An Experiment in Democracy
The New Republic
Long Live  the Republic
Icon of the Republic of China Map overlaid with 5-band flag
Sun Yat-sen and the Nanjing Senate of the Republic of China in 1912
Birth Pangs of a New State
The state of China as the last Manchu emperor abdicated in February 1912 bore many parallels to China’s position when the last Ming emperor hanged himself in April 1644. The national finances were in disarray, with a depleted treasury in Peking and little money coming in from the provinces. Groups of scholars and bureaucrats had expressed a wide range of dissatisfactions with the defunct regime, and this discontent now had to be addressed. The army troops occupying Peking were numerous but hard to control, of doubtful loyalty, and liable to mutiny or desertion if their pay fell too long in arrears. Natural disasters had devastated the countryside, causing ruined harvests and starvation, and creating masses of refugees just when financial shortages made it difficult for local governments to offer famine relief. Many supporters of the defeated ruling house remained loyal and could be the focus for future trouble. Foreign pressure was intense, the possibility of invasion imminent. In the macroregions of central, western, and southern China, there was a strong chance that independent separtist regimes would emerge, further weakening central authority.
Chart showing the dynastic cycle

Regular Cycle of Dynastic Transition
Transition from Qing to the Republic of China

Map showing the colonial powers' possessions and speres of influence in Asia from 1850-1910
There were also, of course, numerous differences between the two transitional periods, of which four were probably the most significant. First, in 1912 there were at least seven predatory foreign powers with special interests in China, not just one, and China was already heavily in debt to them. Second, in 1912 the entire economic infrastructure of the country was being dramatically transformed by new modes of communication, transportation, and industrial development. Third, the significance of Confucianism as a central philosophical system with answers germane to all Chinese problems had been called into question. And fourth, although in 1912 many Chinese still favored a strong, central authority, the entire institution of the emperorship along with the compromise arrangement of a constitutional monarchy had been rejected by most educated Chinese. The most influential forces in the country sought to impose some type of republican government. (SMC, 261-2)
Icon of the Republic of China Map overlaid with 5-band flag
Portrait of Sun Yat-sen

