Sun Yat Sen and Georgism

by Karl Williams
Sun Yat Sen (1866 – 1925)

“The teaching of Henry George will be the basis of our program of reform…The (land tax) as the only means of supporting the government is an infinitely just, reasonable and equitably distributed tax, and on it we will found our new system. The centuries of heavy and irregular taxation for the benefit of the Manchus have shown China the injustice of any other system of taxation.”

In the turbulent and tangled history of modern China, Sun Yat Sen holds a unique place. Claimed as a personal inspiration and political guide by the most bitterly opposed political parties, he is known to millions as “the Father of the Chinese Revolution.” Yet his own life was a constant scramble for livelihood and influence, he spent much of his time in exile, and almost none of his cherished schemes came near to fruition.

He was born near Canton as the son of a Christian farmer and at 13 moved to Hawaii, where his elder brother had emigrated. Three years of study in a Honolulu boarding school run by the Church of England were followed by more than a decade in Hong Kong, where Sun was formally baptized a Christian and gained certificates of proficiency in medicine and surgery. He practiced medicine briefly in Hong Kong in 1893.

Yet Sun was not typical of the rising class of Westernized Chinese intent on their own professional advancement within the swiftly changing tides of late 19th century imperialism and colonialism. He was a Chinese patriot of a more traditional kind, an admirer of rebels who had pitted their lives against the ruling Manchu dynasty (or Qing) and was at home within the conspiratorial worlds of Chinese secret societies. His head was filled with dreams of strengthening China from within by drawing on its natural resources in conjunction with new technologies, and he tried to interest powerful officials in his schemes for economic development.

He visited Honolulu in 1894 and founded his first political organisation there, the New China Party. After his first abortive uprising against the Manchus in Canton in 1895, he lived abroad in Japan, America and Britain, studying Western politics and canvassing the support of the Chinese in these countries for his cause. This was the great formative period of Sun’s intellectual life, as he studied all possible political and economic systems with a view to establishing China with the distilled wisdom of all the great thinkers in history. Not surprisingly (to us Geoists, anyway), when Sun came across the works of Henry George he concluded that these timeless and universal principles were to form the foundation of the new Chinese republic.

While in London in 1896, he was kidnapped and imprisoned in the Chinese legation and was saved from certain death by the intervention of Sir Edward Cantlie, the surgeon who was his former tutor.

When the Manchu dynasty at last collapsed in 1911, in some measure because of the ceaseless pressure exerted by Sun and his revolutionary followers, he was named provisional President of the new Chinese republic. But Sun was shrewd enough to see that he lacked adequate military strength to hold China together, and he made the bold decision to transform his revolutionary organisation into a mainstream political party. The Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang) won more seats than any of its rivals in China’s first-ever national elections in early 1913. But Sun and his party still could not curb the emerging powers of the new military and political strongmen – in particular, the Northern general, Yuan Shih Kai, who had forced the emperor’s abdication, and who as president (1913-1916) sought to make himself dictator. So, late in 1913 Sun was forced once more into exile, and Kuomintang members were expelled from parliament.

In 1923 he was back in Canton and was elected president of the southern republic. With expert help from the Russians, Sun reorganised the Kuomintang and established the Whampoa Military Academy under Chiang Kai-Shek, who three years after Sun’s death achieved the unification of China under a government inspired by Sun’s 3 principles of nationalism, democracy and social reform. While at a conciliatory conference with other Chinese political leaders, Sun died of cancer in Peking.

Acknowledged by all sides as the father of the Chinese Republic, he was re-interred in a mausoleum built in his honour in Nanking in 1928. I visited this massive memorial in 1999 and, sad to say, there were few signs of Sun’s great Geoist ideals, as his principles have been revised and edited to suit the Chinese communists, even though Sun rejected outright the communist dogma of class war.