Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Henry George, Sun Yat-Sen and China: More Than Land Policy Was Involved

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Henry George, Sun Yat-Sen and China: More Than Land Policy Was Involved

Article excerpt



SUN YAT-SEN (1866-1925) played a major role in modern Chinese political history. He helped to overthrow the monarchy in 1911-12, was the first president of the new Chinese republic (if only provisionally) and was a major founder of the Kuomintang (KMT) as a powerful political organization which combined (for a brief period) communist and non-communist elements.

Sun wrote extensively on economic questions, particularly during the period 1919-25, stressing economic development and social justice for China. Soon after his death in 1925, the KMT under the leadership of Chiang Kaishek gained control of the government of China. The new government elevated Sun to a kind of secular sainthood, and his writings became a required object of study in China. This elevated status has been maintained by the KMT government of the Republic of China on Taiwan. A constant flow of publications have paid tribute to Sun's ideas as a major factor aiding Taiwan to achieve rapid economic growth combined with relative equality of income distribution. The Communist regime on the mainland has also often paid tribute to Sun and now points to parallels between some of his proposals and recent public policies in the People's Republic.

Sun repeatedly acknowledged that his thinking was influenced by the work of Henry George. Sun probably read Progress and Poverty around 1897, and was also interacting with people in Britain and Japan who were interested in George's ideas. Subsequently, Sun was also influenced by Chinese who were involved in the experiments with land value taxation in the German-held port city of Tsingtao. These matters are well described in existing literature (Schiffrin, 1957; Schiffrin and Sohn, 1959; Lin, 1972; Lindholm and Lin, 1977; Wang, 1966, 347, 351-2; Chang, 1982). While much of this literature concentrates on Sun's views about land policy and land taxation, his writings show a much broader pattern of parallels and similarities with Progress and Poverty. In some cases, Sun seems to have adopted ideas directly from George. The evidence is particularly strong in regard to the Malthusian theory. Further, because Sun found ideas in Henry George with which he already agreed, he was inclined to give more credence to other parts of George's work. Henry George also probably helped to strengthen Sun's convictions on some points.

This paper stresses the following themes:

1. Henry George referred often to China.

2. George strongly denounced the Malthusian theory and especially argued it was not a good diagnosis of China's poverty.

3. George blamed much of China's economic ills on bad government and on imperialism.

4. George articulated a vision of the evils of developed societies with which Sun strongly identified.

5. George also presented a vision of a potentially good society which Sun found very congenial, similar to the Chinese notion of Great Harmony.

6. While the literature has stressed Sun's ideas on land policy, the authors have generally neglected the prominent role which land policy played in Sun's book on The International Development of China.

7. But in some ways Sun diverged sharply from Henry George, supporting a protectionist policy toward foreign trade and favoring (though in vague terms) a kind of land reform which George had explicitly repudiated.

This paper also notes some neglected channels through which Henry George's ideas entered China during the period under scrutiny.


Paradox: China's Greatness and China's Problems

PROGRESS AND POVERTY abounds in references to China and Chinese people. (George, 1960, 107, 109, 111-4, 121-2, 128, 308, 459, 470, 482-3, 494, 498, 503, 521, 527, 539). Sun must have felt he was reading a diagnosis directed toward his own people.

George spoke with great respect about traditional Chinese culture:

The Chinese were civilized when we were savages. …

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