I went on a small research binge last month on Fiji Indians + being constitutionally locked out of land ownership, and some about Chinese Indonesians + pogroms last week. I was interested in the pushback that happens when an ethnic minority has a lot of economic power in a society. I had lunch with a friend this week and talked about this, and he mentioned that one of his friends was reading a book on this very thing – Amy Chua, who calls these groups market minorities, has written World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, which I checked out of the library a few hours ago. I’m ~40 pages in and excited about this (I’m unsure how much of her conclusions are correct, I’ll read the critics when I’m done with the book).
Chua’s thesis: introducing free market capitalism and democracy at the same time to a society that has a “market minority” (an economically productive ethnic group) leads to escalating tensions as the market minority gains more economic power & the majority population gains political power, mutually fucking each other up more.
Markets concentrate enormous wealth in the hands of an ‘outsider’ majority, fomenting ethnic envy and hatred among often chronically poor majorities. In absolute terms the majority may or may not be better off, but any sense of improvement is overwhelmed by their continuing poverty and the hated minority’s economic success. More humiliating still, market-dominant minoroties (along with their foreign investor partners) invariably come to control the crown jewels of the economy, often symbolic of the nation’s patrimony and identity: oil in Russia and Venezuela, diamonds in South Africa, silver and tin in Bolivia, teak and rubies in Burma. …
When free market democracy is pursued in the presence of a market-dominant minority, the almost invariable result is backlash, typically taking one of three forms: backlash against markets, targeting the market minority’s wealth; backlash against democracy by the market minority & allies; violence, sometimes genocidal, against the market minority.
The book opens with Chua recounting the murder of her Chinese-Philippine aunt Leona by her chauffeur. I found this part sickening in every way and fascinating as hell:
[One of my uncles] replied tersely that the killer had not been found. His wife explained at the Manila police had essentially closed the case. I could not understand my relatives’ matter of fact attitude. Were they not more shocked that my aunt had been killed in cold blood, by people who worked with her, lived with her, saw her every day? Why were they not outraged that the [complicit] maids had not been released? My uncle was short with me. “That’s the way things are here. This is the Philippines – not America.”
My uncle was not simply being callous. As it turns out, my aunt’s death is part of a common pattern. Hundreds of Chinese in the Philippines are kidnapped every year, almost invariably by ethnic Filipinos. Many victims, often children, are brutally murdered, even after a ransom is paid. Other Chinese, like my aunt, are killed without a kidnapping, usually in connection with a robbery. The policemen in the Philippines, all poor ethnic Filipinos themselves, are notoriously unmotivated in these cases. When asked by a Western journalist why it is so frequently the Chinese who are targeted, one grinning Filipino policeman explained it was because “they have more money”.
My family is part of the Philippines’ tiny but entrepreneurial, economically powerful Chinese minority. Just 1 percent of the population, Chinese Filipinos control as much as 60% of the private economy (!!!!!!!!!!!), including the country’s four major airlines and almost all of the country’s banks, hotels, malls, and major conglomerates. …
Since my aunt’s murder, one childhood memory keeps haunting me. I was eight, staying at my family’s splendid hacienda-style house in Manila. It was dawn, still dark. Wide awake, I decided to get a drink from the kitchen. I must have gone down an extra flight of stairs, because I literally stumbled onto six male bodies. I had found the male servants’ quarters. My family’s houseboys, gardeners, and chauffeurs were sleeping on mats on a dirt floor. The place stank of sweat and urine. I was horrified.
Later that day I mentioned the incident to my Aunt Leona, who laughed affectionately and explained that the servants – there were perhaps twenty living on the premises, all ethnic Filipinos – were fortunate to be working for our family. If not for their positions, they would be living amount rats and open sewers without even a roof over their heads. A Filipino maid then walked in; I remember that she had a bowl of food for my aunt’s Pekingese. My aunt took the bowl but kept talking as if the maid were not there. The Filipinos, she continued – in Chinese, but plainly not caring whether the maid understood or not – were lazy and unintelligent and didn’t really want to do much else. If they didn’t like working for us, they were free to leave any time. After all, my aunt said, they were employees, not slaves.
………gah. I did not grok how it must feel to have a bunch of foreigners come into your country and somehow take up all the resources and good jobs and make a living off the land that used to be yours and you’re barely keeping afloat buying the things you need to survive from them, and you want them gone you want them out – before the first thirty pages of this book. I went from a culture where immigrants aren’t really a thing to a culture where (our less powerful) immigrants are great and we love them! That this book has been so eye-opening so far probably speaks to my failure of imagination/empathy.
I’m currently on the chapter on Myanmar/Burma, where the situation is similar – the Chinese own e v e r y t h i n g, especially since the US has been boycotting Myanmar on human rights grounds. The Sino-Burmese that were already there (plus Chinese immigrants who came down and bought identity papers to work there) have collaborated with the military government to profit from deforestation / drug trade / gem exports. After South Asia, Chua’s book will also cover market minorities in Latin America, Russia, Africa, the Middle East. I’m psyched and will probably post excerpts again.