Portrait of Yuan Shikai
The restoration of order to China required that Yuan Shikai link his Peking base and Beiyang army support to the Revolutionary Alliance and the Nanjing forces. It also hinged on the integration of the New Army units and the provincial assemblies into a national polity bound by a legitimate constitution. The first steps toward these goals were halting ones. Since his troops were no match for Yuan’s, Sun Yat-sen, hailed by his supporters as provisional president on January 1, 1912, relinquished claims to the title just over a month later, on February 13, the day after the Manchu abdication; Yuan Shikai assumed the office in Sun Yat-sen’s place. ...
The opening of the first regular session of the National Assembly on April 8, 1913
The task now was to create a meaningful constitution, under which valid elections would be held across China for the new two-chamber parliament. The initial step toward this goal had been the convening of the National Assembly in Peking in October 1910. ... Although a creation of the Qing court, the National Assembly swiftly moved to a position of importance for the future of constitutional government in China. ... Overlapping with these developments in Peking, however, came the meetings, at the instigation of the Revolutionary Alliance, of various groups of provincial delegates — first in Shanghai, then in Hankou, and finally in Nanjing. These delegates were formally convened as the National Council in Nanjing on January 28, 1912, with three delegates from each province. Their role was essential to the healthy growth of Chinese democracy, since Sun Yat-sen had stipulated that the National Council would ratify Yuan’s election as provisional president. (SMC, 263-4)
Yuan Pledges Allegiance to the Republic
February 12, 1912
A republic is the best form of government. The whole world admits this. That in one leap we have passed from autocracy to republicanism is really the outcome of the many years of strenuous efforts exerted by you all, and is the greatest blessing to the people. The Da Qing emperor has proclaimed his abdication by edict countersigned by myself. The day of the promulgation of this edict shall be the end of Imperial rule and the inauguration of the Republic. Henceforth we shall exert our utmost strength to move forward in progress until we reach perfection. Henceforth, forever, we shall not allow a monarchical government in our country. (DC, 203)
Icon of the Republic of China Map overlaid with 5-band flag
The Rise and Fall of Democracy: image of many hands dropping ballots in a box
The Rise & Fall of Democracy
Under the rules of [the] provisional constitution, the Chinese began to prepare for their first national elections. There were to be two chambers in the Parliament: one, a Senate, would comprise 274 members serving six-year terms, chosen by the provincial assemblies, with ten members from each province and the remainder representing the overseas Chinese; the other chamber would be a House of Representatives with 596 members serving three-year terms, and drawn more or less proportionately according to population on a basis of one delegate for each 800,000 people. (SMC, 265)
New electoral regulations promulgated in 1912 gave the vote to Chinese males over twenty-one who held property worth $500 or paid taxes of at least $2, and held an elementary-school graduation certificate. Approximately 40 million men — around 10 percent of the population — could meet these requirements. (SMC, 266)
The results of China’s first national election were announced in January 1913, and they spelled a clear victory for the Guomindang [i.e. the party that was formed out of Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance]. ... Under the provisional constitution, the Guomindang would now have a dominant role in selecting the premier and cabinet, and could proceed to push for the election of the president in a fully supervised parliamentary setting.
Map showing countries with same or different "head of state" and "head of government"
Portrait of Song JiaorenIn the spring of 1913, China’s newly elected representatives began to travel by rail, road, river, and sea to the Parliament in Peking. The victorious party leader, Song Jiaoren, went with his friends to the Shanghai railroad station on March 20. As he stood on the platform waiting to board the train, a man walked up and shot him twice at close range. Song was taken at once to the hospital but died two days later — two weeks before his thirty-first birthday. It was widely believed that he would have been named China’s premier. It was also widely believed that Yuan Shikai was behind the assassination, since the trail of evidence led to the secretary of the cabinet and to the provisional premier. But the main conspirators were either themselves assassinated or else disappeared mysteriously, and Yuan was never officially implicated.
       When the other Guomindang delegates had assembled in Parliament, they pressed to gain control over Yuan, to develop a permanent constitution, and to hold a full and open presidential election. The Guomindang members, in particular, were intensely critical of Yuan’s handling of national finances: instead of addressing tax-collection problems directly, he had taken out another huge loan — a so-called “reorganization loan” — of over £25 million (approximately $100 million) from a consoritum of foreign banks. Yuan interpreted these bitter protests as personal attacks and resolved to strike back. In early May 1913, [Yuan] dismissed the leading pro-Guomindang military governors. In heavy fighting that summer, troops loyal to the Guomindang were routed by Yuan’s forces, and in September, Nanjing was taken for Yuan by the reactionary general Zhang Xun, whose troops still wore their Manchu queues. In October, Yuan forced the members of Parliament to elect him president for a five-year term. (It took three ballots before he won a majority, however.) Finally, calling the Guomindang a seditious organization, he ordered the dissolution of the party and the eviction of its remaining members from Parliament. At the end of November, Sun Yat-sen left China for Japan, driven once more into exile from his own country, his republican dreams in ruins. (
SMC, 266-7)
As a prelude to purging the Guomindang members from Parliament in late 1913, Yuan had ordered his police to conduct house-to-house searches of those representatives and senators believed to be Guomindang affiliates. The searches yielded up 438 members with Guomindang party cards, and these members were henceforth banned from Parliament. Since the Parliament now lacked a quorum, in late November the speakers of both houses announced an indefinite adjournment; in January 1914, Parliament was formally dissolved, and in February similar dissolution orders were issued for the provincial assemblies and for local government organizations.
       To give a semblance of legality to his regime, Yuan now convened a body of sixty-six men from his cabinet and from various posts in the provinces, and these men produced, on May 1, 1914, a “constitutional compact” to replace the provisional constitution. The compact gave Yuan as president virtually unlimited power over war, finance, foreign policy, and the rights of citizens. In explaining his action to one of his close advisers, Yuan observed:
“Parliament was an unworkable body. 800 men! 200 were good, 200 were passive, 400 were useless. What had they done? They had not even agreed on procedure.”
It was a suitably sardonic comment on the destruction of China’s democratic hopes. (SMC, 269)
  • Was Yuan simply a power-hungry autocrat or were the problems that China faced too pressing to resolve through democracy, which requires "checks and balances" that slow down the process and make it difficult for the president to directly implement his/her policy objectives?
  • Is democracy the ideal choice for every country? Was it right for China? Is it right for China now?
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The Siege of Tsingtao (Qingdao)
World War I
The Broadening of Japan’s  “Sphere of Influence”
It was to Yuan’s initial advantage as he built his dictatorship that the First World War had erupted in Europe in August 1914, leaving France, Britain, Germany, and Russia too distracted to press for any more gains in China. Furthermore, in their desperate need for troops on the Western front, these foreign powers summoned home all their able-bodied nationals from China. This gave a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs and managers a golden opportunity to take over the key functions in business and administration, to build up their private fortunes, and to gain invaluable financial experience. But unfortunately for Yuan, Japan was more than ready to pick up the slack. With formal ties of alliance to Great Britain that dated back to 1902, Japan had declared war on Germany in August 1914 and had immediately followed up by attacking the German concession areas in Shandong province.
       In January 1915, Japan dealt China an even harsher blow when it issued Yuan’s government the Twenty-one Demands. In these, the Japanese demanded far more extensive economic rights for their subjects in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia; joint Sino-Japanese administration of the huge Han-Ye-Ping iron and coal works in central China; nonalienation of any Chinese ports or islands to other foreign powers; the stationing of Japanese police and economic advisers in north China; and extensive new commercial rights in the region of Fujian province. (SMC, 270-1)
Chinese Copy of the Twenty-One Demands
The Twenty-one Demands
January 18, 1915

