Amy Chua’s World on Fire: Ethnic Hatreds and Their Implications for the United States 


World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability

Amy Chua

Anchor Books, 2004


            Amy Chua is a Yale Law School professor whose family has been among the wealthy Filipino Chinese elite that, even though only 1 percent of the Philippine population, has for centuries dominated the Islands’ commercial economy.  (Almost all rural land is controlled by a Spanish-blooded gentry class.)  In 1994, Chua’s aunt was murdered at her home in the Philippines by her chauffeur with the collusion of other servants—a crime that is not at all uncommon in light of the ethnic hatred that exists.

            The murder might have caused Chua to take a highly subjective, ethnically partisan view of such ethnic conflict.  Instead, it stirred her scholarly instincts, leading her to a study of ethnic hatred on a worldwide basis.  The result is a book that is encyclopedic in its information about one of the most potentially explosive aspects of the world today.

            In much of the world, she reports, minority ethnic groups have long dominated the economies and often the politics of nations otherwise inhabited by much larger impoverished masses.  The market domination is exacerbated today by the globalization of trade, with the dominant minorities reaping the benefit and the rest of the populations being raised some, but relatively far less.  At the same time, the worldwide move toward “democracy” provides the fulcrum for populist appeals to the ethnonationalism felt by the impoverished peoples.  (This reviewer doesn’t like the word “masses,” which depersonalizes and seems to belittle.  It is a word Chua uses, however; and in the context of her book it is a useful shorthand term.)

            The United States and the international institutions such as the World Bank and the I.M.F. that it sponsors have for several years been militating for what Chua calls a “raw” form of laissez-faire free markets.  These lack the redistributive features that have historically come to be felt essential in Europe and the United States.  Those same sources have simultaneously militated for a “raw” form of democracy consisting of immediate universal suffrage—again in a form of ideological violation of the historical experience of Europe and the United States, which saw suffrage granted gradually and in contexts that safeguarded the rights of individuals and of minorities.  The result, Chua says, as she does in the subtitle to her book, is that “exporting free market democracy breeds ethnic hatred and global instability.”

            A reader will note that although some of the peoples involved are Islamic, the problem Chua describes is much more universal.  In an even broader context than the current face-off between a world-interventionist United States and the vast span of Islamic peoples, we see that there are, across the globe, ethnic cauldrons into which the United States should step, if at all, only with fear and trepidation.  Again, we are reminded that the messianic ideology that has for the most part held sway in the United States since 1898 and that makes the United States the policeman and social worker of the world is a dangerous one.  We are reminded, too, that American ignorance of the historical and cultural specifics of the societies in which it intervenes is profound; and that there is considerable moral presumption in wading into the countless situations in which the people who live there insist that they, not the United States, are the ones who have an inherent right to take care of their own business.

            Although the overarching importance of Chua’s discussion is apparent from such considerations as these, much additional value comes from the information she imparts about a wide range of countries.  The book isn’t long (346 pages) and is easily readable, but neither of those qualities detracts from its scholarship and informative content.  Here, in capsule form, is some of what she tells us:

·       Argentina.  By the mid-1930s, Western investors had become a “market-dominant minority” who owned about half the country’s industrial capital.  This “culminated in a powerful nationalist reaction under the charismatic populist leader Juan Peron.”

·       Bolivia.  A Spanish elite held most of the land until 1952, when the immense Amerindian ethnic “underclass,” “encompassing the great majority of the Bolivian people, most of whom have no access to heat… clean water, or medical care,” revolted, introducing universal suffrage and a program of land-expropriation and redistribution.   More recently, there has been a pronounced move into privatization and free market policies, with cuts in social spending and “soaring unemployment.”

·       Brazil.  Less than one-tenth of one percent of the population owns most of the land.  Although there is a pervasive “myth” of Brazilian “racial democracy,” there is in fact a “color hierarchy.”  Chua says “a tiny, light-skinned market-dominant minority has always had a stranglehold on economic and political power.”

