Amy Chua, author of World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic and Global Instability, Doubleday, 2003. Comments by Stephan Richter, editor and chief of The Globalist, a Washington-based, electronic publication focused on global economic developments.

At a February 5, 2003 Wilson Center book launch, Yale law professor Amy Chua discussed her recently published book. Chua started her presentation as she starts her book with a recounting of the murder of her aunt in the Philippines. Her aunt was part of a small, ethnic Chinese community that dominated the Philippine economy and held the lion’s share of Philippine wealth. She built on the murder of her aunt to illustrate her thesis that the combination of economically dominant ethnic minorities, the adoption of largely unregulated free markets, and the introduction of simple, majoritarian democracy can lead to murderous violence on the part of a mobilized majority against the economically dominant minority.

In the course of her presentation, Chua extended her analysis to the other South East Asian nations where there are also economically dominant Chinese minorities. She found similar patterns in parts of Africa and South America. She also saw the industrial West in general and the United States in particular taking on the role of economically dominant minorities in the context of international economic integration and global growth.

While finding severe flaws with the current approach to expanding free markets and democracy, she saw both as potentially beneficial and important goals for the longer term. She stressed the need to moderate developing country markets with the same kind of regulations and safety nets that had evolved in the industrial world and reminded the audience that the United States did not enfranchise all of its citizens until the late twentieth century. The United States was founded on an effort to avoid the tyranny of the king and the tyranny of the majority. Something similar needs to be built into the democracies developing in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Chua also urged the economically dominant minorities to take the initiative in not only sharing more of the wealth with an often-impoverished majority but to become substantively and symbolically more involved in the life of their host nation.

Richter added his own perspective to some points Chua made but did not stress. He used a chart to note that many countries with unequal incomes were not characterized by social instability. He also pointed out that many countries do not have a market dominant minority. In China, for instance, there may be differences among rural farmers and city dwellers that are not based on ethnicity.

Richter did see the United States as something of a market dominant minority. In what he termed the age of CNN, there was a simultaneous development of expectations in the poor as well as the rich countries. The United States, and the other industrial democracies, would have to be compassionate on a global scale. Richter also thought that what he described as “the compliant poverty class” in the United States misled the American leadership about attitudes around the world.

This event was cosponsored by the Wilson Quarterly and the Project on America and the Global Economy (PAGE).