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 influenced Sun.

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 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.

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 wandering barbarians. …

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).[1] "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 China (121).

"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 . . ." (122).

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 exist" (122).

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.[2]

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:

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.[3] 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 (500-1).

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, 367-8).

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 modern technology:

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, 1914, 659-660).

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.[4]

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" (65-66).

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 China.

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.[5] 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.[6]

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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 (1943,451).
  3. 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, 122-3).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. (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).