like as much. Seen from the viewpoint of that majority, globalization has permitted the Chinese to soar up into a stratosphere of stupendous wealth, leaving ordinary Filipinos further behind than ever. Now invite that sullen, resentful majority to practice democracy, and what do you think will happen? Prof. Chua tells us. Her wealthy aunt in the Philippines was murdered by her own chauffeur, and the local police — native Filipinos — have not the slightest interest in apprehending the killer. In their report on the incident, under "motive for murder," they wrote the single word: Revenge.
The key phrase in this book is "market-dominant minority." The Chinese of the Philippines (and of Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, and several other places) are a market-dominant minority. So, though for considerably different reasons, are the whites of southern Africa, the Indians of East Africa, the Lebanese of West Africa, and the Eritreans of Ethiopia; so are the tall, pale-skinned elites of Latin America (except for those few countries whose indigenes were completely exterminated by the European conquerors). So were the Slovenes and Croatians of Yugoslavia, the Tutsi of Rwanda, the Jews of Weimar Germany … You get the picture. For all kinds of reasons, some the consequence of blatant injustice, some arising from temporary civilizational advantage, some from mere historical or geographical accidents, some the result of factors that may not be mentioned in polite society, all over the world there are wealthy and powerful outsider minorities imbedded in large populations of native "sons of the soil."
The problem does not afflict societies only at the national level. It can be very local, as with the Korean storekeepers in American inner cities. It can be supra-national, as with the Israelis in the Middle East. Perhaps it can even be global: Prof. Chua develops a theory of anti-Americanism based on the concept of us as a market-dominant minority in the world at large. I personally think she got carried away a little with her idea there, but her analysis of anti-Americanism is no less plausible than some others I have seen. At any rate, she makes a solid case for her thesis at the national level and gives convincing and up-to-date explanations of phenomena like the triumph of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the seven billionaire "oligarchs" of Yeltsin's Russia. (Six of them were Jewish.)
One possible, but non-democratic, strategy for a nation with a market-dominant minority is "crony capitalism." A small clique, often military, of native sons goes into league with the minority, enriching themselves and their relatives, taking the edge off majority resentment by hiding minority dominance behind an ethnonationalist facade, staffing political and diplomatic positions, opening the economy to global markets while keeping democracy firmly at bay, sometimes admitting old non-entrepreneurial landed gentry classes in on the racket, as Marcos did with the Spanish-blood hacienderos in the Philippines. Suharto of Indonesia was a grand-master of the "crony capitalism" game until his overthrow in 1998, as was Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya. The outstanding current instance is the horrible SLORC dictatorship in Burma.
Suharto's downfall was followed by anti-Chinese riots, with much destruction and killing. Hundreds of Chinese-Indonesians suffered the fate of Tutsis, Weimar Jews, Zimbabwe farmers, and other victims of democracy. This is the downside of being a market-dominant minority. It is astonishing, reading Prof. Chua's case studies, how courageous and resilient some of these entrepreneurial minorities are. Landing in a strange country, they open little stores or set off alone into the bush as peddlers. After decades of hardship and risk, they attain wealth and, via crony capitalism or imperial patronage, some measure of power. Then comes the democratic backlash. They are killed and raped, their stores are burned, the survivors flee. Then, a year or two later, they are back — trading, peddling, dealing, bargaining, painstakingly building up again what was burned down. Speaking as a person with no commercial abilities whatsoever, I am in awe of these market-dominant minorities. And yet, of course, on the other hand, speaking as a person with no commercial abilities whatsoever, I find it all too easy to understand the resentments that build up against them among "sons of the soil." Amy Chua gives a very telling quote from one of the latter, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia: "If we don't know how to work well or do business, at least we know how to fight well!" (Author's italics.)
Is there any way out of this ugly antithesis of globalization-strengthened minority commercial dominance versus democracy-strengthened mass ethnonationalist resentment? The author offers some suggestions. Aggressive, forced assimilation of the minority into majority culture has been attempted, in Thailand for example, but with much injustice and only mixed success. A better prospect is enhanced social awareness on the part of the minority — a voluntary renunciation of objectionable practices like child labor, together with large-scale philanthropy for the benefit of the majority. I thought I sensed a lack of conviction here, though — justified, in my opinion. Ethnonationalism is a very powerful force. It has always been underestimated, but never more so than now, when elite dogma in the civilized world insists that ethnicity is at the most a cosmetic "lifestyle" to be "celebrated," at the least a complete fiction, a "social construct." One would like to ask the charred Chinese corpses of Jakarta or the heaps of severed Tutsi heads and limbs in Rwanda, what they think of this theory … but of course they cannot tell us.
Amy Chua brings a wonderful breadth of knowledge to her book. There is hardly a corner of the world she has not looked into, scarcely an entrepreneurial minority she has missed. (Though the Hakka of Southeast China are conspicuous by their absence. During the confrontation across the Taiwan strait in 1996, a Taiwanese colleague muttered to me that it was "a fight between two old Hakkas." Both Lee Teng-hui, at that time President of Taiwan, and Deng Xiaoping, then — though at that point highly theoretically — still supreme leader of mainland China, came from Hakka families. Perhaps Prof. Chua's own people are Hakka and she is practicing a form of market-dominant minority camouflage …) She seems to have mastered even the trickiest minority-within-minority and minority-versus-minority cases, like that of the Ashkenazim in Israel or the Kikuyu of Kenya. I am normally very skeptical of sociological TOEs (that is, Theories of Everything), but this one got my attention. I just hope the prognosis for humanity is more hopeful than the book's rather lame closing prescriptions left me feeling.