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Exporting Democracy

John Simkin

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Very interesting article in today’s Guardian by Amy Chua, Professor of Law at Yale University. Chua makes the point that in most undemocratic countries, the economic market is dominated by an ethnic minority. “They are the Chinese in south-east Asia; Indians in east Africa, Fiji and parts of the Caribbean; Lebanese in west Africa; Jews in post-communist Russia; and whites in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Bolivia and Ecuador… “

Chua points out that they introduction of democracy in Indonesia was followed by “looting and torching more than 5,000 ethnic Chinese shops and homes. A hundred and fifty Chinese women were gang-raped and more than 2,000 people died. In the months that followed, anti-Chinese hate-mongering and violence spread throughout Indonesia's cities. The explosion of rage can be traced to an unlikely source: the unrestrained combination of democracy and free markets - the very prescription wealthy democracies have promoted for healing the ills of underdevelopment.”

Chua looks at the situation in Iraq. She points out that “The Sunni minority, particularly the Ba'aths, have a large head start in education, capital and economic expertise. The Shiites, although far from homogeneous, represent a long-oppressed majority of 60-70%, with every reason to exploit their numerical power. Liberation has already unleashed powerful fundamentalist movements which, needless to say, are intensely anti-secular and anti-western.”

Chua ends her article with the following:

"Since 1989, the US has been pressing developing countries (with the glaring exception of the Middle East) to implement immediate elections with universal suffrage. This is not the path to democratisation that any of the western nations took. Further, British and American democracy started locally, not nationally.

Most important, even today democracy in the west means much more than unrestrained majority rule. It includes protection for minorities and property, constitutionalism and human rights. A lot more is needed than just shipping out ballot boxes."


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Interesting letter in response to Amy Chua's article.

Chua's analysis is flawed and naive. Almost all the dominant minorities she mentions did not dominate "under market conditions", but rather through a patent lack of free-market mechanisms and a surfeit of discrimination and inequality: the whites in South Africa and Zimbabwe were settler societies that systematically denied the indigenous majorities access to trade, education, free movement of labour etc; the Lebanese and Indians in west and east Africa were a favoured buffer between the colonial authorities and the African majorities; and South African whites have retained their privileges and do not look like losing them. All relied on a majority population of under-educated, oppressed, cheap labour.

None of the areas she discusses exhibited any of the fundamentals of a market economy, and are all societies based on discrimination and various forms of bonded labour. The reason it has all gone so wrong is that deregulation and the rhetoric of democracy (which is not "sudden democratisation") has not only exposed the inequalities, but also enabled the previously oppressed to voice their discontent, with often violent results, of the reasons the privileged minorities acquired their position at their expense.

Tony King

University of the West of England

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