A Problematic New View On Why They Hate Us, And What to Do About It:
A Review of Amy Chua's World on Fire


Friday, Apr. 11, 2003

Amy Chua, World on Fire (Doubleday, 2003)

Why do they hate us? Answering this question - along with its corollary, What to do about it? - will be the overarching priority of American foreign policy in the first decade of the 21st century.

A Babel of commentators have offered plausible but finally unconvincing answers: jealousy, humiliation at the disjunction between abject prospects and TV- and Internet-stoked dreams, the military presence in Saudi Arabia and invasion of Iraq, U.S. support for Israel, and religious fundamentalism.

In her recent book World on Fire, Yale law professor Amy Chua posits a different, contrarian explanation - one that is both fascinating and highly problematic.

Chua argues that anti-Americanism is the unexceptional and, by now, predictable result of "the three most powerful forces operating in the world today: markets, democracy, and ethnic hatred." According to Chua, free-market reforms result, often quite rapidly, in what she terms market-dominant ethnic minorities. At the same time, democracy empowers poorer majorities, unleashing resentment. It's an explosive mix - with consequences that range from the merely destabilizing to the truly horrific.

From Property Confiscation and Crony Capitalism, to Genocide

Chua claims that the confiscation of property is often the first result of the mix. Mobs destroy minority-owned businesses, or a newly-elected representative of the poor majority nationalizes prize properties and industries. Examples include the seizure of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe and the nationalization of the Venezuelan oil industry.

Alternatively, democratically elected leaders may collude with an affluent minority to establish a system of crony capitalism, enriching the former and protecting the latter. Marcos' Philippines (working with Chinese entrepreneurs) and Moi's Kenya ( in cahoots with ethnic Indian business leaders) are representative examples.

The third and grimmest prospect is ethnic cleansing and genocide. The massacres of the lighter-skinned and wealthier Tutsi minority in Rwanda, and the better educated Croats in Serbia are two of the most recent examples.

Rapid Market and Democratic Reforms Can Have Horrifying Consequences

The bulk of World on Fire is devoted to other instances of the often-horrifying consequences of rapid market and democratic reform.

For instance, Chua describes the paroxysm of murder and looting that accompanied the launch of capitalist democracy in Indonesia. Free markets produced an entrepreneurial and affluent ethnic Chinese minority. Then the fall of Suharto, after 30 years in power, unleashed Muslim rage at Chinese wealth.

Rioting left 2000 dead and tens of thousands raped. Chinese women took to wearing steel rape protection belts (produced by Chinese-owned factories). The newly elected government abolished rice supply contracts with Chinese firms and awarded them to Indonesian firms with disastrous results: rice supplies plummeted from corruption and incompetence. Indonesians starved.

To take another example, privatization in Russia yielded dislocation and resentment. Chua makes much--perhaps too much--of the fact that six of the seven oligarchs who acquired the bulk of Russia's privatized assets were Jews. Russian anti-Semitism is centuries old, but the rise of the Jewish oligarchs during widespread social and economic crisis did much to inflame it.

The backlash was swift. Under pressure from increasingly popular nationalists, and unhappy with criticism from an increasingly confident press, Putin confiscated independent station NTV, which Vladimir Gusinsky, a Jewish oligarch, controlled, and then TV-6, the property of another Jew, Boris Berezovsky.

The West viewed the confiscation as atavistic Russian autocracy. But most Russians understood it as the seizure of Jewish property. General Albert Makashov, a Communist Party representative spoke to the Duma: "Who is to blame? The executive branch, the bankers, the mass media are to blame. Usury, deceit, corruption and thievery are flourishing in this country. That is why I call the reformers Yids." In an editorial, he elaborated: A "Yid" is a "bloodsucker feeding on the misfortunes of other people." And then in a mass rally, he promised, "I will round up all the Jews and send them to the next world!"

These are riveting cases, but not all of Chua's examples serve her argument, however broadly construed. She describes a "pigmentocracy" in Latin America, the result of "racial mixing" by colonizers, a caste system that runs from the dark and poor to the light and rich. But Chua concedes that economic success yields racial mobility through marriage to a lighter skinned spouse.

