Saturday, May 15, 2010

Manuél Delmestro on Yuan Shikai's Failed Attempt to Restore Imperial Rule in China

For those who read Mandarin Chinese, Manuél Delmestro has just published an intriguing paper on Yuan Shikai's ultimately unsuccessful effort to restore imperial government in China in 1915. An English language abstract follows.

Manuel Delmestro
Fu Jen University; NTU

February 1, 2010

This article is not centred on the path that led to Yuan Shikai’s attempt to establish a new dynasty in the then four-year old Republic of China. Yuan engaged in a climb to power, first as the last strong man of the moribund Qing Government, then as the first real president of the Republic of China: he manoeuvred to get rid of annoying opponents, to mould and domesticate the Constitution and Laws, and to forge a net of entities aimed at reviving, nurturing and properly canalizing the monarchic sentiments in the recently Emperor-orphaned population.
Nor does this piece provide a minute account of the number of curiosities and old & ‘new’ traditions that mirrored Yuan and his supporters’ fondness for their glorious monarchical enterprise and its concretization in a set of details, procedures and even oddities.
This article rather focuses on three plain but somehow tricky questions: 1. Was Yuan Shikai a legitimate Emperor of China? 2. How long for exactly did Yuan, legitimately or not, hold the throne? 3. What kind of régime was - or/and was meant to be - Yuan’s?
I have tried to put some order in the decades-long academic debate over Yuan’s tenure as monarch, also arguing that a reformed (or at least modified) monarchy in late 1910s’ China (perhaps an “Empire of China with Western Characteristics” or a “Constitutional Monarchy with Chinese Characteristics”) could have been a desirable outcome. 

The article has made me think of the issue of order versus anarchy, of stability versus a long and bloody period of instability that is both basic to politics (and law) and important in two important situations today.  For the present government of China, the answer to the Yuan Shikai episode might be viewed as a necessary prelude to an even more necessary period of anarchy that served as the crucible from out of which the Chinese Communist Party was formed  and hardened for victory.  The stability of a weakened but stable imperial regime might have moved history in different directions.  And yet today, principles of Harmonious society (simplified Chinese: 和谐社会; traditional Chinese: 和諧社會;) and scientific development ((simplified Chinese: 科学发展观; traditional Chinese: 科學發展觀,) suggest a move toward stability and managerialism and away from the formative possibilities of periods of dynamic instability.  

Ironically, the move to managerialism and stability may also serve to protect the current government of Cuba from more aggressive moves to undermine that regime by the United States.  Though the rhetoric of both sides belies this idea--it appears clear enough that the United States would prefer to see  a managed evolution from its construction under Fidel and Raul Castro to a more obliging Marxist-Leninist state system--like that of Viet Nam.  Stability provides both the United States and Cuba with the ideological "other" against which each state can continue to measure itself.  It also serves as an excuse for the inabilities of either state to satisfy particular desires of their polities, and the cause for sacrifices extracted from each.   And lastly, from the perspective of the United States, it avoids the sort of destabilizing (on both sides) demographic disaster (but humanitarian blessing) that the United States  brought on itself during the ineffective presidency of Jimmy Carter now known as the Mariel boat lift. Anarchy might produce, through a crucible of violence, the sort of democratic regime the United States  likes to say it prizes, but the cost might be more than even the current administration is willing to pay.

Managerialism and stability play best  among social and political groups with a lot to lose.  It is meant to preserve the wealth, social, and power relations  among actors, and provide for movements only at great cost and over long periods--suggesting that the transaction costs of rapid and violent change are great. Law serves both as a  reference for conduct norms and as the systemization of barriers protecting the status quo.  Change is possible, but it can be affected only by those with the power and resources to outlast their opponents.  Conflict without violence, or at least within managed conflict geared for the preservation of wealth producing national resources.  See Larry Catá Backer, The Fuhrer Principle of International Law: Individual Responsibility and Collective Punishment. Penn State International Law Review, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 509-567, 2003.   Revolutionary dynamics, and its instability, is the lubricant for those dissatisfied with the status quo.   Today, the difference is not grounded in ideology--managerialism is a core principle of both the United States and the People's Republic of China, and even to a large extent, to post Revolutionary Cuba.  That makes the idea of Yuan Shikai appealing.  But sometimes managing a situation might do more harm than good.  And that may be one reality of Yuan Shikai as well.

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