·       Burma (now Myanmar).  A minority from India once dominated the economy, but “in 1930 and again in 1938 enraged Burmans… proceeded to slaughter Indians in an orgy of violence.”  Hundreds of thousands of Indians fled additional violence in the 1960s.  Now, however, it is Chinese, especially drug kingpins, who “dominate Burmese commerce at every level of society,” while the indigenous population lives in “abysmal” poverty.  One of the things Chua notes about Burma, as about several societies, is the development of “crony capitalism” consisting of an alliance of the wealthy ethnic minority with dictatorial local political leaders.

·       Burundi.  “The Tutsi still control approximately 70 percent of the country’s wealth.”           

·       Cambodia.  Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh is now teeming with thousands of prospering Chinese businesses.”

·       Cameroon.  Chua says Cameroon is economically dominated by one tribe, the Bamileke, who (in an allusion to Nigeria) are called “the Ibo of Cameroon.”

·       Chile.  Allende’s program was, in addition to being Communist, in part ethnonationalist, proclaiming “Chile for the Chileans.”  It is noteworthy that “the Mapuche Indians in southern Chile have been invading white-owned farms in a style similar to that of Zimbabwe’s war veterans.” 

·       Ecuador.  The military coup in 2000 “appears to have been supported by a majority of Ecuador’s impoverished population.”

·       Ethiopia.  There has long been ethnic resentment of Eritrean businessmen, who were centered in Addis Ababa.  This led to the 1998-9 expulsion of those of Eritrean origin.

·       Gambia, The.  “The tiny Lebanese community owns nearly all the stores and restaurants in the capital of Banjul… and controls the groundnut industry, the country’s predominant cash crop.”

·       Germany (Weimar).  Jews, composing slightly under 1 percent of the population, “were widely perceived as an ‘outsider’ ethnic minority wielding outrageously disproportionate economic power vis-à-vis the indigenous majority.”

·       India.  There is no “market-dominant minority” at the national level, but several at the state level.

·       Indonesia.  Suharto became president in 1966 and established a “crony capitalism” with Chinese tycoons, enriching them and his own family while “the vast majority of Indonesians [mostly Muslims] remained in chronic poverty.”  Anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta in 1998 forced Suharto’s resignation, after which the Indonesian government nationalized Chinese properties.  In the wake of that, the businesses “have simply stagnated while the country descends further into frustrated poverty.”

·       Israel.  There is no better example of a prosperous ethnic minority in a sea of impoverished, and seething, indigenous masses.  The hatreds and violence are well known.

·       Kenya.  The dominant ethnic minorities here consist of three groups: about 5,000 whites who live in opulent enclaves; about 70,000 Indians, who make up less than 2 percent of the population and are “dramatically more affluent” than the 31 million blacks who “struggle to survive on less than two dollars a day,” with 45 percent unemployment; and the Kikuyu tribe [one of 40 in Kenya], who “have for generations been disproportionately wealthy.”  In 1978, President Daniel Arap Moi created a “crony capitalist” arrangement between the government and “a handful of wealthy Indian businessmen.”

·       Laos.  “The 1 percent Chinese minority more or less constitute the country’s entire business community.”

·       Lithuania.  In the 1920s, the Jewish minority conducted about three-fourths of the country’s commercial activity.

·       Malaysia.  There were anti-Chinese riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1960, followed by “extensive affirmative action policies for the indigenous Malay majority.”

·       Mexico.  Chua says old Spanish wealth and more recent immigrant wealth combine to create a white market dominance.  She quotes Mexico City’s La Jornada, which says “the booty of privatization has made multimillionaires of 13 families, while the rest of the population… has been subjected to … gradual impoverishment.”

·       Namibia.  The business sector is still “almost entirely white” a decade after the end of Apartheid.  We are told “President Nujoma recently condemned his country’s white farmers.”

·       Nigeria.  The Ibo tribe, which Chua describes as active in global fraud and drug trafficking, have “sophisticated social networks that are almost impenetrable to outsiders.”  In 1966, “tens of thousands of Ibo were slaughtered by furious mobs.”