For example, a traveler asks a Brazilian lawyer with African facial characteristics what it's like to be a black woman in Brazil. She says, "But I'm not black." Chua explains that since the lawyer enjoyed prestige and a good income, she "naturally she called herself white." The lawyer's self-image is less suggestive of a rigid caste system than of a fluid continuum that permits economic success to transcend race.

Chua Versus Friedman

Chua is an easy, graceful writer who adeptly interleaves her own experiences with her thesis. For instance, she explains that she is ethnically Chinese, with an aunt who was also ethnically Chinese who was murdered in the Philippines. She also notes that she has a Jewish husband - a biographical detail possibly included to insulate the author from intimations of anti-Semitism that might arise from her highly charged discussion of Jewish oligarchs in Russia.

She is not an economist, however, and readers expecting a rigorous financial analysis of free market reform will be disappointed. She relies heavily on secondary sources and misses the relevant work of such important economists as Joseph Stiglitz. Nor is she a sociologist: her examination of the social effects of market and democratic reform is anecdotal.

Instead, Chua frames her thesis in opposition to the view of the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on the same subject. Chua describes Friedman the "brilliant proponent" of the view that free-market democracy is the universal prescription for the multiple ills of underdevelopment.

But Chua herself considers views like Friedman's the thinnest hypocrisy, for the version of free-market democracy America extols is not that which we practice. She points out that the export model lacks the redistributive tax policies and social safety net that "dampen the conflict between market wealth disparities and democratic politics in the industrialized West."

Indeed, the laissez-faire economy coupled with universal suffrage, Chua argues, is a model that "Western nations abandoned a century ago." The West has no business forcing this model on others.

Chua argues that the gradual expansion of suffrage through the elimination of property, gender and racial requirements may have been critical to the creation of a durable capitalist democracy. Free markets need time to create a middle class that values stability and tends to vote reliably with its wallets and purses.

A more cautious rollout of market and democratic reforms in developing countries may then be necessary for either to take root--Chua's most deflating prospect. Democratic moderation is also a hard argument for the World Bank and the IMF to make, one with supremacist overtones (you're not ready for democracy, not yet), and of course no American president could defend it. Her prescription may be wise, but it may not be feasible.

America the Resented

The people of the United States, in Chua's view, are a global market-dominant minority. "Just 4 percent of the world's population, America dominates every aspect--financial, cultural, technological--of the global free markets we have come to symbolize."

The result is envy, frustration, humiliation--and murderous rage. September 11th has much in common with the Rwandan massacres and Serbian ethnic cleansing, Chua suggests. While the vast majority condemned the killing of innocents, there was a quiet but widely-held sense that, as Cambridge lecturer Mary Beard wrote in the London Review of Books, "the United States had it coming."

The Problems with Chua's Arguments on the "Why They Hate Us?" Issue

There are obvious problems with this view. For one thing, America hasn't exported much democracy to Arab countries. Islamicist militants and liberal American intellectuals agree on one thing: U.S. support for corrupt, autocratic and deeply unpopular Arab regimes is the largest part of Muslim anti-Americanism - a fact that the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometimes obscures.

For another thing, Chua's view doesn't account for the cultural envy and emulation--Palestinians in Nike shirts, Frenchmen quaffing Coke--that so complicates a clear understanding of the phenomenon.

Chua fails to engage other thorny topics, including the thorniest: the reasons certain ethnic groups excel under free-market conditions. In a bare paragraph, she suggests that the spirit of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic may play a part. But that doesn't go very far to explain Chinese dominance in Southeast Asia or the prevalence of Jewish oligarchs in Russia.

There are many reasons that Israel's per capital GDP is $19,000 while Saudi Arabia's, despite its oil riches, is barely one-third that level (Egypt's GDP is $2,800). The stereotypical and racist explanation that Jews are somehow "smarter than Arabs" can't be one of them.

A Failure to Offer Compelling Solutions

Professor Chua should be commended for retaining a dispassionate, critical perspective while addressing such explosive topics as the dominance of Jewish capitalists in Russia and Israel's economic success relative to that of the rest of the Middle East. Despite her compelling description of the consequences of free-market democracy in developing countries, however, her proposed solutions are often vague.

In the end, addressing the explosive mix that Chua describes will require politicians with imagination, courage and candor - and more practical solutions than these. Both are in short supply.

Peter Lurie is general counsel of Virgin Mobile USA, a wireless voice and internet service.

The opinions expressed in this review are his own.

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