Blogs > Cliopatria > Past Tense Echoes

Jan 28, 2005 6:53 am

Past Tense Echoes

So, what happens when you take a country -- wracked by underfunded central government, armed and disorderly forces, natural disasters, old-regime loyalists, separatists, foreign predation (often under the guise of foreign investment) legitimized by international law and treaty, with no common ideology or civil culture -- out of autocracy and give it a dynamic republican form of government? It's very important to hold elections, obviously, and to have a leader capable of appealing to many constituencies and making tough decisions. Sound familiar?

It should. It's China, 1912.

Yuan Shikai, China's first premier (Sun Yat-sen was elected president nearly simultaneously by his revolutionary friends, but abdicated that position in favor of national unity and actual electoral tactics), a popular military figure who had been involved in the suppression of both the anti-foreign Boxer rebellion and the pro-reform 100 Days clique, was dragged out of retirement to oversee a very substantial set of national reforms: judicial reform, Prison-building and reform," compulsory and free" primary education including both modern and traditional elements, Agricultural investment including irrigation and flood control, transport and technology investment, currency reform and opium suppression.

Oh, he also was responsible for the assassination of the leader of the largest party in the newly elected National Assembly -- the Guomindang [GMD/Nationalists]'s Song Jiaoren -- following which his troops attacked GMD groups, on charges of treason and rebellion purged GMD members and associates from the assembly, then forced the inquorate body to revise the constitution to give him greater powers. His government, with no domestic revenues to speak of (even import tariffs were out of his control, paying off the interest on foreign debts like the Boxer indemnity) relied almost exclusively on foreign loans for operating revenue, and on bribery and threat of force for legislative support.

Yuan's government was nonetheless recognized as legitimate by most of the foreign powers that mattered -- after he promised each of them significant concessions, mostly in the form of relinquishing Chinese claims to influence over border regions (Britain wanted Tibet; Russia wanted Mongolia; Japan wanted more northern railway rights; the US wanted to Christianize China) in secret agreements.

Yuan barely keeps Chinese sovereignty alive in the face of Japan's attempt in 1915 to turn it into a protectorate ("Twenty-One Demands"), then decides to declare himself Emperor. Anti-imperial generals force him into retirement; pro-Qing dynasty generals attempt a restoration of the old regime; anti-imperial generals force the Qing child emperor back into retirement, and warlordism breaks out. The warlords varied:"the warlord of Shanxi, Yan Xishan... stated proudly, [that] he had constructed a virtually perfect ideology to run Shanxi province, one that combined the best features of 'militarism, nationalism, anarchism, democracy, capitalism, communism, individualism, imperialism, universalism, paternalism and utopianism.'"*

It would be three decades before China was whole again, or nearly so, under Communist rule.

I prefaced my lecture by pointing out that the chapter should be subtitled"how Yuan Shikai ruined everything," but that the preexisting instabilities mitigated against making that conclusion too strongly. It's conceivable that a more honest and humble person could have shepherded China through the sensitive transition, but only barely (it's more likely if the 100 Days reforms hadn't been squashed in 1898, but that's water under the bridge). We finished up class noting that the echoes to Iraq were unmistakable, but that none of us really could say with any certainty that Iraq was on China's path.

Fellow Marylander and new Liberty&Power contributor Jason Kuznicki draws some other very disturbing parallels. Not to Iraq, necessarily, but if I give it away you'll not forgive me. Really.

* material in this post comes from Chapter 12 of Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China. The quotation is from page 284.

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Jonathan Dresner - 1/29/2005

In a word, no.

Yuan Shikai was given power by the abdicating Qing dynasty. There never was an election in which Yuan, or a party associated with him, won anything. But he did, in a reasonably legitimate fashion, have a claim to the power of the Qing until the constitutional process was complete; the problem is that he never allowed the process.

Sun's election was, I believe, an internal party election, possibly with some regional participation, but wasn't truly national, either. Sun's abdication didn't really transfer power to Yuan, as Sun never had any defined powers, but it did remove a potentially complicating conflicting claim to power.

Sun transferred his efforts to the Guomindang, and when Yuan clamped down on them had to go into exile again.

David Rodeback - 1/28/2005

It's an interesting parallel. What isn't clear here -- nor is it clear in some other reading I did about Yuan Shikai, notably at (, is whether he was ever elected at all. When Sun Yat-sen abdicated, how was power transferred to Yuan Shikai? For that matter, was Sun Yat-sen's election a popular election, or by some sort of revolutionary council? Does Yuan Shikai have any *elected* legitimacy?