china, sun yat-sen, and the revolution of 1911 -- 7/03/17

Today's selection -- from Sun Yat-sen by Harold Z. Schiffrin. As the economy of China spiraled downward and the imperial government of its Qing dynasty sputtered towards its demise in 1911, revolutionaries emerged. The most famous of these was Sun Yat-sen, who was part of the 1911 revolution that ended the Qing dynasty but ultimately failed, leading to decades of turmoil:

"Rural conditions had long been deteriorating. ... They worsened more rapidly as Confucian moral norms and central bureaucratic controls became less effective in checking the predatory habits of landlords and usurers. Absentee landlordism, more prev­alent as commercial opportunities lured gentry to the cities, hardened the terms of rural tenancy. And eco­nomic development, which was being carried out without concern for peasant welfare [and was tilted heavily in favor of the already rich and powerful], aggravated rural poverty. Modern domestic industry and foreign imports crippled rural handicraft industries, the traditional supplement to agriculture.

Official portrait of Dr. Sun

"This combination of new and old causes of rural distress brought a sharp increase in banditry, rioting and secret-society uprisings. ... Sun Yat-sen's Alliance accordingly made its appearance at a time of rising potential for revolution.

"What exactly was [Sun Yat-sen's] program? In his introduction to the first issue of People's Report (November 26, 1905), Sun for the first time used the broader terms 'national­ism,' 'democracy' and 'socialism' to describe the aims included in the party's membership oath. (Sun used the classical term min-sheng, 'people's livelihood,' to denote his version of socialism.) ... He urged that China catch up with the West by adopting nationalism and democracy 'without delay,' and that she surpass the West by achieving socialism. Economic development had saddled the West with fright­ening social problems, but 'China may more easily get rid of them since they have not yet deeply affected her . . . . If we can nip economic evils in the bud, we may, by one stroke, reap the benefits of both a political and social revolution. Thus we may outdistance the Western pow­ers.' Sun concluded: 'In every community there are a few farsighted intellectuals who can urge it to the road of progress.' ...

Uprising map during the Xinhai Revolution

"[A] Procla­mation also explained some of Sun's specific proposals. 'Equalization of land rights' -- the means for estab­lishing 'a socialist state' -- simply meant that the gov­ernment would expropriate increases in land values during the expected postrevolutionary development boom. Sun incorporated the ideas of Henry George -- the single tax -- and especially those of John Stuart Mill, who had proposed taxing the "future unearned increment in­crease" of land values, that is, increases that did not result from the efforts of individual landowners but from the growth and development of society at large. The idea was to prevent land speculation of the kind that had earned easy fortunes in the West, especially from urban prop­erty. ...

"Yet Sun may have entertained a more drastic land pol­icy. He bad briefed Hu Han-min, and Hu had come out flatly for 'land nationalization,' which would 'wipe out the power of the landlord from the Chinese continent.' However, with Liang Ch'i-ch'ao accusing him of trying to incite the lower classes, Sun stuck to the more innocuous formula, especially in official pronouncements. Even that sounded too radical for some of the gentry-born students. Also to be considered were the fears of the rich overseas merchants he was soliciting.

"More importantly, the land-value taxation method en­abled Sun to claim the socialist label while disclaiming any threat to existing property relations. For just as he preferred a nationalist revolution that would not antag­onize foreigners, he preferred a social revolution that would not provoke class conflict. What he was advocating, then, was the prevention of the need for a Western type of social revolution in China. The future unearned in­crement tax was admirably suited for this preventive function. It fitted in with Sun's basic contention, namely, that China could turn her backwardness into an advan­tage and be one revolution ahead of the West. ...

"In December 1906 Sun ... unveiled the 'five-power' constitu­tion he had discussed earlier in Europe. ... He proposed converting two traditional Chinese insti­tutions -- the censorate and the recently scrapped exami­nation system -- into independent branches of govern­ment and adding them to the American 'three powers' (executive, legislative and judicial). The supervisory organ, he explained, would compensate for the Ameri­cans' failure to provide an impartial impeachment pro­cess. The examination agency would examine the qualifi­cations of all prospective officials -- candidates for election as well as appointment. This would remedy another de­fect of the American system, for Sun had found that demagogues who played on the emotions of the electorate often defeated better-qualified candidates. The West, he reminded his listeners, had first learned about civil ser­vice examinations from China and had then developed them further. Now the West would again learn from China. He boasted that the 'five-power' constitution was a breakthrough in political theory and would set a new standard for the entire world."



Harold Z. Schiffrin


Sun Yat-sen: Reluctant Revolutionary


Little, Brown & Co.


Copyright 1980 by Harold Z. Schiffrin


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