Yuan's Monarchist Venture
The political risk engendered by the broad application of terror might have proved worth taking if it had resulted in centralized bureaucratic efficiency capable of fulfilling national aspirations. Instead, as Ernest Young has shown, the achievements of Yuan's dictatorship fell far short of its promises. Domestically, financial retrenchment may have restored some degree of fiscal responsibility, but only at the cost of higher taxes and the stagnation of reform programs. In foreign affairs, the centralization of administrative power had little effect on Yuan's ability to resist imperialist pressure. Indeed, in mid 1915 Yuan was forced to accept almost all the points of a Japanese ultimatum, known as the "Twenty-one Demands," for new economic and political concessions. In the midst of these troubling de-
velopments, Yuan took the controversial step of replacing his presidential chair with a monarch's throne. Yuan's decision to make himself emperor has often been explained in terms of his own personal ambition. While ambition, or perhaps hubris, was no doubt an influential factor, Young has shown how Yuan's monarchist venture also reflected his determination to pursue his original political objectives in the face of mounting problems. "Unwilling fully to face his own failures of leadership and blind to the fundamental flaws in his strategy of bureaucratic centralization, Yuan opted for monarchy as an accommodation to popular psychology and as a means of gaining public order and greater power for the central government," Young observes.
The main justification advanced for Yuan's assumption of imperial status was that it would strengthen the authority, and hence the effectiveness, of the central government. In theory, the government would draw new strength from the symbolic power the monarchy still held for China's inarticulate masses. Paradoxically, while Yuan cloaked his ascension to the throne as a response to the will of the masses, the method chosen to express this will was organized elite support. The monarchist movement was initiated in mid August 1915 with the formation of the Peace Planning Society (Chou'anhui) by six leading gentry figures. The society was purportedly organized to discuss the comparative advantages of different political systems. All provinces were called upon to send representatives to Beijing to join in this discussion. It soon became apparent, though, that the real purpose of the society was to prepare the way for the restoration of the monarchy with Yuan as emperor. Once Yuan's true intentions became known, provincial administrations threw themselves into the task of providing the expressions of support required to justify this objective.
The orchestration of monarchist plans in the provinces revealed how effectively Yuan's control was exerted on and through the provincial administrations. As soon as Yuan's desires became clear, provincial instruments of terror were turned against any opposition to Yuan's imperial goal. In Hunan, newspapers opposing the monarchy were suppressed, letters and telegrams were searched for criticism of the proposed change of government, and martial law was imposed to tighten precautions against any possible disorder. As a result of the political tension caused by the news of the Peace Planning Society's activities, martial law was also declared in Hubei. The targets of this precaution were not, of course, the society's supporters, but its opponents. Special police searches were ordered to find and destroy litera-
ture opposing the society on the grounds that these materials contributed to disorder. In Wuhan, casual criticism of monarchist plans was sufficient reason for arrest by omnipresent detectives. An anomalous situation thus arose: it had become subversive under the Republic, not to speak out in favor of a monarchy, but to talk about preserving the Republic.
Complementing the suppression of opposition to the monarchy in the provinces was the organization of "popular will" in its support. Documents published after Yuan's fall proved the extent to which the provincial response, including wires of support from provincial officials in the name of influential gentry and merchants, was coordinated in detail by Yuan's supporters in Beijing. An account of the engineering of the monarchist movement in Hunan is given in the memoirs of a member of Tang Xiangming's staff, Tu Zhuju. Tu and some forty other specially selected bureaucrats were ensconced in a well-provisioned office behind the military governor's yamen as a secret center for the organization of Hunan's pro-monarchy movement. Generous funding (estimated by Tu at a million yuan) was provided by the Peace Planning Society in Beijing, and no expense was spared. The office received exact instructions from Beijing on the measures to be taken to show a crescendo of support for Yuan's ascension to the throne, including the fabrication of "popular will." This office, then, not only organized but actually became the main source of monarchist support in Hunan.
The culmination of the monarchist movement in the provinces was the calling of "citizens' conventions" for the ostensible purpose of making recommendations on the political system most suited to China's needs. In fact, the conventions, held in Hunan on October 28 and in Hubei on November 1, were ceremonial functions, where assembled gentry electors were simply asked to deny or affirm their preference for the monarchical system. Electors marked their ballots in the presence of "supervisors" and provincial officials, leaving little doubt as to the outcome. In Hunan and Hubei, as in other provinces, the conventions voted unanimously for the establishment of a monarchy, and with equal unanimity petitioned Yuan to ascend the throne as emperor.
