Henry George, Sun Yat-sen and China:
More Than Land Policy Was Involved
Paul B. Trescott
[Reprinted from the American Journal of Economics
and Sociology, Vol. 53, No.3, July 1994, pp.363-375. The author
was at the time of this writing professor of economics at Southern
Illinois University at Carbondale, Illinois]
ABSTRACT. Sun Yat-sen repeatedly acknowledged
the influence of Henry George, and this influence went beyond
details of land policy. Significant parts of George's work
involved his extensive references to China, his diagnoses of
China's ills, his vision of a possible better economic order,
and his strong attack on the Malthusian theory. These too
I - Introduction
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
- 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.
II - 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. They had
great cities, highly organized and powerful government, literatures,
philosophies, polished manners, considerable division of labor,
large commerce, and elaborate arts, when our ancestors were
They had architects who carried the art of building ... up to a
very high point; . . . inventors who . . . finally stopped only on
the verge of our most important improvements, and from some of whom
we can yet learn; engineers who constructed great irrigation works
and navigable canals; rival schools of philosophy and conflicting
ideas of religion.. . . There was life, and active life, and the
innovation that begets improvement. . . . (482-3).
Sun did not hesitate to celebrate Chinese culture in his own writings
(at a time when other Chinese writers, such as Liang Chi-chao, were
much less laudatory). "We are still the world's most cultured
people," Sun boldly asserted, in his most widely read work, San
Min Chu I (Three People's Principles), based on lectures he
presented in 1924 (Sun, 1943, 30). "Our four hundred millions are
not only a most peaceful but also a most civilized race" (97). "In
olden times, the Chinese were much superior to foreigners. Some of the
most valued things in the West today were invented in ancient China"
(140; see also 66-67, 91,125-134, 302).
George's references to China were not mere idle flattery; they helped
to identify the problem. If Chinese culture was so great, why were
Chinese economic conditions so bad? Henry George stressed that this
great civilization had experienced a rise and fall which "is the
universal rule" (George, I960,484). This way of posing the
problem must have made George's analysis seem particularly relevant
for Sun. Why did civilizations stagnate and retrogress? Because
people's mental capacities, their creative potential, were largely
absorbed into "non-progressive uses" - which George labeled "maintenance
and conflict" (507). Private ownership of land was a major source
of inequality and class division, diverting people from economic and
cultural improvement. To develop this analysis, George dealt with the
moral, legal, and political dimensions of life. These received much
attention in Sun's work as well.
III - The Population Issue
HENRY GEORGE devoted a large segment of
Progress and Poverty to a denunciation of the Malthusian
theory. While acknowledging that population could be too large
relative to resources, he argued that, in the real world,
overpopulation was not generally the basic cause of economic misery. "Even
if it be admitted that the tendency to multiply must ultimately
produce poverty, it cannot from this alone be predicated of existing
poverty that it is due to this cause, until it can be shown that there
are no other causes which can account for it - [which is] manifestly
impossible" (George I960,104). After examining India in detail to
show that economic problems arose from unequal land ownership and
foreign oppression, George argued that similar conclusions applied to
"Neither in India nor China . . . can poverty and starvation be
charged to the pressure of population against subsistence. It is not
dense population, but the causes which prevent social organization
from taking its natural development and labor from securing its full
return, that keep millions just on the verge of starvation . . ."
George went on to assert a view that became part of Sun's position:
that China's population had probably declined (109), and that China
could in fact support a much larger population. "That China is
capable of supporting a much greater population is shown not only by
the great extent of uncultivated land to which all travelers testify,
but by the immense unworked mineral deposits which are there known to
Sun Yat-sen's views on China's overpopulation underwent a drastic
change. In his earliest writings on China's economic situation (1894),
he was one of the first to call attention to the pressure of growing
population on limited land resources: "at present China is
already suffering from overpopulation which will bring impending
danger in its wake" (Condliffe 1932, 16). However, Sun exhibited
a change of view in China's Present and Future in 1897, just
about the time he is thought to have read Progress and Poverty.
In this essay, he argued that "China's agrarian problems were not
the consequence of overpopulation or of the insufficiency of arable
land," but rather of inadequate transport, internal trade
barriers, and unfair import competition. By 1899 Sun was calling
attention to the heavy burdens of land rents upon the farmers.
(Gregor, Chang and Zimmerman, 1981, 10-11).
In San Min Chu I, Sun denounced Malthus's ideas as "poisonous".
