The Chinese Philosopher: Huang Zongxi. A Champion for Private Property Rights

by Paul Meany

Huang Zongxi argued for a constitutional model of government designed to benefit all people, not just the ruling class, and which stressed the importance of respecting private property rights.

Many libertarians admire the Enlightenment as the time when early liberals laid down the intellectual foundations on which were built our flourishing modern world. At times, this can lead some libertarians to believe that a system which emphasizes free enterprise, constitutional government, and personal liberty can only be achieved through what is often dubbed ‘western values.’ However, the truth is more complex. The concepts of personal and political freedom were not unique to Enlightenment Europe. People from different parts of the globe, a variety of religions, and across many eras have theorized about the value of freedom and how to best preserve its benefits.

One thinker belonging to this long list of non‐​western practitioners is the Chinese philosopher Huang Zongxi. He argued for a constitutional model of government designed to benefit all people, not just the ruling class, and which stressed the importance of respecting private property rights.

HUANG’S LIFE

Huang was born in 1610 in Zhejing province in China. His father Huang Zunsu was a high ranking official of the Ming Dynasty. Thanks to his father’s high ranking position, Huang was able to study history and philosophy extensively. He was introduced to the scholar Liu Tsung‐​chou, under whom he studied for a number of years. Zunsu’s works show that he was well versed in philosophical matters and did not wholly subscribe to any particular school dogmatically. Instead, he drew from different traditions as he saw fit.

Huang’s father, Zunsu, had opposed the unchecked authority of eunuchs at the Chinese royal court. Indeed, Zunsu died after being imprisoned by his political opponents in 1626. Huang boldly protested the death of his father, at the capital city of the Ming Dynasty, he then returned home to dedicate himself to his studies.

By 1644 the ascendant Manchu Qing dynasty had taken control of the former Ming territories. Huang spent many years as part of a guerilla resistance against the Manchu Qing dynasty which he regarded as foreign invaders. Eventually, Huang abandoned the fight against the Qing dynasty, although he refused to cooperate or take any government positions that he was later offered. Instead, Huang dedicated the rest of his life to studying history, politics, and philosophy. During his retirement from public life, Huang produced arguably his finest work in 1663, Waiting for the Dawn: A Plan for the Prince, an extensive criticism of the Ming regime and a comprehensive set of proposed reforms.

THE FIRST RULERS

Huang believed that before there was any government, people tended to their affairs with no acknowledgement of the common good. This was not an idealized state of nature, but nor was it complete anarchy. According to Huang, looking after one’s own interests is entirely natural, and he deemed selflessness to be a rare and fickle virtue.

For Huang, the primary issue which plagued the Ming regime was the excessive greed of those in power. To rule is to take into account the interests of others and to selflessly pursue what other people wish for; that, however, is difficult given that “to love ease and dislike strenuous labour has always been the natural inclination of man.” The first people who ruled did so with extreme reluctance knowing how difficult it would be to rule in the common interest of all. Some even tried to quit but were forced to continue. The first rulers understood that to rule correctly was an immense effort that was, for the most part, a thankless job.

However, as time passed, new rulers decided that since they did so much for their people, it was perfectly justifiable to rule for their own benefit. They began to use the state to benefit themselves, and because of their selfishness, these rulers made their subjects miserable and downtrodden. Therefore, according to Huang, “He who does the greatest harm in the world is none other than the prince.” The solution to this miserable state of affairs is for princes to rule justly with true laws.

WHAT IS LAW?

Huang states that there has not been true law since the end of the Three Dynasties over a thousand years previously. Since then, all rulers had cared about was preserving their dynasty, they had refused to look to the common good of the people. Huang referred to the laws established after the three dynasties as “dynastic law.” But he did not believe that dynastic law could be called true law as it was narrowly based upon the interests of the rulers, that “what they called ‘Law’ represented laws for the sake of one family.” For any law to be true law it must conform to the dictates of “all under heaven” (or what can be broadly termed the will of the people). Huang writes that “in ancient times all under heaven were considered the master and the prince was the tenant.” The state existed to serve the people, not vice versa. True laws, for Huang, must not favour any particular group over another. Instead, laws must conform to a higher standard of justice which had been originally embodied by the sage kings of the past. Laws are not just, simply because a ruler has established them. If law does not conform to a higher standard of justice, it can hardly be called true law.

