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Governmental Role in Economy and Commerce Across Chinese History

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Governmental Role in Economy and Commerce Across Chinese History
Throughout Chinese history, the appropriate role government should play in economy and commerce has been a prevailing question that always incurs debates and disagreement. Over the centuries, a wide range of different opinions—from one-sided view to relatively neutral position—prevails. Each point of view contains its own unique understanding and suggestions on the issue of governing the economy. Despite of the variety of views, the grounds that those arguments based on are less diverse—from either an ideological or practical perspective.
From the early stage of Chinese history, absolute unanimity was rarely found in the issue regarding governing the economy and commerce. In fact, disagreements or ambivalent views prevail. For example, Discourse on Salt and Iron from Han dynasty reveals, officers believe government interventions in industry like salt and iron are beneficial to the welfare of the entire country and “are intended to circulate accumulated wealth and to regulate consumption according to the urgency of need” (Ebrey, Chinese Civilization 63). As each side lists either the benefit or the shortcomings, it is clear that the learnt men and the minister hold completely different perspectives with learnt men oppose effective government regulation whereas the officer supports. As the record of this debate contains twenty-four chapters and the first chapter included in Chinese Civilization contains four pages (Ebrey 60), it is reasonably to infer that not only there is disagreement, but also that level of dissention was intense.
On the other side, in the Discourse on Salt and Iron (Ebrey 60-63) reveals the opposition to governmental monopolies in salt and iron and almost all government intervention. Scholars or “the learned men” believes that “These matters [economy and commerce] should not become a major concern of the government”(Ebrey, Chinese Civilization 62). To literati, not only that government should not put too much emphasis in economy and commerce, but also that regulation of economy won’t bring benefits but harmful consequences to society as a whole, which will be discussed later in the essay.
In addition, disagreements on government’s role in economy and commerce did not disappear as time moves on and the level of intensity did not decrease. For instance, later in Song dynasty, debates about governmental economy policies again brought conflicts. In fact, document like A Letter from Sima Guang to Wang Anshi(Ebrey 152-154) shows the deeply rooted disagreement among official-scholars like Wang Anshi and Sima Guang. As Wang Anshi “wanted thoroughgoing reform of fiscal administration down to the local level”(Ebrey153), he not only believes government should step in to regulate economy, but also supports an active role of government to achieve “thoroughgoing reform of fiscal administration”.
Unlike Wang Anshi, Sima Guang thinks the appropriate role of government can be summarizes as: “The sages looked after the interests of the common people simply by lightening taxes, imposts, and other burdens”(Ebrey 154). From this statement, Sima Guang does values the necessity of government’s economic. At least, unlike the scholars’ view in Discourse on Salt and Iorn, he thinks values the necessity of government’s economic as Wang Ansi does—at least, he believes government should do something like “lightening taxes”. However, unlike Wang Anshi who insists active government actions and pursues for a through reform, Sima Guang were more conservative that he regards Wang Anshi’s reform as “overstepping official duties”(Ebrey 153). It seems that the Chinese opinions has moved from question whether government should regulate economy or commerce in Discourse on Salt and Iron to a debate on the appropriateness of government’s fiscal policies. Although the center of disparity changes, as scholar-officials were deeply divided on economic regulation (Ebrey 151), disagreement on government role in economic prevails while the intensity of the debates preserves.
Besides prevail of disagreement, the fact that opinions with similar attitude on governmental role in economy and commerce can differ at a microscope also contributes to diversity of tradition Chinese opinion regarding this issue. Both the minister in Discourse of Salt and Iron and Wuzong of Tang in document Political and Economic Problems concerning Buddhism believes in the importance of governmental intervention in economy. For example, believing Buddhism brought negative effect to well-being of the nation, Wuzong ruled that: “When the 4,600 and more major monasteries under heaven are demolished, 260,500 monks and nuns will return to secular life to become taxpayers in the Double Tax System”(Mair 378). It is clear, like the minister in previous discussions, he must believe in the need for government stepping in as Wuzong took systematical actions.