He was distressed by the evidence (since shown false) that China's
population had declined, fearing this would weaken China's strength
and security (27). "China's modern youth, also tainted with
Malthus' doctrine, are advocating a reduction of the population,
unaware of the sorrow which France has experienced. Our new policy
calls for increase of population and preservation of the race"
(Sun, 1943, 25, also 450-51). At many points, Sun asserted that
China's resources could support a much larger population, and that the
country's economic problems were not caused by overpopulation.
IV - Condemnation of Imperialism
HENRY GEORGE placed much of the blame for China's economic distress
on bad domestic government and on imperialism. His more detailed
criticisms concerned British abuses in India and Ireland:
The millions of India have bowed their necks beneath the
yokes of many conquerors, but worst of all is the steady grinding
weight of English domination - a weight which is literally crushing
millions out of existence, and ... is inevitably tending to a most
frightful and widespread catastrophe (George, I960, 117).
Densely populated as China is in many parts,. . . the extreme
poverty of the lower classes is to be attributed to causes similar
to those which have operated in India . . . Insecurity prevails,
production goes on under the greatest disadvantages, and exchange is
closely fettered. Where the government is a succession of
squeezings, and security for capital of any sort must be purchased
of a mandarin,. . .piracy is a regular trade, and robbers often
march in regiments, poverty would prevail and the failure of a crop
result in famine, no matter how sparse the population (121-22).
The first of Sun Yat-sen's "Three People's Principles" was
the principle of nationalism. In developing this theme in his 1924
lectures, he gave great emphasis to the burdens of imperialism on
China has been under the political domination of the West
for a century . . . (Sun, 1943, 33).
Now the European powers are crushing China with their imperialism
and economic strength (36).
Because of this economic mastery [by foreigners] of China . . . our
society is not free to develop and the common people do not have the
means of living (53). China is the colony of all the nations and the
slave of all (214; see also 103).
Both George and Sun argued that the existence of a government with
democratic form would not assure good policies. George noted that "absolute
political equality does not in itself prevent the tendency to
inequality involved in the private ownership of land, and . . .
political equality, coexisting with an increasing tendency to the
unequal distribution of wealth, must ultimately beget either the
despotism of organized tyranny or the worse despotism of anarchy"
(George I960, 530-31). Sun's reservations about western democracy were
repeated at many points:
What is the share of the people in the government in
those nations which have the highest type of democracy? How much
power do they possess? About the only achievement within the past
century has been the right to elect and to be elected. ... [In
China,] you all know that our representatives have all become mere
'swine'; if there is money to be had they will sell themselves,
divide the booty, and covet more gain (Sun 1943,276-77; also 247-78,
262-63, 278, 286-87, 290, 318)
For Sun, it was the weakness, rather than the wickedness, of the
state which seemed most deplorable. "The Chinese people have not
been directly subject to the oppression of autocracy; their sufferings
have come indirectly. Because our state has been weak, we have come
under the political and economic domination of foreign countries.. . .
Now our wealth is exhausted and our people are destitute, suffering
poverty because of an indirect tyranny" (Sun 1943,198).
V - Harmful Effects of Economic 'Progress'
SUN YAT-SEN spent several years in the United States and Great
Britain. He observed first hand that many people lived in conditions
of hardship, and no doubt was especially aware of the harsh living
conditions of the Chinese immigrants. He also absorbed much
rhetoric from Marx and the socialists about class conflict and the
exploitation of the working class. But the eloquent passages of
Progress and Poverty undoubtedly reinforced his conviction
that the common people in the West suffered economic distress. Henry
George had written
Upon streets lighted with gas and patrolled with
uniformed policemen, beggars wait for the passer-by, and in the
shadow of the college, and library, and museum, are gathering the
more hideous Huns and fiercer Vandals of whom Macaulay prophesied
(George I960, 7). The wonderful discoveries and inventions of our
century have neither increased wages nor lightened toil. The effect
has simply been to make the few richer, and the many more helpless
Sun's comments closely parallel the last:
Since the invention of machinery. . . the world has
undergone a revolution in production. Machinery has usurped the
place of human labor, and men who possessed machinery have taken
wealth away from those who did not have machinery (Sun, 1943,
Since the introduction of machinery, a large number of people have
had their work taken away from them and workers generally have been
unable to maintain their existence (Sun 1943, 373; see also 384,
389, 413, 436, 443).
And Sun acknowledged directly his familiarity with Progress and
Poverty in this context:
The industrial revolution in the European and American
countries produced a sudden change in [people's] living conditions.
