Sun Yat-Sen and Land Reform in China

Wu Shang-Ying

[Reprinted from the Henry George News, March, 1955]

At the time this article was published, Wu Shang-Ying, of Canton, better known in America as Dr. S. Y. Wu, had been former secretary to Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Educated in China, Canada and the United States, Dr. Wu became a ranking cabinet minister of the Chinese Nationalist Government and a joint author of their constitution.

The Imperial Manchu Dynasty occupied a period in Chinese history for about 260 years since the middle of the 17th Century when the corrupt and decaying Chinese Ming Dynasty collapsed as the Tartar hordes were forcing their way into China from Manchuria through the Shanhaikuan Pass. It was brought to an end by the Chinese Revolutionary Army in 1911 when Sun Yat-Sen was elected first President of the Republic of China. He assumed offices on January 1, 1912, with the seat of government in Nanking.

Unfortunately Sun Yat-Sen's administration was short-lived, functioning only for three months, as political circumstances dictated him to resign from the presidency. Consequently China's political power fell to the hand of a political war-lord in the person of Yuan Shih-Kai, whom Europeans and Americans preferred to call the strong man or China. From this time and until his death in 1925, Sun Yat-Sen remained only an advocate of his political theories, sometimes as a political exile living abroad and other times heading a nominal regime with only one or two of China's more than twenty provinces under his jurisdiction.

It was during this period, shortly after the first world war and following the inauguration of the Soviet Union in Russia, that Sun Yat-Sen was approached by Lenin for political cooperation. After repeated appeals to Britain and America for support of his championship for the cause of the Chinese people brought no result, Sun Yat-Sen accepted. As a result, a Russian political adviser in the person of Michael Borodin together with a group of military officers were sent from Moscow to Sun Yat-Sen's government in Canton sometime in 1923 for the purpose of helping to reorganize the Chinese Nationalist party on the model of the third international and at the same time to build a new army for a military expedition to suppress reactionary war-lords throughout the provinces. Chinese Communists as. individuals were permitted to hold membership in the Kuomintang, the Nationalist party, on condition that they abide by the Sun Yat-Sen political principles as it was agreed and stipulated in an open statement jointly signed by Sun Yat-Sen himself and Lenin's emissary, M. Joffre, that communism was unsuitable for China.

The necessity of such a contract was, perhaps, a warning in itself. But no one could have foreseen the consequences of Sun Yat-Sen's death in 1925. Certainly it ended the immediate hopes of Sun Yat-Sen for a Free Democratic China and realization of land reform as he knew it.

Chinese intellectuals first began to discuss land reform with reference to land value taxation around 1910 following the publication of a resume of Progress and Poverty in the Chinese language by the Min Pao Magazine, an official organ of the Chinese Nationalist party printed in Tokyo. The slogan "Equal Rights to the Use of Land" was, of course, first adopted by SunYat-Sen as a cardinal principle of his Nationalist party, in China known as Kuomintang, when he organized the Chinese revolutionary movement. The phrase itself was taken from Progress and Poverty, the work of the famed American economist and social philosopher, Henry George, and officially brought before the Chinese people when Sun Yat-Sen became the first president of the Republic of China.

In the year 1923 Sun Yat-Sen engaged Doctor Wilhelm Schrameier, a German expert on land value taxation, as adviser to the Chinese government on land reform and I was specially assigned the task of working with him to devise workable plans. This German adviser, who used to study under Germany's foremost authority on land problems, Doctor Adolph Damaschke, for many years president of the German land reform association, Bund Deutscher Bodenreformers, was the very man who laid out the land value taxation system of Tsingtau, a German concession in China, and the only city in the Par East which adopted the land value taxation system. Dr. Schrameier, rather advanced in age of over 70 years, died in Canton after two years service in the Chinese government.

In 1927-28, I was sent by the government to make an extensive tour of Europe, America, the Near East, Middle East and Far East countries to have a general observation of land reform progress in those countries after World War I. As a logical consequence I was appointed to head the land law committee of China's legislative YUAN (Assembly) which was to draft the land law of the Republic of China. Consisting of some 500 articles based on the taxation of land values and the guiding principle of "Equal Right to the Use of Land" the law was formally passed and adopted by the national legislature and finally promulgated by government mandate in 1930.

Early in 1931 an attempt -was made to -put the land law in operation and I was appointed executive head of a newly created central land administration. Just as I started making preparations to put things in shape about February, 1931, political turmoil fell upon the nation. As a result all normal functions of the government came to a standstill including land reform, and the land administration closed its doors. From this time onward Sun Yat-Sen's principles of land reform only served as a subject matter for academic discussion or sometimes being made use of by the government for propaganda purpose. It Is true that a central land administration continued to exist after V-J Day in 1945 and was promoted to a cabinet status. But nothing towards the Sun Yat-Sen goal has really been done. Some measures indeed have been taken to lessen the burden of the farm tenants in their excessive rent to landowners, but that was far from effective in the way of realizing the Sun Yat-Sen program of land reform.

In the year 1948 when the Communist army was marching southward towards Nanking, I was again appointed minister of the national land administration in the cabinet of Mt Sun Fo, son of the great Sun Yat-Sen. I was fully aware that not much time was left for me to do anything really worthwhile for the cause, as Chiang Kai-Shek was planning his voluntary retreat from the political arena in the hope of staying the onrush of red invasion. It was not unexpected that I had to resign my post en block with the Sun Fo cabinet in the summer of 1949, just before the complete downfall of China under Communist domination.

The Communist regime, during its last five years of existence, has succeeded in the nationalization of all privately owned farm lands and has distributed a greater portion of them to peasants who actually work on the soil. In these circumstances China could hardly go back to private ownership of land even if the country liberated herself from Communist domination and returned to free government. When Sun Yat-Sen laid down in his political program as a cardinal principle the Henry George principle of equal right to the use of land, it was thought China's land reform could have been better worked out by means of land value taxation as it would be more suitable to the temperament of the Chinese people and avoid bloodshed which was inevitable if Communist methods were to be employed. Whether Henry George or Karl Marx hold sway in China's land reform, only time can answer.