Chinese Interpretation of Property Rights
I want to note that before Qin re-united the country, the title of huang(皇) and di(帝) mean sage or saint. The Qin king combined that title and make it huangdi(皇帝) which becomes the title emperor. And I also want to say that before the Xia dynasty, leader in China is elected rather than being hereditary.
Due to extensive record keeping by Chinese historian, they actually recorded the transition from nomadic lifestyle to static farming community of China. As one can tell, the value of a society would change with way of life. In nomadic lifestyle there is no landed property. As for property right, starting with the Xia dynasty, the nobles would be the major land owners and this power give them special position and rights. Ancient Chinese historian also recorded that this power from property is far from ideal and distorted the value in the society. However, Qin did introduce a major reform where nobles would be punished the same as a commoner. This pave the way to equal rights for every man.
The ancient Chinese concept of property is complex. On one hand, after Qin dynasty, even a slave can own property. On the other all land supposedly belongs to the king or emperor. However, the king or emperor must have the mandate of heaven. In a way, he only work as middleman for heaven. Since he is also the son of heaven, he is supposed to uphold justice of the people. There is a spiritual and moral interpretation of property ownership.
So the ancient Chinese belief on property is not absolute but have a very strong moral dimension to it. The western view on property right in large part is based on the Magna Carter which emphasized the inalienable rights of the nobles to their lands and property. Basically, it is a document drafted by the nobles against the king so their property right is absolute and even the king cannot touch them.
In China, if a noble, powerful statesman, or even a tycoon is convicted of a serious crime. The emperor can strip him of all his property even if the property is rightfully inherited or obtained by fair trade. In many ways, this correspond with the collective right mentality of the Chinese. The ancient Chinese sages believe that individual right can only be protected if collective right is enforced. For example, every fit men in ancient China has to contribute labour or military service. Because if everyone is free to choose whether he want to work the dam of the Huang river or join the military to fight off invasion, China as a civilization would not have survived.
As can be seen from the short reign of the Qin and Shui after unification, any abuse of the drafted labour would mean swift end to the dynasty. Another aspect of property right is also based on collective relationship. Qin code emphasize collective punishment. For example if a man committed a serious crime, his wife, parents or brother would be punished also. And if a man is involved in rebellion, his extended family would be punished and all their property confiscated. In many ways it is this belief that allow the communist concept of shared property to spread. The Chinese translation of communist party is simply “shared property party”. Since Magna Carter, the western concept of property right has a religious context to it, that is why Communism is considered such an affront to Christianity. In China, the religious context meant property right is based on morality as well. That is one major reason the CPC can introduce the concept so successfully. Another reason is that Chinese are used to the concept of revolution.
Some people want to view the introduction of family planning in China as a restriction of individual right. However, when the policy was being introduced, Chinese family on average has 5 children, two decades ago it was seven children (granted most didn’t make it to adulthood). With limited food resources, if the large family is sustained, there would be famine and many more would die. And in a market driven economy, the well connected would still be able to provide for their many children while the poor would not. It is the commitment to equality and fairness that family was introduced not the other way round. For example, Xi Jinping, the president of China, only has one daughter.
Chinese belief and code are mostly influenced by circumstances and historical events and are also shaped by logic. Simply compare it to Greek and Roman concept of property rights. In those society only men with property are entitled to be elected to office. And every free man are required to serve in the military. They also have collective punishment system. This is the same as ancient China. It differs after Qin gave a mean for slave to free themselves by national service. The divergent started here, is it a coincidence that Qin was survived by the Han, Jin then Shui, Tang, Song to Qing; while Greek and Roman empires fell? Granted the Eastern Greco-Roman empire lasted until the 15th century.