The Perils of Advising the Empire

Yuan Shikai and Frank Goodnow

A Chinese president, three years into his term, turns back the clock on political liberalization. Convinced that the country, beset by domestic problems and foreign threats, is in need of a strong leader, he surrounds himself with the trappings of past rulers and tightens his grip on power. While many are wary of the political ambitions of this larger-than-life figure, there are more than a few pundits—both inside China and out—who agree with his fundamental position: that the timing is not yet right, nor are the Chinese people ready, for greater political freedoms.

A century ago this month, Yuan Shikai, President of the Republic of China, ended a three-year-old experiment in republican government by announcing his decision to take the throne and rule as emperor.

“Do not compliment me, condole with me,” Yuan told his supporters in December 1915, “for I am willing to sacrifice myself for the sake of the country.”



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While history has been less than kind to Yuan’s decision to restore the monarchy, many foreign observers at the time felt the move was inevitable, even a positive step, given China’s political situation. The 1911 revolution which swept away the Qing Empire and ended over 2000 years of imperial rule resulted in a fragile compromise between the republican revolutionaries of the new Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, nominally led by Sun Yat-sen, and Yuan Shikai, a Qing military leader who controlled the largest army in north China. The compromise quickly fell apart after democratic elections in 1912 gave the Kuomintang an overwhelming majority in the new parliament. Euphoria gave way to dismay, when the Kuomintang’s chief political strategist and presumptive leader of parliament, Song Jiaoren, was assassinated in early 1913 by gunmen almost certainly in the employ of Yuan Shikai. The feud between the Kuomintang and Yuan Shikai culminated in the disbanding of China’s newly-formed parliament and a “Second Revolution” later that year which not only failed to dislodge Yuan from the presidency but had split the country along geographic and ideological fault lines.

British journalist H.G.W. Woodhead wrote in support of Yuan’s decision, “Representative government can never be put into practice in the empire until the masses have attained a standard of intelligence which will enable them to exercise some discrimination in the selection of their representatives.”

Perhaps the best known foreign proponent of Yuan’s imperial aspirations was the American political scientist Frank Goodnow. Goodnow was a well-respected legal scholar and academic and had been the first president of the American Political Science Association. From 1913-1914, he served as a legal advisor to Yuan Shikai and made substantial contributions to two versions of the Chinese constitution. The first constitution, in 1913, gave the executive sweeping powers and effectively made Yuan Shikai President-for-Life. The second one, drafted in 1915, set the framework for Yuan’s swapping of the presidential office for the emperor’s throne.

As a result, scholars have long treated Goodnow either as an apologist for a corrupt and brutal regime or, at best, a naive foreign patsy played for a fool by Yuan and his cronies. While Goodnow and his writings did play a crucial role in Yuan’s bid for power, it could be argued that Goodnow’s support for Yuan was not blind loyalty to an aspiring despot, but rather a careful application of long-held views regarding the suitability of political systems.

In a paper delivered to the American Political Science Association in 1914, Goodnow observed:

It is of course not susceptible of doubt that a monarchy is better suited than a republic to China. China’s history and traditions, her social and economic conditions, her relations with foreign powers all make it more probably that the country would develop constitutional government more easily as a monarchy than a republic.

It is an argument that resonates in China today. Goodnow believed that “universal values,” as understood in the West, and championed in particular by the United States, were the products of a particular moment and place in history. Goodnow was skeptical about the uncritical application of these values to other societies and argued that the indiscriminate adoption of Western political institutions in countries with different social and economic conditions would lead to instability and the failure of state institutions to take root.

While many foreign supporters of Yuan’s autocracy, like Woodhead, clung to racialist (and racist) views that the Chinese people were not yet ready to adopt the political traditions of the West, Goodnow questioned whether or not those traditions even had a place in China.

(Wikimedia Commons)

A portrait of Dr. Frank Johnson Goodnow published in the April 1914 issue of The World’s Work after his return from China, when he became the president of Johns Hopkins University.

Goodnow was not the first, nor would he be the last, foreign academic to have their views appropriated in support of illiberal regimes. Recent controversies involving Daniel Bell, whom The Economist once directly compared to Frank Goodnow, and his new book The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, and the 2010 book China’s Megatrends suggest that there are writers today who, like Goodnow, challenge accepted notions of the Chinese state and risk accusations of abetting authoritarianism.

Goodnow saw Yuan’s autocracy as a stage, a bridge between the monarchy of the past and the development of a constitution best suited for China’s continuing political and social development. He had long favored a strong executive branch for China’s constitution, and his support for the monarchy was based both on what he understood of China’s political history and the need for a smooth transition of power. In Goodnow’s view, hereditary succession, however illiberal, allowed for greater stability than a battle of rival cliques for an empty chair.

