Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Book Review: World On Fire.

Instead of just posting links to my book reviews at Amazon every once in a while, I'll cross post anything I write there to here, because if I go to all that effort I might as well make use of it. Here is a review of "World On Fire" by Amy Chua, which argues that:

"As global markets open, ethnic conflict worsens and democracy in developing nations can turn ugly and violent. Chua shows how free markets have concentrated disproportionate, often spectacular wealth in the hands of resented ethnic minorities - 'market-dominant minorities'. Adding democracy to this volatile mix can unleash suppressed ethnic hatred and bring to power 'ethno-nationalist' governments that pursue aggressive policies of confiscation and revenge.":

My review is as follows:
I'll assume that most people reading this are familiar with Any Chua's basic idea of `Market Dominant minorities' and the hostility that they receive. When I first read this a few years ago I thought it was fantastic and explained so much. However rereading it recently I have doubts.

The phenomenon certainly does exist in much of the world, the overseas Chinese (of which her family is part) have achieved enormous economic dominance in much of South East Asia and been the victim of mob violence repeatedly as a result over the course of many centuries. The Lebanese in West Africa, Indians in East Africa and Jews in Eastern Europe are also examples of ethnic minorities vastly out performing the indigenous population.

However there are some things that leave me unconvinced, Chua claims that these resentments are likely to be inflamed by democracy and free markets. It is certainly true that free markets exacerbate the differences but World On Fire gives examples of this kind of mob violence going back centuries, to well before the era of democracy. Some of the outbreaks of violence, such as the anti Chinese riots in Indonesia in 1998 were concurrent with democracy, but surely this is because the same forces that weakened the grip of the dictator, Suharto, weakened the states control of law and order.

Secondly she tries to fit the Market Dominant Minorities idea to too many conflicts, for example she emphasises that the Croats were much wealthier than the Serbs as a possible cause of the bloody Yugoslav wars. Yet Serbian nationalist propaganda and violence was initially directed to a much greater extent at the impoverished ethnic Albanians.

Thirdly think her concept needs refinement. Early in the book she refers to the violence against the Indians in Burma and in East Africa, interestingly though there wasn't a similar level of persecution of the whites, who were even higher on the economic ladder than the Indians. In Nigeria the Ibo suffered badly however the Yoruba, who are also quite wealthy weren't persecuted.

Thomas Sowell's concept of middleman minorities explains this better than Chua's idea. Sowell argues that the two factors which inflame particularly inflame resentment are when minorities act as economic middlemen and when they were once very poor but overtake the majority population economically. This refinement explains the outbursts of violence much better than Chua's idea in my opinion.

Lastly while the end notes demonstrate that she has been very broadminded and undogmatic about who she has used for the source material I do wonder whether there are quality control issues, particularly with the journalistic sources.

Update: I didn't say in the review, but the recent riots in East Turkestan do appear to be very similar to the outbursts of violence against the Han Chinese elsewhere in Asia. The Chinese have come in and been much more successful, economically than the Uighars. The success can't really be considered to be down to the prejudices of the Chinese state when the same pattern has occurred in countries where the Chinese have little political power.

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