GOVERNANCE BY LAWS

Huang believes that first and foremost we need laws before we need leaders. By contrast, earlier philosophers such as Xunzi in the third century BC had written: “There is only governance by men, not governance by law.” To which Huang replied, “Only if there is governance by law can there be governance by men.” However, law alone is not enough; Huang had seen how knowledgeable men like his father were ousted from government positions due to entrenched and unchecked power. We cannot count on virtuous rulers alone to guide us and to preserve true law. Thus Huang believes that we need institutions to put checks on power and to stop any individual dominating all others.

Huang had no time for the idea of divine rule, and he questioned those whom he called “petty scholars” who insisted that the duty of the subject to his prince is utterly inescapable.”The sage kings of the past deserve praise and respect but the princes of today deserve little if any praise,” Huang argues, further asking, “Could it be that Heaven and Earth, in their all‐​encompassing care, favor one man and one family among the millions of men and myriads of families?” While Huang did not wish to abolish the emperorship entirely, he strove to desacralize the state. The state is neither quasi‐​divine nor should it command the total obedience of its people. As we have already seen, the relationship for Huang between sovereign and citizen is actually inverted; the people are the masters, and the state is the tenant.

REINSTATING THE PRIME MINISTER

In theory, the Ming dynasty was ruled by an emperor and supported by a court which was composed of ministers and civil service members. The reality was a departure from this ideal. Emperors resented and resisted any check upon their power. To cement their position, emperors tended to promote only those civil servants who were wholly servile, especially eunuchs, who had long been a crucial part of the Chinese government. They tended to the emperors household and his personal needs, which gave them immense influence as they were naturally intimate with the emperor and increasingly infringed upon the administration of civil affairs.

To this end, Huang argues that the previously abolished office of prime minister should be reinstated. While one man should act as prime minister, he would have multiple vice premiers, all of whom are scholars with whom he would consult. Huang had three critical reasons for arguing for the reinstatement of the premiership:

Firstly, no matter how wise or hardworking, no one man can rule alone. While Princes may have been created initially to rule, “All under Heaven could not be governed by one man alone.” To remedy this, the prime minister aids the prince. Secondly, the emperor is decided by hereditary succession. Huang states that in ancient times “succession passed, not from father to son, but from one worthy man to another.” A person being handed a position based upon their lineage is no guarantee that they will rule justly. While Huang does not specify precisely how the prime minister will be chosen, he believes that the role will act as a buffer in case the emperor is not a competent ruler given that the Prime Minister’s power will be equal to that of the emperor. Thirdly, by reviving the position of the prime minister, the government affirms the principle that no man should hold supreme power and that instead, power should be divided and shared in order to serve the people best.

Huang’s reforms aim not only to make government more effective but, by putting qualified people in power, it also serves to check the power of the emperor who, without constraints, would have little stopping him from becoming tyrannical. Thus Huang’s approach can be described as constitutional in its fundamental nature. Constitutionalism, as a broad idea, is a set of rules, principles, and norms which define the limits of government authority to avoid arbitrary despotism.

HUANG AND PRIVATE PROPERTY

For Huang, it was essential that the government did not encroach upon property rights. According to Huang, during ancient times there was no private property. The sage kings distributed land through what was known as the well‐​field system. Huang explains that during this time “land was granted by the king to the people. Therefore, such land can be called the king’s land.”

However, after the sage kings subsequent rulers no longer distributed land to the people. Instead, people acquired land through sale and purchase. By the second century, private property had been established. Because the land was purchased by the people and not granted by a king, Huang concluded that “the land is the people’s land and not the king’s land.” For Huang “all land is either official or private.” The difference between the two is that official land is owned by the state and cannot be bought or sold, while private land can be traded and belongs to individuals.