·       Panama.  “In Panama, the minuscule Jewish minority—only .25 percent of the population—disproportionately dominates the country’s wholesale, retail, real estate, and services sectors.”

·       Philippines.  As we noted earlier, Chua reports that a Chinese Filipino minority of just 1 percent of the population controls 60 percent of the private economy, while virtually all land is held by “a Spanish-blooded gentry class.”  While the Chinese see the ethnic Filipinos as lazy and unintelligent, the latter see the Chinese “as exploiters, as foreign intruders, their wealth inexplicable, their superiority intolerable.”

·       Poland.  In 1921, Jews, according to Chua, constituted 11 percent of the population, doing 60 percent of the commerce.

·       Romania.  The Hungarian minority has historically been economically dominate.  Between the two world wars, Jews were 4 percent of the population, but controlled many of the industries.

·       Russia, post-Communist: Jews, who constituted less than 1 percent of the population, had been quite active in the black market while the Soviet Union still existed, and hence were well positioned to step in to the economy once it was opened up after the fall of Communism.  Seven oligarchs, six of them Jewish, gained great wealth out of the mass privatization. A “crony capitalist” relationship existed between them and the Yeltsin administration; and the oligarchs supported Putin in his election bid.  Putin, however, has since cracked down on them.  There is rising anti-Semitism.

·       Rwanda.  “The 14 percent Tutsi minority dominated the Hutu majority economically and politically for four centuries.”  The Tutsis were a cattle-raising elite.  While Rwanda was a Belgian colony, the Belgians favored the Tutsis. A revolution in 1959 led to independence in 1962, with a series of anti-Tutsi massacres culminating in the killing of 800,000 Tutsi during an 8-month period in 1994. 

·       Sierra Leone.  A Lebanese minority dominated the economy, including the diamond fields.  A rebellion amounting to a “reign of terror” of unspeakable brutality “destroyed Sierra Leone between 1991 and 1999.”

·       South Africa.  Years after the end of Apartheid, whites remain a market-dominant minority with 80 percent of the land and 90 percent of the agricultural production.  There is widespread violence and anti-white feeling.

·       Sri Lanka.  Historically, the educated, prosperous Ceylon Tamils have dominated the economy.  Colomon Bandaranaike “swept to electoral victory in 1956 by… championing the cause of ‘Sinhala only.’”  After he was assassinated in 1959, his wife continued those efforts.   There was a “wave of anti-Tamil reprisals” during the 1970s.  “Ethnic strife continues to this day.”

·       Tanzania.  There was “bitter anti-Indian brutality” after the country abandoned socialism and adopted a market economy in the 1980s.

·       Thailand.  After the socialism of the 1950s and ‘60s, there is now market dominance by the Thai Chinese.  Although the Chinese have in the past blended into Thai society through intermarriage, there is today a move among them to assert “Chinese pride and identity.”

·       Uganda.  The Baganda tribe has historically constituted a market-dominant minority.  There is strong ethnic resentment against wealthy Indian businessmen.

·       United States of America.  World on Fire points to a fact that is no less important for being well known: that the United States constitutes, vis-à-vis the rest of the worth, a “market dominant minority.”  “Throughout the world,” Chua observes, “global markets are bitterly perceived as reinforcing American wealth and dominance.”  The feeling has long been strong in Europe that the ubiquitous American products and cultural influences threaten to “swallow up” the indigenous cultures, which the European peoples greatly value.  Significantly, Chua says that even though such feelings are strong in Europe, “anti-American hostility is a thousandfold more intense in the non-Western world.” 

·       Venezuela.  Chua says President Hugo Chavez has devastated the economy after he “generated mass support by attacking Venezuela’s ‘rotten’ largely white elites.”

