History Lessons

Xiang Songzuo

Lose-lose situations

Xiang Songzuo

By putting pressure on China to allow its currency to appreciate, the US is “hurting others but not benefitting oneself,” Xiang Songzuo, a prominent economist at Renmin University of China, said recently in an interview, using a well-known proverb: “sun ren bu li ji” (损人不利己.)

“First of all, this issue is about the international division of labour,” says Xiang, a former People’s Bank of China official. “Labour costs are far higher in the US than China, at least 20 times. So in terms of market competition, the US can’t compete with China at that level. Appreciating the renminbi won’t help the US. It’s a case of ‘sun ren bu li ji’,” or lose-lose.”

The actual roots of the proverb stretch back to the Tang dynasty, with an original meaning that was a little different to the one commonly implied today.

Back then Lu Xiangxian, a chancellor in the court of the Tang emperors Ruizong and Xuanzong, was sent to Yi Prefecture (modern-day Chengdu in Sichuan province) as a top administrator and official.

While there, Lu fell into discussion with a subordinate, Wei Baozhen, about how best to govern.

Wei recommended harshness. “Otherwise, people will become idle and have no fear.”

But Lu disagreed. “A governor should follow reason. Why should I use harsh penalties to show my power? Hurting others to benefit myself is not the way of kindness and forgiveness,” he said, or “sun ren li ji” (损人利己.)

Later, in a move often attributed to one of China’s most famous twentieth century writers Lu Xun, a variation on the saying was introduced by adding the negative: “Hurting others but not benefitting oneself.”

Such an outcome was considered the pinnacle of stupidity.

In a short essay published on the People’s Daily website in 2006, contributor Li Yacheng offered this assessment of the two phrases, which are still commonly heard today.

“One often hears people saying that ‘hurting others to benefit oneself’ is, admittedly, painful. But ‘hurting others and not benefitting oneself’ is simply not understandable,’” Li wrote.

In other words, while the first action is both selfish and morally questionable, the second is morally indefensible.

Either way, the meaning endures – from the court of the Tang emperors to the debate on currency policy today.


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