Even though the minister and Wuzong share similar attitude in defense for active government engagement, they took different approaches to solve contemporary fiscal problems. For example, facing the challenge of revenue shortage, the minister in Han dynasty argues:
When the revenue for the defense of the frontier fell short, he established the salt and iron monopolies, the liquor excise tax, and the system of equable marketing. Wealthy increased and was used to furnish the frontier expense”(Ebrey 61)
Unlike Han government, which extends sources of revenue by rising taxes and controlling profitable industry, Wuzong uses a completely different method as he tries to increase taxpayer population. Thus, even many ideas similar on macro scope—either supports government regulation or not, they varies in terms of the actual policies and together contributes to a wide range of opinions. Furthermore, we saw a wide range of concern among people who supports active government role in economy and commerce. Besides the issue of taxes, government monopolies, economic concerns with religion and lending money to commoners, there are discussions about governmental role in international trade in Zhang Han’s Essay on Merchants. In his essay, there were many criticisms of current government’s fiscal policies like “But those who are in charge of state economic matters know only the benefits of the Northwest trade, ignoring the benefits of the sea trade. How can they be so blind?” (Ebrey 217). By pointing out things government should have done, Zhang Han is clearly supports government regulation in commerce. By asking that “How can they be so blind?”, he is even arguing that the government could do more by not “ignoring the benefits of the sea trade”. Again, even he believes in the necessity of governmental intervention previous groups discussed, he offers some concerns and suggestions on trade that were not seen in previous documents, adding to the variety of tradition Chinese opinions. It is true that there are many different opinions and variety. However, the range of justifications each party uses was less extensive. With exceptions, those ideas were based either on discussion of ideology like molarity or evaluation of practical needs of the nation. For instances, literati in Discourse on Sal and Iron defense their opposition to government intervention in economy from a molarity basis:
We have heard that the way to rule lies in preventing frivolity while encouraging morality…When profit is not emphasized, civilization flourishes and the customs of people improve...[recent policies] represent financial competition with the people which undermines their native honesty and promotes selfishness…We desire that the salt, iron, and liquor monopolies and the system of equable marketing be abolished. (Ebrey 61)
From this argument, it is clear that the main reason literati opposes government intervention is because if economy becomes major concerns for government, profit would be emphasized. Those policies would bring to ultimate moral decline that “undermines their [people’s] native honesty and promotes selfishness”. Instead of evaluating the actual benefits those policies would bring to the nation, the literati took an ideal approach and emphasize the potential harm of molarity behind those policies.
To defend government monopolies of salt and iron, the minister based their reasoning on the practical outcomes of those policies. In the previous quotation, the minister argues that those policies secure military defense on the boarder as enough revenue were able to collect to “furnish the frontier expenses”(Ebrey 61). Instead of arguing that those policies would promote virtue and development of molarity, the minister took practical strategies in the debate with literati. Similarly, Zhang Han adopts a practical perspective in supporting his argument. Throughout the essay, Zhang Han evaluates the appropriateness of economic policies by listing the benefits or shortcomings in reality like “prohibit[ing] the sale of tea in the northwest and salt in the southeast”[Mair 217]. He has his unique interpretation of government role in international trade. Nevertheless, he took similar reasoning as the minister of Han.
Similarly, even though Wuzong held slightly different view on political economy, his argument were also mainly based on discussion of real benefits. Throughout his decree, his major opposition to Buddhism is that “monastic ornaments of gold and other treasures deprive society of much benefit” (Mair378) and that “there are innumerable monks and nuns under heaven who wait for farms to feed them and women to clothe them”(Mair 378). To Wuzong, Buddhism not only wasted social resources, but also decreases the number of potential taxpayers as mentioned before. Rather than giving examples of moral decay or philosophical arguments, Wuzong defends his intervention and policies from a practical stands—just as the minister in Discourse on Salt and Iron.
Even though most of those opinions could be categorized into ideal or practical by their reasoning, there were exceptions.…...

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