·       Vietnam.  For 1,000 years beginning in 100 B.C., Vietnam was a province of China.  In 1782, Chinese were massacred in Saigon.  After the French arrived in the middle of the 18th century, the Chinese flourished under their laissez-faire policies.  “Constituting just 1 percent of Vietnam’s population, the Chinese controlled an estimated 90 percent of non-European private capital in the mid-1950s.”  When the Communists took over, they labeled the Chinese as “bourgeois” and “brutalized thousands.”  The Communist government shifted to market liberalization in 1988, and this has brought back the Chinese.

·       Yugoslavia (former).  There was a sharp ethnic division between the Croats and Slovenes, who have roots in the West, and the Serbs, who have roots in the Ottoman Empire.  The Croats were a “market-dominant minority,” and, with Nazi support, killed large numbers of Serbs during World War II.  Tito’s dictatorship held things together between 1945-1980, but Chua says Yugoslavia “was a bomb waiting to explode,” as indeed it did.

·       Zambia.  There were “bloody mass riots” against “greedy” Indians in the mid-1990s.

·       Zimbabwe.  Whites comprised only 1 percent of the population, but “controlled 70 percent of the country’s best land,” producing “more food than a million black farmers.”  After creation of the black-controlled government, President Mugabe restrained his anti-white program for a variety of reasons during the 1980s and 1990s, but has declared “the white man… our real enemy,” designating “over three thousand [white-owned] farms for confiscation.”  The upshot is that Zimbabwe’s economy is in shambles, so that “more than half a million people face starvation.”


Several important points are raised by all this:

            1.  Chua focuses her discussion on the current features: that globalization of markets is increasing economic polarization, that the stress on “democracy” is inspiring  indigenous populations to assert themselves against the few who are economically successful, and that ethnicity plays a central role in both of these.  While these points are no doubt correct, Chua’s examination of the many countries we have reviewed shows that the minority market-dominance and severe ethnic tensions existed in many places long before the “globalization” of the most recent decades.  Ethnicity and rich vs. poor have long been themes.

            2.  It is apparent that during the 70-year struggle between Marxism-Leninism and the “free world,” Communism was able to take advantage of and in part provide an ideological cover for the hatreds that existed on ethnic and economic grounds.  As the world’s “impoverished masses” continue to become more and more self-conscious, it is very possible that one or more ideologies will arise to give voice to the same impulses.  The fight to “contain” Communism ultimately succeeded when Communism’s state-sponsor collapsed.  There will be much reason to question whether “containing” a future populist ideology will be a viable option, since the phenomenon it will represent will have no one superpower as a state sponsor and will have roots that are far too deep and widespread for any surgical excision.

            3.  Chua concludes her book with a review of policy options.  She champions neither the dominant groups nor the indigenous masses, hoping instead (although without a naïve failure to see the difficulties) for an accommodation through a generous inclusion of the masses in economic life, mentioning a possible sharing of ownership of productive enterprise (this is presumably the important “shared market economy” concept that would, through widely distributed ownership, distribute the profits of industry even though that industry is non-labor-intensive).   

            Here, certain omissions from her discussion are especially relevant.  (This is not especially a criticism of World on Fire.  No author can hope to anticipate all that a book’s many reviewers may think pertinent.)  She never comes to grips with why it is that so many “indigenous masses” have proved, or seemed to prove, so incapable.  We know that in Europe and America the “masses” who were long submerged under the slave-regimes of the ancient world and the aristocracy-dominated regimes of the Middle Ages eventually were shown to be amenable to success within a market economy and to be capable of forming a large middle class.  It is, perhaps, an open question whether the same is true of the “masses” of the “undeveloped world.”  Chua doesn’t consider such things as the role of superstition, of cultures that disclaim the profit-motive, and of disparities in I.Q. among peoples. 

            Perhaps that question, which would seem vital under ordinary circumstances, will be rendered moot, however, by the march of non-labor-intensive technology.  If, as Jeremy Rifkin has predicted, the “end of work” is approaching, there will be massive productive potential but little income-producing “work” for billions of human beings to do.  In that event, some form of ubiquitous sharing, such as through the distribution of ownership and of the income that capital creates, as we just mentioned, will be imperative if the global market, technology, science, and civilization in general are not to be swamped by revolution.

