Saturday, July 02, 2011

SOEs, sods and the spirit level

"The policies pursued by Emperor Wu's government, both foreign and domestic, were by no means approved wholeheartedly by all Han officials. This was shown clearly by the discussion, held in 81 BC, on the merits and disadvantages of the iron and salt monopolies. A passage from one of the speeches made during its course deserves to be quoted, since it furnished, unintentionally, a telling illustration on the true nature of Chinese feudal society, valid not only for the Han, but equally for other eras as well.
Those who live in high walls and spreading mansions, broad chambers and deep rooms, know nothing of the discomforts of one-room huts and narrow hovels, of roofs that leak and floors that sweat.
Those with a hundred team of horses tethered in their stables and wealth heaped in their storehouses, who hoard up the old and stow away the new, do not know the anxiety of facing days that have a beginning but no end, of weighing goods by the pennyworth...
Those who recline on soft couches or felt mats, with servants and attendants crowding about them, know nothing of the hardships of a cartpuller or a boathauler, straining up the hills, dragging against the current...
Those who sit in the place of authority and lean on their writing desks, examine criminal charges brought before them and scribble their decisions, know nothing of the terror of the cangues and bonds, the pain of whips and rods.
The financial crisis to which Wu-ti's reign had given rise was, in reality, both the reflection and the cause of a still more important phenomenon - the social crisis. Its main manifestation was the steady growth of large landed estates at the expense of the peasants. The latter, debt-ridden due to increased taxation and in the hands of usurers, were impelled to sell their land, and often themselves and their families, becoming tenants, farm labourers or slaves. The reduction in the number of tax-paying landholders, in turn, worsened the government's financial position, since the large landowners were either exempt from taxation, or managed to swindle their way out of paying it."

- The Walled Kingdom; A History of China from 2000 BC to the Present, by Witold Rodzinski, 1984.