Map showing the location of Shandong province
Section I
The Japanese Government and the Chinese government being desirous of maintaining the general peace in Eastern Asia and further strengthening the friendly relations and good neighborhood existing between the two nations agree to the following articles:

Article 1. The Chinese Government engages to give full assent to all matters upon which the Japanese Government may hereafter agree with the German Government relating to the disposition of rights, interests and concessions which Germany, by virtue of treaties or otherwise, possesses in relation to the Province of Shantung.

Article 2. The Chinese Government engages that within the Province of Shantung and along its coast, no territory or island will be ceded or leased to a third power under any pretext.

Map showing Chefoo and the Kiaochow-Chinanfu Railway

Article 3. The Chinese Government consents to Japan’s building a railway from Chefoo or Lungkow to join the Kiaochow-Chinanfu Railway.

Article 4. The Chinese Government engages, in interest of trade and for the residence of foreigners, to open by herself as soon as possible certain important cities and towns in the Province of Shantung as Commercial Ports. What places shall be opened are to be jointly decided upon in a separate agreement.

Icon of Imperial Japan (Chrysanthemum)

Map of Manchuria showing South Manchurian, Antung-Mukden, and Kirin-Changchun Railways
Section II

The Japanese Government and the Chinese Government, since the Chinese Government has always acknowledged the special position enjoyed by Japan in South Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia, agree to the following articles:

Article 1. The two Contracting Parties mutually agree that the term of lease of Port Arthur and Dalny and the term of lease of the South Manchurian Railway and the Antung-Mukden Railway shall be extended to the period of 99 years.

Article 2. Japanese subjects in south Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia shall have the right to lease or own land required either for erecting suitable buildings for trade and manufacture or for farming.

Article 3.  Japanese subjects shall be free to reside and travel in South Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia and to engage in business and in manufacture of any kind whatsoever.

Article 4.  The Chinese Government agrees to grant to Japanese subjects the right of opening the mines in South Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia. As regards what mines are to be opened, they shall be decided upon jointly.

Article 5.  The Chinese Government agrees that in respect of the (two) cases mentioned herein below the Japanese government’s consent shall be first obtained before actions is taken:

(a) Whenever permission is granted to the subject of a third Power to build a railway or to make a loan with a third Power for the purpose of building a railway in South Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia.

(b) Whenever a loan is to be made with a third Power pledging the local taxes of South Manchuria and Eastern Inner Mongolia as security.

Article 6.  The Chinese Government agrees that if the Chinese Government employs political, financial or military advisers or instructors in South Manchuria or Eastern Inner Mongolia, the Japanese Government shall first be consulted.