... Its effect on society is exactly similar to that which Henry
George described in his book: Progress and Poverty. He said
that the progress of modern civilisation is like a sharp wedge
suddenly driven in between the upper and lower classes ... the rich
become richer, while the poor become ever poorer. The results of the
industrial revolution bring happiness only to a few members of
society, but inflict pain and suffering on the great part of the
people (Sun, 1921, 36-37).
VI - Images of Social Harmony
MANY COMMENTATORS have noted that Sun Yat-sen's vision of an ideal
society was strongly influenced by traditional Chinese images of "Great
Harmony" (Chang, 1983,10-11; Wang, 1966,331,340-41). Henry
George's vision contained many of the same elements, a fact which must
have added to the credibility of George's ideas in Sun's eyes. George
waxed lyrical about the potentialities for a society which took
maximum advantage of the high productivity which could be achieved by
Out of these bounteous material conditions [an observer]
would have seen arising . . . moral conditions realizing the golden
age of which mankind have always dreamed. Youth no longer stunted
and starved; age no longer harried by avarice. . . . Foul things
fled . . . ; discord turned to harmony! For how could there be greed
when all had enough? How could the vice, the crime, and ignorance,
the brutality, that spring from poverty and the fear of poverty,
exist where poverty had vanished (George, 1960, 4-5)?
As early as 1914, Sun was defending a vision of the world which could
be achieved by proper economic reform:
I shall work ... for the introduction of a system whereby
the creators of wealth, the laborers, will be able to receive their
fair share of the production, and this must be based upon a common
ground of justice and fraternity. They would be able to cultivate
the mind, have adequate recreation, and procure the blessings which
should be in all men's lives, but which, on the showing of other
nations, are largely denied the workers and the poorer masses (Sun,
More of Sun's vision is implied when he discusses China's traditional
values: "First come Loyalty and Filial Devotion, then Kindness
and Love, then Faithfulness and Justice, then Harmony and Peace"
(Sun, 1943, 126; also 127-148).
Moreover, both Henry George and Sun Yat-sen sometimes cast their
vision in Christian terms. George's words foreshadow the Social Gospel
then emerging (Handy, 1966):
It is blasphemy that attributes to the inscrutable
decrees of Providence the suffering and bullishness that come of
poverty; that turns with folded hands to the All-Father and lays on
Him the responsibility for the want and crime of our great cities.
We degrade the Everlasting. We slander the Just One.. . . It is not
the Almighty, but we who are responsible for the vice and misery . .
. The Creator showers upon us his gifts-more than enough for all.
But like swine scrambling for food, we tread them in the mire.. . .
(George, I960, 549-55). [Adopting the kind of reform he proposed
would help to bring] the Golden Age of which poets have sung and
high-raised seers have held in metaphor! It is what he saw whose
eyes at Patmos were closed in a trance. It is the culmination of
Christianity-the City of God on earth, with its walls of jasper and
its gates of pearl. It is the reign of the Prince of Peace.
Sun Yat-sen had been raised as a Christian, and although his
biographers have not found this to be a major factor in his actions or
ideas, Sun himself indicated that his Christian beliefs helped to
sustain him in troubled times and to strengthen his humanitarian
outlook. A close associate asserted that "Sun became a Christian
purely because of the Christian concern for the welfare of mankind. It
was the progressive and reformist Christianity, not the conservative
and dogmatic Christianity, that attracted his attention" (Wong,
1986, 209, quoting Feng Ziyou). In his discussion of the virtue of
love, he mentioned Jesus and paid tribute to the missionaries for
putting love into action by organizing schools and hospitals (Sun,
1943, 128-9). "Only if we 'rescue the weak and lift up the
fallen'," he continued, "will we be carrying out the divine
obligation of our nation" (147). He aligned himself with Jesus in
another way, terming him a "religious revolutionist"
VII - Land Taxation for Development Financing
THE FOREGOING HELP to demonstrate why Sun Yat-sen would have regarded
Henry George as a very credible guide, and why in 1912 Sun could tell
an interviewer, "The teachings of your single-taxer, Henry
George, will be the basis of our program of reform" (quoted Leng
and Palmer, I960, 25). His remarks in the 1924 lectures followed
George's ideas concisely:
Foreign scholars speak of the profits which the landowner
gets out of the increased price of land as "unearned increment,"
a very different thing from the profits which industrial and
commercial manufacturers get by dint of hard mental and physical
labor. . . Yet, what is it that makes the value of the land rise?