Huang argues that that private property ought to be protected since people have a moral right to keep what they own. However, Huang does not stop there. He also argues that property rights set limits on government power. By protecting property, it underpinned the principle that emperors should not view “the world as an enormous estate to be handed on down to his descendants, for their perpetual pleasure and well‐​being.” Instead, emperors should respect the rights of their subjects and refrain from appropriating property.

AGAINST REDISTRIBUTION

Not all rulers in history were selfishly trying to expropriate property. Many genuinely wished to redistribute wealth in order to help the poor. To achieve this, some believed in limiting or equalizing the distribution of property. Huang replied to this proposition saying that “doing even one act that is not right” should not be allowed. People have a right to their property and this should not be violated even in the event that the motivation is to help those in need. Huang wonders why “should one needlessly make a big thing out of causing the well‐​to‐​do to suffer?” He proposes instead that the state should redistribute official property, which had been established for the emperor’s family and allies, and should be given to the poor. For Huang, it was perfectly natural to pursue one’s own self‐​interest and to accumulate property. He supported individuals autonomously pursuing their own interests.

SIMILARITIES BETWEEN HUANG & JOHN LOCKE

Huang’s political thought bears a striking resemblance to the influential English philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Locke has been referred to as the Father of Liberalism, his political thought centred on his arguments for natural rights, government by consent of the people and his theory of private property has been massively influential on classical liberalism.

As we have already seen, Huang was sceptical of the claims of divinity that emperors had made throughout history. Much later, Locke would argue against divine monarchy by saying that even if God had given the right to rule to someone, such as Adam from the bible, there would be no way of determining who are his rightful descendants. Thus Locke concluded, “that in the races of mankind and families of the world, there remains not to one above another the least pretence to be the eldest house, and to have the right of inheritance.”

Huang believed true law serves the common good and does not favor any particular group. Similarly, Locke argued that the principle of “let the welfare of the people be the ultimate law” is such a fundamental rule that “he, who sincerely follows it, cannot dangerously err.” Both Huang and Locke based the legitimacy of the law upon how it served the interests of the governed not the rulers.

Huang wished to see the position of the prime minister reinstated to check the power of the emperor. Locke proposed that government ought to be composed of legislative, executive, and federative powers. This separation of powers allowed not only for a more effective government but also one which would not quickly descend into tyranny.

Finally, Huang and Locke both argued that the government ought to protect the institution of private property. Locke, like Huang, believed that property was once commonly owned but that when people mixed their labour with the land they appropriated what belonged to nature and made it their own. While Huang’s theory of how land becomes privately owned is not exceptionally robust, it is clear that, akin to Locke, he believed that people have a moral right to hold onto what is rightfully theirs.

Despite living on opposite ends of the world, Huang and Locke came to very similar conclusions on the proper ends of the state. Possibly it is because both had fathers who fought against incumbent regimes and both men lived through civil conflicts which resulted in regime changes. Huang Xongxi is an excellent example of how quite different philosophical traditions have arrived at broadly classical liberal ideas without being part of the same so‐​called ‘western tradition’ or ‘western values.’

There is much to admire in the Western tradition of philosophy, but this does not mean we cannot praise and synthesize other traditions. Thinkers like Huang remind us that all cultures, religions, and peoples have traditions which advocate for the freedom of the individual.

China’s Monetary Tradition and the Origins of Money

Written by Joseph T. Salerno

In the introduction to this book, first published in English in 2010, I wrote: “The idea of sound money was present from the very beginning of modern monetary theory in the works of the sixteenth-century Spanish Scholastics….” Recent research has shown that the seeds of the theory of sound money were already present in Chinese writings centuries before the Scholastics.1

China was one of the first countries to develop a metallic money that was valued and exchanged by weight. Evidence suggests that this monetary regime originated during the Shang Dynasty (1766–1122 BC) or the Zhou Dynasty (1122–221 BC). China was also one of the first countries to use precious metals as money and may have invented coined money. The long experience with a purely metallic monetary system naturally stimulated Chinese state officials, royal advisers, and philosophers to investigate and debate the origins and functioning of such a system and the policies appropriate to its smooth operation. It is therefore not surprising that China developed a rich tradition of monetary thought, which extended over nineteen centuries (roughly 700 BC to 1200 AD). This literature on monetary theory and policy embodied ideas, insights, and controversies that would appear in European writings only centuries later. In particular, some contributors to this Chinese monetary tradition formulated the conceptual foundations of the theory of sound money, the topic of the present book.