Article 7.  The Chinese Government agrees that the control and management of the Kirin-Changchun Railway shall be handed over to the Japanese Government for a term of 99 years dating from the signing of this agreement.

Icon of Imperial Japan (Chrysanthemum)

Map of Hubei Province with Photo of Hanyehping Mine
Section III

The Japanese Government and the Chinese Government, seeing that Japanese financiers and the Hanyehping Co. have close relations with each other at present and desiring that the common interests of the two nations shall be advanced, agree to the following articles:

Article 1.  The two Contracting Parties mutually agree that when the opportune moment arrives the Hanyehping Company shall be made a joint concern of the two nations and they further agree that without the previous consent of Japan China shall not by her own act dispose of the rights and property of whatsoever nature of the said Company nor cause the said Company to dispose freely of the same.

Article 2.  The Chinese Government agrees that all mines in the neighborhood of those owned by the Hanyehping Company shall not be permitted, without the consent of the said Company, to be worked by other persons outside of the said Company; and further agrees that if it is desired to carry out any undertaking which, it is apprehended, may directly or indirectly affect the interests of the said Company, the consent of the said Company shall first be obtained.

Hanyehping Iron and Coal Stock

Icon of Imperial Japan (Chrysanthemum)

Map of China's East Coast
Section IV

The Japanese Government and the Chinese Government with the object of effectively preserving the territorial integrity of China agree to the following special article:
The Chinese Government engages not to cede or lease to a third Power any harbor or bay or island along the coast of China.

Icon of Imperial Japan (Chrysanthemum)

Japanese Propaganda Poster (from WWII) showing the kindness of the Japanese military with the caption "Please see how kind and affable the Japanese Army is" ( 請看日軍和靄可親的態度).
Section V

Article 1.  The Chinese Central Government shall employ influential Japanese as advisers in political, financial and military affairs.

Article 2.  Japanese hospitals, churches and schools in the interior of China shall be granted the right of owning land.

Article 3.  Inasmuch as the Japanese government and the Chinese Government have had many cases of disputes between Japanese and Chinese police which caused no little misunderstanding, it is for this reason necessary that the police departments of important places (in China) shall be jointly administered by Japanese and Chinese or that the police departments of these places shall employ numerous Japanese, so that they may at the same time help to plan for the improvement of the Chinese Police Service.

Article 4.  China shall purchase from Japan a fixed amount of munitions of war (say 50% or more of what is needed by the Chinese Government) or that there shall be established in China a Sino-Japanese jointly worked arsenal. Japanese technical experts are to be employed and Japanese material to be purchased.

Article 5.  China agrees to grant to Japan the right of constructing a railway connecting Wuchang with Kiu-Kiang and Nanchang, another line between Nanchang and Hangchow, and another between Nanchang and Chao-Chow.

Article 6.  If China needs foreign capital to work mines, build railways and construct harbor-works (including dockyards) in the Province of Fukien, Japan shall be first consulted.

Article 7.  China agrees that Japanese subjects shall have the right of missionary propaganda in China. (DC, 204-6)
Were Japan's requests reasonable?
Were they any different from the demands that had been made by the West?