            Yet another question raised in the “dialectic of possibilities” reflects an additional factor Chua doesn’t consider: whether science and technology will continue as major forces—and hence as a source for immense capital productivity--in a world where Western civilization has been inundated by massive immigration from the Third World.  Right now, the West is gaining enormous intellectual capital from the influx of brilliant minds from India, China and elsewhere who now occupy many of its professorships, research positions, professional positions, and the like.  We must ask whether that will continue as the West itself comes to experience, partly through mass immigration, ever-sharpening polarization of wealth, intelligence and education. 

            Further, Chua shows no awareness of the position held by conservatism’s most thoughtful journal in the United States, The American Conservative, and by Patrick Buchanan in his book A Republic, Not an Empire.  This is the view that the United States will continue to ensnare itself in “tar babies” (which once hit, won’t let go) until it relearns the principle that guided American policy during the United States’ first century and a quarter of existence: that the United States can be a good world citizen, and can lead by example, but should by no means seek to direct the affairs of other peoples.  The only reference Chua makes to this is a passing one to “belligerent isolationism.”  Such a cliché hardly counts as serious discussion; and, with it, she dismisses the only possibility the United States has of not becoming whip-sawed by the world’s innumerable ethnic conflicts.  She may hope for an accommodation between rich and poor and among ethnicities in the many countries she has reviewed, but what she doesn’t consider is that any attempt by the United States to take sides in or even to referee the potential conflict in any of those countries will almost certainly intensify the hatred of one or often even both parties.  (Why both?  Someone who comes between two men in a brawl runs the risk of  being appreciated by neither of them.)

            These omissions are important, but readers will keep in mind that it is Chua’s scholarship that calls them to the forefront.  She has performed an invaluable service in gathering in one place the information about economic and ethnic conflict.

            4.  It is worth noting that her descriptions of conflict founded in ethnicity and economic polarization are far removed from a Marxist analysis, even though she has looked at many of the same things such an analysis would cover.   Hers is a realistic sociological examination without a superstructure of ideology.

            5.  It is also worth noting that the “crony capitalism” Chua describes in so many countries is far removed from the model of capitalism favored by proponents of the free market.  The cronyism involves a great deal of government favoritism and intervention.

            6.  Chua, by the very fact she is describing extremes of wealth, shows empathy for “the impoverished masses.”  It is surprising, then, to see her describe, as she does many times, any leaders who angrily champion the cause of those masses “hatemongering demagogues.”  Such a description could cause a serious conceptual shortcoming.  Much as it has become commonplace to describe Osama bin Laden as a “fanatic” who “hates us because of who we are,” and thus to fail to come to grips in any serious way with the grievances he articulates, a description of future champions of the impoverished in any part of the world as a “demagogue” will do the same.  There is a smug presumption in assuming that indigenous peoples who have been towered over by an alien faction have no legitimate grounds to be angry--and very angry, indeed.  They may or they may not have such grounds, depending upon whether they could plausibly have “made it on their own.”  For an outsider to decide, and especially to decide by a facile adoption of a certain semantic, is to go far beyond anyone’s competency.

            7.  Her discussion of “democracy” is for the most part a good one, pointing out its dangers and need for restraints.  And she sees that democracy, as in Latin America, can easily be “more formal than actual.”  One thing she doesn’t seem to see is that it is necessarily more formal than actual even in the major “democracies.”  As the issues of modern life have become increasingly complex, there is no way anyone but “experts” can even presume to have “mastered” them; the average citizen, busy with his own life, takes the experts’ conclusions on faith.  Further, elites exist within a seemingly “true democracy” (just as an elite does within the contemporary United States), and those elites have far more directive power than even the great mass of the electorate.  This very fact constitutes a major predicament for the United States.

            World on Fire is a book every educated reader would do well to study.  It is informative and provocative in areas of untold importance.


                                                                            Dwight D. Murphey