Goodnow was also under no illusions about the people with whom he worked. He was well aware that Yuan and his cronies used bribery, murder, and terror against their enemies. Critics of the regime were harassed and arrested; newspapers were urged not to print any stories that might be harmful to public order. Goodnow frequently begged Yuan to permit greater freedom of expression, to little avail.

Ultimately, though, Goodnow considered Yuan as emperor preferable to a China in anarchy. For two years in Beijing, Goodnow had been embedded in a cabal of pro-monarchy Yuan flunkies, including Yuan Shikai’s grown son Yuan Keding, who harbored imperial dreams of his own. They knew the value of putting the imprimatur of a well-respected foreign academic onto their plan and were selective in translating, editing, and disseminating Goodnow’s writings. Memos advocating for a strong leader and the need for a monarchy earned wide circulation, while other briefs, cautioning restraint and placing conditions on accepting the throne, were quietly shelved or lost before translation.

Goodnow was therefore somewhat taken aback when in the spring of 1916, he came in for a good amount of the blame regarding Yuan’s short-lived and disastrous attempt to claim the imperial throne. Now president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Goodnow was forced to defend himself both in the press and to his colleagues in academia. Goodnow’s association with Yuan was public knowledge, and his reputation suffered for it.

Back in China, things were not going well for would-be Emperor Yuan. Yuan Shikai had taken bold, some would even say treasonous, steps, to shore up foreign support for his imperial dreams, but surrounded by sycophantic courtiers, he was unprepared for the overwhelmingly negative reaction inside China to his bid to become emperor. On Christmas Day, 1915, Cai E, governor of Yunnan, declared open rebellion against Yuan. The governors of Guangxi and Guizhou declared independence in January. Other provincial leaders indicated they too would rather secede and fight than accept Yuan Shikai, or anyone, as emperor.

As the historian Qin Hui has argued, while the problems of political transition in the years after the 1911 Revolution were significant, and there was little consensus on the way forward, the one thing most people could agree on was that there would be no going back to the old order.

January 1, 1916 was supposed to be the start of a new era, which Yuan named, cheekily enough, Hongxian meaning “Glorious Constitution.” Instead, China seemed in imminent danger of collapse from within. Wishing to distance themselves from Yuan’s miscalculation, the foreign powers withdrew their support for his monarchy, a betrayal that must have been particularly bitter for Yuan. Over the previous year, he had traded territory and sovereignty, agreeing to special rights and privileges for Japan in Shandong and Manchuria, Russia in Mongolia, and Great Britain in Tibet, in exchange for the foreign powers’ acquiescence in his plan to become emperor.

Ultimately, what little support he received from abroad could not overcome the cost of these concessions in terms of political capital at home. In China, people were further incensed at Yuan’s extravagant spending in pursuit of his monarchical vision, including a 40,000-piece porcelain set ordered from the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen and two imperial robes each costing nearly 400,000 yuan purchased on credit as his government sank deeper into debt to foreign banks and governments.

In the face of growing hostility to his plans, Yuan cut back on the budget for imperial bling and indefinitely postponed the date of his coronation. Instead, on January 2, a small ceremony to welcome the start of the Hongxian era was held at Yuan’s palace, in what is today Zhongnanhai. (The Forbidden City was still occupied by the last person to hold the title of emperor, the adolescent ex-monarch/government pensioner Puyi.)

Three weeks later, Yuan addressed his officials:

We are profoundly grieved to confess that a portion of the people are dissatisfied with us. To perform the ceremony of enthronement at this juncture would, therefore, set our heart on thorns. Furthermore, we must remember that the national expenditure will be greatly increased for the purpose of defraying the expenses of the military campaign. It will, therefore, be impossible to perform the grand ceremony at the same time, as the expenses … including special rewards, gifts, and exemptions, will be enormous.

Yuan never did get his coronation. On March 22, he formally renounced the monarchy and a day later, the Hongxian era was officially canceled, and the calendar restored to counting the years since the founding of the Republic.

Eighty-three days after his announcement, Yuan’s imperial dream was in tatters. Three months after that he was gone. Yuan Shikai died in June 1916 from uremia and other ailments at age 56.

Frank Goodnow served 15 years as president of Johns Hopkins University before retiring in 1929. He would not be the last foreign scholar to come to China and have his writings used, wittingly or not, by an illiberal regime with Chinese characteristics. Goodnow’s lack of faith in the universality of certain values was a precursor to contemporary debates over the suitability and long-term viability of a “China Model.” While China today is in a far stronger and more secure place than a century ago, questions of constitutionalism, autocracy, and the direction of political reform persist. Whether today’s leaders will learn from the mistakes of Yuan Shikai a century ago remains to be seen.