While ideas about the development of money were expressed as early as the seventh century BC, the most prevalent view of money’s origin is attributable to a politician of the sixth century BC. Shan Qi (b. 585 BC) contended that money was invented by one of the ancient philosopher-kings to measure the value of goods. However, several Chinese writers later disputed this story and argued that money originated as a market phenomenon. Sima Qian (104~91 BC), Luo Mi (1165~1173 AD) and Ye Shi (1150~223 AD) basically argued that money grew out of the trading of commodities and could not have emerged in the absence of commodity exchange. Money was only later adopted by kings as an aid in ruling their countries. 

The first step in theorizing correctly about money is to understand that the value of money, like that of commodities, is never fixed and unchanging. Chinese philosophers who published the earlier Mohist Canons(468 BC~376 BC) grasped this crucial point. They recognized that metallic money, such as the “knife coins” then in wide circulation, was valued and exchanged by weight and argued that the real value of money, despite its fixed face value, was not stable but fluctuated inversely with the prices of commodities. When commodity prices were high, money was “light” or its purchasing power low; when prices were low, money was “heavy” or its purchasing power high. Thus, if monetary conditions were such that the nominal prices of commodities were abnormally high, the real prices of commodities were not high but rather money was “light” or depreciated.

In investigating the market conditions that determined the purchasing power of money, two eighth-century Chinese writers, Liu Zhi (734 AD) and Lu Zhi (794 AD), clearly formulated the quantity, or supply-and-demand, theory of money—eight centuries before the theory was introduced into European thought by Jean Bodin and the Spanish Scholastics. Liu Zhi argued that if population grew more rapidly than the money supply, the purchasing power of money would rise. Zhi reasoned that the growth of population would produce an increase in the labor force and, therefore, in the supply of commodities. As a result, the demand for money would grow in excess of supply and raise the purchasing power of money. He also deduced that high prices were a result of an “excess” of money and advocated a reduction in the quantity of money to increase its purchasing power. Liu Zhi’s contemporary Lu Zhi argued similarly that the quantity of money is a prime factor determining the prices of goods and the purchasing power of money. Thus, goods are cheap and money “heavy” when the quantity of money is relatively small, whereas goods are expensive and money “light” when the quantity of money is large. Lu Zhi inferred from his theory that government is therefore able to affect the height of prices by altering the quantity of money. 

Chinese monetary writers also focused on the proper institutional arrangements for coining money, because coinage affected the quantity and quality of money in the economy. At least four major debates on the coinage question occurred during the period 175 BC–734 AD. The main point at issue was whether the coining of money should be a private and decentralized business or a royal prerogative monopolized by the central government. Of great interest is the fact that in the third (457 AD) and fourth (734 AD) debates government ministers heroically proposed private coinage as a means of ridding the realm of a shortage of money.

My book is a small contribution to this great Sino-European tradition of sound monetary theory. I hope that its translation sparks interest among contemporary Chinese scholars in recovering and extending this tradition as first presented in the brilliant writings of their ancient predecessors. 

1.Zheng Xueyi, Yaguang Zhang, and John Whalley, “Monetary Theory from a Chinese Historical Perspective” (NBER Working Paper 16092, June 2010). The following discussion is drawn from this research paper.

China Reiterates Cyrpto Bans from 2013 and 2017

Regulators cite the dangers of speculative trading

Article by: Muyao Shen

The National Internet Finance Association of China, the China Banking Association and the Payment and Clearing Association of China reiterated their stance on banning crypto services.

The three entities published a note Tuesday confirming bans originally implemented in 2013 and 2017 that bar financial and payment institutions from providing any services related to cryptocurrency transactions and saying that initial coin offerings remain illegal.

“Virtual currency’s prices have soared and plummeted recently, resulting [in] a rebound of speculative trading activities of virtual currency,” the report said. “It has seriously damaged the safety of the people’s investment and damaged the normal economic and financial orders.”

