China today is a paradox: on the one side, it is a nation based upon centralized government, yet it also has a vast private sector, entrepreneurial culture and market economy. Its leaders call this “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but there is a larger history at play, going back to the founder of the nation, Sun Yatsen. As a statesman with connections to America – in the autumn of 1911 he was on a tour of the US to speak and raise funds when the news of the Wuchang uprising that eventually brought down the Qing dynasty broke – Sun’s own political philosophy was heavily influenced by America’s early principles of governance.

Dr Sun Yatsen was not a follower of Karl Marx – whose theories of government have shaped China’s modern state – but neither was he a proponent of the liberal theories of Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill. Rather than pick an extreme on the political left or right, Sun Yatsen instead found himself firmly grounded in the moral philosophy of both Confucius and an American inspiration: Abraham Lincoln.

In the Gettysburg Address of 1863, near the end of the Civil War, Lincoln memorialized those who had died defending the Union by exhorting that through their sacrifice, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” This tricolon became the inspiration for Sun Yatsen’s 1924 tract Three Principles of the People (from which all of Sun Yatsen’s quotes are taken in this article). In the book, which is a series of his lectures, Sun lays out the similar three principles that China should adhere to: minzu (‘national feelings of the people’), minquan (‘rights of the people’), and minsheng, (‘the people’s livelihood’).

When asked to describe his political principles, Lincoln once responded: “My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of the internal improvement system and a high Protective Tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles.” During his early years studying in America, a young Sun Yatsen recognized in this aspect of Lincoln’s thought the practical political economic practices that were needed if China was to overcome its twofold crisis: outdated dynastic traditions from within, and hostile manipulation by empires from without. He despaired of the future of the nation, and looked to America for inspiration.

Sun advocated the creation of a native manufacturing sector through the application of protective tariffs, and vast internal improvements through the building of rail, roads, water projects and energy systems. Reiterating his longtime support for the protective tariff in order to cultivate local industries and agriculture, he wrote:

“How do outer countries meet foreign economic pressure and check the invasion of economic forces from abroad? Usually by means of a tariff which protects economic development within these countries. Just as forts are built at the entrances of harbors for protection against foreign military invasion, so a tariff against foreign goods protects a nation’s revenue and gives native industries a chance to develop.”

Prospects for a bright future in China after World War I were bleak, with rampant poverty and a severe shortage of national spirit. Watching the hopes of the 1911 revolution slipping away, Sun wrote in despair:

“If China perishes, the guilt will be on our own heads and we shall be the world’s great sinners. Heaven has placed great responsibilities upon us Chinese; if we do not love ourselves, we are rebels against Heaven.”

In his first lecture lecture on nationalism, Sun Yatsen clearly described the path to national rejuvenation:

“Our Three Principles of the People mean government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” – that is, a state belonging to all the people, a government controlled by all the people, and rights and benefits for the enjoyment of all the people. If this is true, the people will have a share in everything. When the people share everything in the state, then will we truly reach the goal of the minsheng principle, which is Confucius’ hope of a ‘great commonwealth.’”

It cannot be over-emphasized that the man held up by the Chinese Communist Party as the forbearer of its revolutionary legacy, Sun Yatsen, took direct aim at Marx. Sun wrote:

“Society progresses through the adjustment of major economic interests rather than through the clash of interests (ie: “class struggle”). If most of the economic interests of society can be harmonized, the majority of people will benefit and society will progress.”

Studying forms of government from ancient Greece to the modern age, Sun stated that those revolutionary leaps that transform society’s means of production, distribution and social norms were never static or zero sum, but always centered around the “overthrowing of old systems and giving rise to new systems.” He stated: “It is the constant emergence of new systems that makes constant progress possible.” By recognizing that humanity always leaps from lower to higher systems through new discoveries and inventions, always improving humanity’s condition of life, he recognized the fatal flaw in Marx’s ideology, to which he directed his strongest attack. Sun concluded that “class war is not the cause of social progress, it is a disease developed in the course of social progress,” and that “Marx can only be called a social pathologist; we cannot say that he is a social physiologist.”

Looking again to America’s example under Lincoln, Sun further stated that Marx “found only one of the diseases of society; he did not discover the law of social progress and the central force in history. As stated by the American scholar, the struggle for subsistence is the law of social progress and is the central force of history.”

In the last four lectures of his book, Sun deals with the idea of improvement of livelihood through scientific and technological progress. He stresses the need for constant improvement of the quality of life and livelihoods through great public projects, centered on hydroelectric power from the great Yangtze River, industrial growth by the application of the protective tariff, and the application of advanced technology for transportation of rails and roads as well as agriculture. On the latter, he writes: “We must use the great power of the state and imitate the United States’ methods.”

By arguing for the application of advanced technology to replace human labor, he states “if China with human labor can support four hundred millions, she should with machine power produce enough for eight hundred millions.” In this way, the “law of diminishing returns” advanced by John Stuart Mill can be overcome by leaping from states of lower to ever higher powers of productivity – offsetting the tensions which caused Marx’s class struggle and instead cultivating a spirit of increasing economic opportunity, harmony of interests and justice for all. Taking a swipe at the capitalist systems promoted by the British Empire, whose Opium Wars were still a painful memory for China, Sun Yatsen stated:

“The fundamental difference … between the Principle of Livelihood and capitalism is this: capitalism makes profit its sole aim, while the Principle of Livelihood makes the nurture of the people its aim. With such a noble principle we can destroy the old, evil capitalistic system.”

Sun Yat-sen believed that if the Confucian minsheng principle – centering on the never-ending improvement of the livelihoods of the people – was adhered to, then a balance could be found between large state power and the liberty of the people. He wrote: “With such an administrative power on the part of the government and such political power on the part of the people, we will be able to realize the ideal of an all-powerful government seeking the welfare of the people and to blaze the way for the building of a new world.”

Looking to the future of China and the world, Sun wrote optimistically, but left a warning which is more apt today than it was in 1924:

“If we want China to rise to power, we must not only restore our national standing, but we must also assume a great responsibility towards the world. If China cannot assume that responsibility, she will be a great disadvantage not an advantage to the world, no matter how strong she may be. … If China, when she becomes strong, wants to crush other countries, copy the Powers’ imperialism, and go their road, we will just be following in their tracks. … Only if we “rescue the weak and lift up the fallen” will we be carrying out the divine obligation of our nation. We must aid the weaker and smaller peoples and oppose the great powers of the world. If all the people of the country resolve upon this purpose, our nation will prosper, otherwise, there is no hope for us.”

The balance between strong government and the people’s will has never perfectly been achieved, but Sun Yat-sen knew this was America’s struggle, and was going to be a challenge for China as it threw off the dynastic system and became a Republic in 1912. With the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative (New Silk Road), the most active principles of Lincoln’s American System economic program have begun to be revived for the first time in over 100 years. Whether it will continue to thrive or be subverted remains the question.