The carefully constructed outpouring of elite approval for the monarchy was a hollow exercise. Almost all independent accounts of the monarchist movement in Hunan and Hubei reveal a general lack of enthusiasm that, if not leading to open opposition, expressed itself in widespread apathy. Various reports noted that public opinion in Wuhan retained its republican sympathies and was generally cold to
the idea of a revival of the monarchy. The Peace Planning Society failed to gain a real foothold in Hubei, and the only active support for the monarchy reportedly came from officials. In both Hunan and Hubei, Chambers of Commerce and other merchant organizations were viewed as being pressured against their will to participate in Peace Planning Society discussions. The U.S. consul in Changsha noted widespread opposition or indifference to the change in government reflected in the reluctance of many qualified voters to participate in the citizens' conventions. A missionary in Xiangtan noted that the city "did its duty in supporting the change of Government, but as one Chinese said, 'That is what they were instructed from Peking [Beijing] to do, so what else could be done?' As another said, 'There is none in China who want Yuan as Emperor.'" Reports cited from other cities expressed a similar lack of enthusiasm for the monarchist cause.
Naturally, when Yuan ascended the throne, suppression of the monarchy's opponents intensified. A Western missionary in Hubei in early 1916 reported:
At present a lot of extra spies have been put on to arrest any person who says a word against the present change of government. A good many have been arrested for saying very little, now everybody has got frightened [sic ] so no one dares to say anything, as spies seem to be everywhere, and even those who are not spies are paid for any information given, so many seek to earn a little extra in this way.
Eventually, to forestall even the slightest potential for political criticism, a ban was issued in both Hunan and Hubei on any discussion of national affairs (guoshi ). Thus, to ensure expression only of support for his ascension to the throne, Yuan attempted to reverse the whole process of participatory nationalism that had politicized China's elite since the late Qing period. In the end, political participation in the monarchist movement, with the exception of a few sincere proponents, was less a reflection of genuine support than a tribute to the bureaucratic efficiency and coercive powers of local and provincial administration under Yuan's control.
Muted beneath the fanfare of officially engineered popular support for the monarchical system, though, there remained a more substantial elite concern for the continued preservation of order. This concern appeared as a recurring theme in the political turmoil of the early Republic. Elite assessment of the best means to maintain order had played an important role in the consensus behind the 1911 Revolution, in the compromise that made Yuan president, and in the failure of the
Second Revolution. A belief in Yuan's ability to keep order appears to have provided some support for his rule even as disillusionment over his policies increased. In late 1914, for example, the U.S. consul at Hankou recorded a consensus in missionary reports from throughout the central Yangzi area that "in many quarters a general dislike and distrust for Yuan Shih Kai [sic ] is noted, although everywhere there seems to be a great respect for his ability to maintain peace and order."
Ultimately the preservation of order, not the pros and cons of the monarchical system, would remain the overriding concern of a significant section of the population. According to one report, "the people of Wuhan have really not had any kind of reaction to the issue of the nation's political system. However, in most hearts there is a hope for peace." Even strong anti-monarchical feelings were often reported as being tempered by a broad popular desire for peace and order. For some, this desire would outweigh their opposition to Yuan's imperial plans. For example, the opposition of many Hankou merchants to an armed struggle against the monarchist movement was interpreted as revealing the priority they placed on peace over their republican preferences. For others, however, Yuan bore the onus of provoking disorder through his bid for the throne. Early in the monarchist movement, one courageous member of the Hubei elite attempted to organize a group of Wuhan gentry and merchants to protest pro-monarchy telegrams issued by the Hubei government in their names. Appealing to Yuan to ban the Peace Planning Society, this group placed the blame for creating instability and inciting revolutionary opposition directly at the feet of the monarchist movement. Once armed resistance to the monarchy finally broke out, many more saw the key to the preservation of order not in the continuation of Yuan's rule but in his removal.
In the end, Yuan's attempted restoration of the monarchy had an effect opposite to its intent. The flawed assumption behind the monarchist movement was that the imperial symbols of the past, combined eclectically with the formalities of elite elections, could provide a new and stronger basis for central authority. Unfortunately for Yuan, the traditional appeal of the imperial throne had already lost much of its potency, and sham elections alienated rather than consolidated elite support. Indeed, by provoking a new round of political instability, Yuan's attempt to make himself emperor undermined the foundation of order that had provided the strongest reason for elite acquiescence to his rule. The result of the monarchist venture, then, was to weaken,
not strengthen, both Yuan's personal authority and the legitimacy of the central regime he had attempted to create.