In 2013, China’s central bank barred financial institutions from handling bitcoin (BTC, +3.35%)transactions, according to a notice from China Securities Regulatory Commission.

And then again in 2017, the central bank in China declared initial coin offerings as illegal, which caused bitcoin’s price to fall.

Robert’s two cents: The last line of this article assumes that was the cause of the price fall. Yet, there is no proof supporting this claim. Its highly possible, in fact more probable, that the market correction with BTC has more to do with its volatility during its growth phase rather than simply one or two persons speaking out against it. This is a fallacious presumption.

China Didn’t Ban Bitcoin Entirely, Says Beijing Arbitration Commission

By Helen Partz

Bitcoin-related activities are not prohibited by the Chinese government as the cryptocurrency acts as a virtual commodity.

hina, one of the world’s most strict jurisdictions for cryptocurrency trading, has not completely banned Bitcoin (BTC), a local non-profit arbitration organization says.

According to a July 30 report published by the Beijing Arbitration Commission (BAC), China’s prohibition of Bitcoin is more nuanced than some have suggested.

Bitcoin does not constitute money in China
In the report, the BAC clarified China’s legal stance on cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and outlined major crypto-related activities that are prohibited by the government.

According to the BAC, China prohibits token funding and trading platforms from engaging in exchanges between the legal tender and virtual currency or tokens.

The commission then states that the same law that bans cryptocurrency as money, recognizes it as a virtual commodity.

Furthermore, existing laws are, according to the BAC, not specific enough to regulate Bitcoin as virtual property:

“The “General Principles of Civil Law” do not make specific provisions on the extension and connotation of virtual property, but only stipulates that the protection of virtual property must be stipulated by law, and the specific protection measures of virtual property are entrusted to other laws. As the country currently has no laws on Bitcoin, it cannot be recognized as a virtual property.”

“In summary, the state does not prohibit Bitcoin’s activities as virtual commodities, except for the activities that Bitcoin is engaged in as legal tender,” the report adds.

Additionally, since Bitcoin does not constitute money in China — as the government has not approved Bitcoin as a legal tender — and since Bitcoin is not used as an alternative to the legal tender or fiat currency, it should not be associated with an illegal transaction, the BAC said:

“The prohibited transactions include those when Bitcoin is used as a currency. If Bitcoin does not engage in activities as a currency, it is not a transaction prohibited by the state. For example, in the equity transfer contract dispute decided by the Shenzhen International Arbitration Court, the two parties agreed on the return of Bitcoin. Bitcoin is only used as a general property. Therefore, the transaction does not violate relevant national regulations and should be valid.”

Mixed bag for Bitcon, but full steam ahead on blockchain tech
China has emerged as one of the most strict countries in terms of crypto after regulations on local cryptocurrency exchanges back in 2017. The world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, Binance, which was originally established in China, had to leave the country due the regulations.

However, despite moving towards tighter regulation of Bitcoin, China has not prohibited the cryptocurrency outright. In November 2019, Chinese authorities reportedly said that Bitcoin mining will not be an illegal industry in the country.

The Chinese government is known for its “blockchain, not Bitcoin” approach as President Xi Jinping called on the country to prioritize blockchain development in late 2019.

Alongside aggressive blockchain developments like China’s national Blockchain Service Network, China’s central bank has been progressing with its central bank digital currency. In April 2020, China successfully piloted the project in four cities including Shenzhen, Chengdu, Suzhou and Xiongan.

Read more here…

China’s Non Manufacturing and Manufacturing Data Demonstrates the Extent of Economic Collapse

Key excerpt:

“Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMIs) are a tally of how executives see their own company – whether business activity at their company rose or fell compared to the prior month, whether new orders rose or fell, whether they added or shed staff, etc. Executives and their companies remain unnamed. A value above 50 means expansion; a value below 50 means contraction. PMIs are an early indication of business conditions – and by extension, of the economy.

And in China, both, the PMI for the non-manufacturing sector and the PMI for the manufacturing sector, released on March 1, have collapsed to unfathomable lows, showing to what extent the measures to impede the spread of the coronavirus have shut down the economy.”