Song never made it. Shortly before 11 o’clock on the night of March 20th 1913, an assassin slipped behind him and fired two shots at close range. Two days later Song, the man who would have become the first democratically elected premier of China, had died in a Shanghai hospital at the age of 30.
All evidence pointed to a conspiracy orchestrated by Yuan Shikai (pictured), a powerful and ambitious general-turned-politician who was then president of the fledgling Chinese republic. Coincidentally, this week marks an important milestone in Yuan’s career as well. On March 26th 1916, three years (almost to the day) after Song succumbed to his wounds, Yuan was forced admit defeat for his own plan—which had been to subvert the republic and declare himself the emperor of a new dynasty.
For nearly 30 years Yuan had played the Forrest Gump of bad decisions in modern Chinese history. He began his career in the 1880s as the imperial resident in Seoul, representing the Qing dynasty’s imperial interests in Korea. It was a prestigious position which Yuan enjoyed immensely (of the nine official concubines he would take during his lifetime, three of them were Korean). But it went awry when his meddling in Korean court politics gave a pretext for Japan to extend its influence over the peninsula; this became the grounds for the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895.
China’s embarrassing defeat in that war triggered a crisis of confidence among the nation’s intellectuals. In 1898 a cohort of young reformers gained influence in the court of the equally youthful Guangxu emperor. For 100 days that summer they put forward a startling series of policies meant to prepare China to enter the 20th century. When the reformers began to fear that the emperor’s aunt, the powerful Empress-Dowager Cixi, might try to depose the emperor, they approached Yuan Shikai, now a rising star in the Qing military establishment, to support a counter-coup against her. Yuan agreed to their terms. But then he wasted little time in making an overture to Cixi’s cronies, to see if they would offer him a better deal. Forewarned, Cixi came out of retirement and fulfilled the would-be reformers’ fears by forcing them into exile and placing their emperor under house arrest.
For his ersatz loyalty to Cixi, Yuan was named the governor of Shandong province, a region rife with restive groups of anti-foreign militia. Cixi ordered her officials to support these “Boxers” in their crusade, but Yuan wanted nothing to do with this violent rabble. Instead he began a campaign of suppression that forced many of them north, towards Tianjin and Beijing. By 1900 the Boxers had entered the capital and were carrying out attacks against foreigners and the Chinese whom they regarded as tainted by association.
All the same, Yuan’s career flourished. The death of his mentor, a great Qing official named Li Hongzhang, left Yuan in control of the largest and best-trained army in northern China. Over the next decade he consolidated his position as the empire’s most powerful and influential military leader. He dodged a bullet (perhaps an actual one) when the Guangxu emperor died young, beating the Empress-Dowager to the grave by a single day. One imagines that had the Guangxu emperor escaped house arrest and returned to power, Yuan’s treachery of 1898 would have been remembered. As it was, the regents of the new child-emperor, Puyi, feared Yuan’s growing clout and suggested that he retire—to rest his aching feet, they said.
Two years later, in 1911, revolutionaries took the city of Wuchang and plunged the empire into a state of open rebellion. The Qing court felt forced to turn to Yuan and beg him back to active duty to quell the revolution. At first Yuan demurred, telling the court that his feet still hurt, and bid his time. Though he managed to exact staggering concessions from the court, such as would have given him unprecedented control over the empire’s civil and military affairs, he could see that the empire was doomed. So Yuan asked the revolutionaries to give him their best offer.
Sun Yat-sen was the leader of the new government and poised to become the first president of China. He offered Yuan the office in exchange for his support. So it was that on February 13th 1912, the day after the Qing dynasty officially ended, Yuan was sworn in as the president of the Republic of China. As part of his deal with Sun, he had agreed that elections for a national assembly would be carried out later that year. Placing his faith in the electoral process, Sun transformed his “Revolutionary Alliance” into a political party, the Kuomintang, and named his sometimes-protégé, sometimes-rival—Song Jiaoren—in charge of its electoral campaign.
With the murder of Song, on that Shanghai platform, a last obstacle to Yuan’s bid for absolute power was cleared. Within a year Yuan was able to order that all members of Song’s Kuomintang be expelled from the national assembly. The following spring a new assembly, packed with delegates who would bend to Yuan’s will, approved a constitutional compact giving Yuan virtually unlimited powers.
Even with those powers Yuan was not satisfied. In the summer of 1915 rumours began circulating that he might try declaring himself emperor. Frank Goodnow, an American political science professor and adviser to Yuan, suggested to him that the Chinese people were not yet ready for democracy; what China needed, he counselled, was a strong authoritarian leader. It might be easy in hindsight to mock Goodnow for his naive support of a ruthless dictator, but he was hardly alone. Lebbeus Willfley, who served as America’s attorney-general to the Philippines and as the judge of the American court in China, had told the New York Times that
anyone familiar with the situation can see at a glance that it would take a long time to develop the Chinese people to the point where they could put in operation a representative government according to Anglo-Saxon standards.
Messrs Goodnow and Willfely would not be the last foreigners to argue that the “efficiency and stability” of autocratic rule bests such niceties such as “liberty and popular government”.
Whether the republic would have survived were it not for Song’s assassination and Yuan’s feverish grasping is a difficult question. The tumultuous events of 1913 have since become Exhibit A for the historians who argue that electoral democracy is somehow incompatible with the Chinese experience.
This past week China’s current legislature, the National People’s Congress, inked up its rubber stamp to approve the next generation of Chinese leaders. It was a display of unanimity that would have made Yuan proud. The NPC voted to confirm Xi Jinping as the next president of China by a tally of 2,952 to 1. But even this leaves Yuan the opportunity to claim bragging rights. After all, someone voted against Xi Jinping. Whereas in 1915 a “representative assembly” hastily convened by Yuan’s partisans managed to vote unanimously, 1,993-to-none, to make Yuan Shikai the emperor. The Economist (Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)