Without claiming to offer a “general theory,” Chua calls economically successful minorities “the Achilles’ heel of free market democracy” in many countries with impoverished majorities. “Markets concentrate wealth, often spectacular wealth, in the hands of the market-dominant minority, while democracy increases the political power of the impoverished majority. In these circumstances the pursuit of free market democracy becomes an engine of potentially catastrophic ethno-nationalism…” To support her case, Chua cites a litany of genocide and racial murder aimed at ethnic elites from Serbia and Rwanda to Indonesia and Israel.
Chua compares the wealthy Chinese, like her aunt, who dominate the markets of many Asian countries to the successful Jews of Europe in the 1920s. “In the Philippines, millions of Filipinos work for Chinese; almost no Chinese work for Filipinos. The Chinese dominate industry and society at every level…. When foreign investors do business in the Philippines they deal almost exclusively with Chinese.” When she was 8 years old, she recalls, she stumbled into the servant quarters in her aunt’s villa: “My family’s houseboys, gardeners, and chauffeurs … were sleeping on mats on a dirt floor. The place smelled of sweat and urine. I was horrified.”
For Chua, September 11 was a sign that Americans are regarded a lot like the Chinese elite in the Philippines. “Americans today are everywhere perceived as the world’s market-dominant minority, wielding outrageously disproportionate economic power relative to our size and numbers. As a result, we have become the object of mass, popular resentment and hatred of the same kind….” She may be overstating the animus — and its economic roots — but the analogy feels right.
On close reading, Chua isn’t attacking free markets or democracy. She’s interested in figuring out ways to advance them while soothing popular resentment. She’s hardly alone when she warns that “immediate majority elections in many of the Arab states would likely bring to power anti-market, anti-Israel, anti-America, and anti-globalization regimes.” Chua’s intelligent dissection of affirmative action programs like Malaysia’s NEP and Quebec’s ethnic preference programs — one strategy for defusing tensions — is particularly useful. Her proposals for tax and transfer programs and constitutional protection of minorities enforced by independent judiciaries also make sense. She makes an important, and often overlooked, point that “democracy comes in many guises.” Citizens of China have secured many valuable individual freedoms not available before 1970, even though they have yet to obtain majority rule, multiple political parties, or a free press.
Chua’s instincts are mostly sound. She describes how, after her aunt’s murder, her relatives hired more bodyguards, erected barbed-wire fences, and bought vicious watchdogs. She wonders if visible good deeds might not afford them better protection. She cites positive examples such as Indian philanthropists in East Africa and a Jewish capitalist in Siberia who models himself on Andrew Carnegie and has spent “tens of millions of dollars of his own money airlifting food, parkas, boots, and medicine.” Concludes Chua, “It’s difficult to see, in any event, how a little generosity and humility could possibly hurt.” Singer would certainly agree.
Fareed Zakaria’s superb book-length essay, The Future of Freedom, raises some of the same cautionary themes as Chua’s work. Although more cerebral, Zakaria’s book is also rooted in close personal observation of a society, India, that has long grappled with the sometimes conflicting ideals of democracy and promises to eradicate poverty and ethnic violence. Zakaria argues that “India has been unable to engage in sustained reform largely because its politicians will not inflict any pain — however temporary — on their constituents.” One result, he says, is that India, which started out no poorer than China in 1960, now lags far behind in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, nutrition, and literacy. He neglects, however, to mention the downside of China’s failure to achieve free and open public debate, including setbacks in China’s public health system since 1979 and, more dramatically, the role of censorship in the recent SARS epidemic.