The improvements which people make around his land and the
competition which they carry on for possession of the land. When the
price of land rises, every single commodity of the community also
rises in price. So we may truly say that the money which the people
in the community earn through their business is indirectly and
imperceptibly robbed from them by the landowner (Sun, 1943, 422-3;
see also 419-421).
Sun was also an advocate of the taxation of land-value increase. Each
landowner would be required to report the value of his land. To
destroy the incentive for underassessment, the government would have
the option to buy the land at the self-assessed value. "After the
land values have been fixed," Sun continued, "all increase
in land values . . . shall revert to the community. This is because
the increase in land values is due to improvements made by society and
to the progress of industry and commerce" (Sun, 1943, 433).
These points are well established in the literature. What has not
been pointed out, however, is the importance of Sun's views on
land-increment in his specific program for China published in 1920
(Sun, 1928). An important difference between Sun and Henry George was
that Sun was avowedly a socialist. While Henry George favored
government ownership of public utilities, Sun had much more faith in
the capacity of government to manage economic affairs than was
expressed in Progress and Poverty. Sun's socialist vision laid
forth in The International Development of China outlined a
vast program for investment in railways and waterways, but also
advocated government ownership and operation of a large portion of
industry and commerce. It was a bold plea for international capital
and expertise, anticipating by a generation the kind of international
development program we now associate with the World Bank. But to pay
interest and principal of the resulting debts, domestic resources
within China had to be mobilized. And here was where Sun envisioned a
major role for land-value increments.
Sun's construction proposals, especially those relating to waterways,
involved substantial amounts of reclamation of lands initially under
water. By selling these, government could obtain some of the revenue
needed to finance the projects (Sun, 1928, 36, 41, 57-58, 75).
Further, he proposed that the development program should involve what
we would now call "excess condemnation" - that is,
government would acquire more land than the construction itself would
require, selling off the excess at a profit to help finance the
development. Sun's discussions of excess condemnation appear in many
sections discussing individual locations and projects. The first
involves his proposed Great Eastern Port near Shanghai:
The State should take up a few hundred square miles of
land in this neighborhood for the scheme of our future city
development.. . . The State could pay for the land from its unearned
increment afterwards so that only the first allotment of land has to
be paid for from the capital fund; the rest will be paid for by its
own future value. After the first section of the harbour is
completed and the port developed, the price of land then would be
bound to rise rapidly . . . Thus the land itself would be a source
of profit (Sun, 1928, 31; see also 52, 56, 70).
A similar analysis was projected for railways in the Canton area:
With the construction of railways, rich mines of various
kinds could be developed and cities and towns could be built along
the lines. Developed lands are still very cheap and undeveloped
lands and those with mining possibilities cost almost. . . nothing.
. . . So if all the future city sites and mining lands be taken up
by the Government before railway construction is started, the profit
would be enormous. Thus no matter how large a sum is invested in
railway construction, the payment of its interest and principal will
be assured (Sun, 1928, 81).
VIII - Sun Differs with George
WHILE SUN YAT-SEN'S PROPOSALS with regard to increments of land value
clearly followed Henry George, his most famous land proposal did not.
This involved the slogan, "All land to the tillers," which
he apparently advanced in 1924 (Leng and Palmer, I960,154). Sun was
quite vague about how this was to be achieved. In 1923-24, he refused
to endorse a program for land confiscation and redistribution (Wilbur,
1976, 212-4). Sun's general idea, however, is consistently claimed as
an inspiration for latter-day land reforms in Taiwan and mainland
Henry George was unequivocal in opposing what we would now term "land
reform." He felt that measures to divide land ownership were
likely to reduce production. More fundamentally, as long as land (or
its rent) remained treated as private property, there would not be "a
fair division of the produce. [Such a measure] will not reduce rent,
and therefore cannot increase wages. It may make the comfortable
classes larger, but will not improve the condition of those in the
lowest class" (George, 1960, 324).
Sun's vision of a socialist economy was not consistent with George's
conception. George envisioned a larger role for the state than it
played in his own times. But he repeatedly affirmed the need to limit
the power of government. Most significantly, he rejected the idea of
outright land nationalization, which "would involve a needless
extension of governmental machinery - which is to be avoided"
(George, 1960, 404). George condemned proposals for the kind of
comprehensive government ownership and regulation which Sun advocated:
"The same defects attach to them all. These are the substitution
of governmental direction for the play of individual action, and the
attempt to secure by restriction what can better be secured by freedom"
(George, 1960, 319-320; Petrella, 1984).