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Signing of the Twenty-One Demands
China’s Reply to the Ultimatum
The Chinese Government with a view to preserving the peace of the Far East hereby accepts, with the exception of those five articles of Group V postponed for later negotiation, all the articles of Groups I, II, III and IV ... with the hope that thereby all outstanding questions are settled, so that the cordial relationship between the two countries may be further consolidated. ... (DC, 206-7)
Icon of the Republic of China Map overlaid with 5-band flag
The Temple of Heaven
As Yuan’s prestige and popularity sagged, his own intransigence hardened. His critics were harassed or silenced under the terms of censorship regulations imposed in 1914 on all newspapers and other publications; these regulations carried stiff penalties for anyone printing material “harmful to the public peace.” To build up additional support for his authority, Yuan had already begun to reinstitute elements of Confucian belief as China’s state religion. As president, Yuan assumed the role of chief participant in important rituals at the Qing Temple of Heaven, to which he now drove in an armored car. By deliberately evoking Qing state religious observances, Yuan took on the trappings of emperor; in late 1915, Yuan indeed moved firmly in that direction, floating rumors that people wanted him to revive the institution. By August, official pressure to make Yuan emperor had taken on national dimensions, and in November a specially convened “Representative Assembly” voted — allegedly with the astonishing unanimity of 1,993 votes in favor and none opposed — to beg Yuan to become emperor. On December 12, 1915, Yuan accepted, inaugurating his new regime as of January 1, 1916. He placed an order at the former imperial potteries for a 40,000-piece porcelain dinner set costing 1.4 million yuan. He also ordered a large jade seal and two imperial robes at 400,000 yuan each.
Yuan Shikai as the Hongxian Emperor
Yuan Shikai and his advisers ... believed that China was yearning for a symbol of central authority transcending the president and that, therefore, the restoration of the emperorship would be welcomed. But they had miscalculated. Many of Yuan’s close political allies abandoned him, and the solidarity of his Beiyang clique of former military protégés was shattered. Throughout China there were mass protests matched by open actions in the provinces. The military leader in Yunnan declared that province’s independence in December 1915; Guizhou followed in January 1916, and Guangxi in March. The foreign powers were aloof or openly hostile to Yuan and did not give him any of the support he expected. In March 1916, Yuan Shikai responded to the outcries by declaring that he would cancel the monarchy, but his prestige was now shattered, and province after province continued to declare independence of Peking. Yuan died of uremia [a terminal manifestation of kidney failure] — compounded, many thought, by anger and humiliation — on June 6, 1916, at the age of fifty-six. (SMC, 271-2)
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Map showing the division of China into regions controlled by warlords
The men known as “warlords,” who now controlled much of China, had a wide range of backgrounds and maintained their power in different ways. ... No matter whether individual warlords were cruel or generous, sophisticated or muddleheaded, the fragmentation of China that was now beginning was to make any further attempts to unify the country even harder than it had been for those who inherited the mantle of leadership from the Qing. Nevertheless, a certain apparent coherence adhered to China’s government because the warlords in north China never completely destroyed what remained of the presidency and the premiership. Instead, they placed their own supporters in these positions so that whatever prestige the offices preserved would redound back to the warlords themselves. (SMC, 273-4)
Icon of the Republic of China Map overlaid with 5-band flag
Photo of the Chinese Labor Brigade during World War I
China’s Contribution to World War I
& the Treaty of Versailles
China’s military strength was trivial compared to that of the European belligerents or of the United States, which had entered the war on the side of Britain and France in April 1917, but China had one crucial resource that the Allies lacked — namely, manpower. ... In constant need of new men for the front, the Allies realized that if Chinese laborers could be used on the docks and on construction projects in Western Europe, it would free more European males for active combat. ... The Chinese were given medical examinations and ... [if] accepted — and about 100,000 made it through the screening — they were issued dog tags with serial numbers, which were sealed with metal rivets on bands around their wrists. (SMC, 275-6)
Painting of the Treaty of Versailles Signing
Portrait of Duan QiruiAfter the armistice of November 11, 1918, ended the war with Germany’s defeat, anticipation in China ran high. There were triumphant parades in Peking, and an exuberant crowd demolished the memorial that the Qing had been forced to raise in honor of the Germans killed by the Boxers. The Peking government was now headed by yet another Beiyang-faction president and premier; Duan Qirui had resigned in October 1918, but before doing so had used ... huge Japanese loans to enhance his own military power and had continued to build a network of secret deals with the Japanese. The Chinese delegation to the postwar treaty negotiations at Versailles, sixty-two members strong, was headed by five capable diplomats who had never been fully briefed on what to expect. They were greeted at Versailles by the shattering announcement of the chief Japanese delegate that early in 1917, in return for Japanese naval assistance against the Germans, Great Britain, France, and Italy had signed a secret treaty ensuring “support [of] Japan’s claims in regard to the disposal of Germany’s rights in Shandong” after the war.
       As if that were not bad enough, the Japanese also announced that they had come to secret agreements with Duan Qirui in September 1918, while he was still premier. These agreements granted the Japanese the right to station police and to establish military garrisons in Jinan and Qingdao, and mortgaged to Japan, in partial payment for its loans to China, the total income from two new Shandong railroads the Japanese planned to develop. (
SMC, 277-8)
Flag of Imperial Japan