Sun Yat-sen also deviated from Henry George in advocating a
protective tariff (Sun, 1943,40-44,499-509). To be sure, Henry
George's free trade views were not a conspicuous part of
Progress and Poverty. And Sun's pro-tariff stance had its
roots in Chinese experience. Beginning in the 1840's, China had been
forced by the Western powers to maintain very low tariff rates. Thus
free trade was, to Chinese patriots, a symbol of hated imperialism.
IX - Other Manifestations of George In China
WHILE MOST OF THE LITERATURE relates the introduction of Henry
George's ideas into China to Sun Yat-sen, there were other channels.
In 1914, an American economist named Kenneth Duncan, teaching at
Canton Christian College, published an English-language textbook to be
used by his Chinese students. The book was, for the most part, a
concise presentation of neo-classical microeconomic theory. But Duncan
included an eight-page chapter on Henry George and the single tax. His
treatment was relatively unfavorable, but it encouraged the students
to learn more and particularly to study the land-taxation experiments
which were then taking place in China (Duncan, 1930,109-116). Duncan's
text was widely used, particularly in the missionary colleges, which
enrolled perhaps ten percent of all China's university students.
Further, his chapter on the single tax was reprinted in 1924 in
another widely used English-language text. This was
Readings in Economics for China, compiled by another American
economist, Charles Remer, teaching at St. John's University in
Shanghai (Remer, 1924, 435-440).
After Sun Yat-sen's death, his ideas were kept alive within the
Chinese government by his son, Sun Fo. In his efforts to bring about
the kinds of international aid to Chinese development envisioned by
his father, Sun Fo arranged for a large commission of financial
experts to come to China in 1929. The commission was led by Princeton
Professor Edwin Kemmerer and one of its prominent members was Arthur
Young (Trescott, 1992). Young had received a doctorate from Princeton
with a dissertation on the single tax, and had written several
articles in the subject (Young, 1917a, 1917b). In their Report on
Revenue Policy, the commission recommended the following:
In the many cities of China, notably in the National
capital, extensive public improvements are being made which will add
materially to property values. It is entirely just that a
considerable portion of these increases in the value of private
property should be taken by government to defray the cost, or part
of the cost, of the improvements which caused the increases.
X - Conclusions
SUN YAT-SEN'S DEBT to Henry George has been discussed by a number of
scholars. This paper has attempted to supplement their discussions by
noting parallels previously overlooked. In particular, we have
stressed Henry George's direct references to China, his strong
condemnation of imperialism, his dislike of the Malthusian theory, his
strong criticism of contemporary capitalism and his vision of the
better world which could be achieved by proper policies. In some
instances, Sun followed George's lead directly. In particular, we have
stressed the repeated emphasis on excess condemnation in his
International Development of China. There were major
differences, however. Sun favored tariff protection, reacting against
the free trade policy which had been forced on China by imperialist
action from the Western powers. And Sun's comprehensive socialist
program was at variance with George's obvious concern to maintain a
wide range for individual freedom.
- Wang, 1966,331-8, which makes
the point that "the Chinese part of Sun's synthesis reached
him through Western sources" (336). Sun spent a substantial
part of his life outside China.
- Sun, 1943,450; 1928,141-2. Sun
is not always logical here. He acknowledged that if China's
population had declined, it was because of food shortage, a
situation which would seem to support the Malthusian theory
- Sun probably was not familiar
with George's 1869 efforts to restrict Chinese immigration, which
he considered harmful to the U.S. working class (Barker, 1955,
- George acknowledged in the
last paragraphs of Progress and Poverty that "out of
this inquiry has come to me something I did not think to find, and
a faith that was dead revives" (557). He explained that, by
his analysis, "the nightmare which is banishing from the
modern world the belief in a future life is destroyed" (559).
See Barker, 302-4; he used the phrase "A Christian Effort"
to describe George's crusading work after 1880. See also Bradley,
1980; Benestad, 1985, 1986; Shapiro, 1988.
- However, George's Protection
and Free Trade was translated into Chinese by W. E. Macklin,
the missionary who had earlier translated Progress and Poverty.
Schiffrin and Sohn, 1959,100.
- (Kemmerer) Commission of
Financial Experts, "Report on Revenue Policy," Shanghai,
1929,7. (copy in Kemmerer Collection, Seeley Mudd Manuscript
Library, Princeton University.) Young had expressed the same idea
in 1917 (1917b, 8).