Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) was a military leader and politician in late Imperial China, and the first President of the Republic of China. He came to prominence after meritorious military service in Korea (at that time a vassal state of China) in the 1880s, and was appointed to command the modern Beiyang Army created after the humiliations of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. During the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900 he was Governor of Shandong, and adopted firm measures to drive the Boxers out of his province.
Yuan and the first Chinese Revolution
In the last years of the Qing dynasty he was forced into retirement by courtiers jealous of his power, but after the Wuchang rebellion of 10 October 1911 escalated into a nationwide anti-Imperial movement, he was recalled by the Qing and made Prime Minister in a last-ditch attempt to retain power. Yuan, however, was secretly negotiating with the republican rebels and, having forced them into a military stalemate, was able to name the terms for his support. Sun Yat-sen, the provisional President of the Republic of China, stood down, and on 1 January 1912 Yuan became the first President.
Repression of Democratic expression
Almost immediately he began to restrict the activities of the newly elected national assembly, and after the assassination in 1913 of Song Jiaoren, parliamentary leader of the Guomindang (or Kuomintang, the nationalist party founded by Sun Yat-sen), a second struggle broke out between the revolutionary party and Yuan. Yuan was able to crush dissent, and was hailed by the foreign powers as the 'strong leader' they had sought for China.
The 21 Demands
However, in 1915 Japan, taking advantage of the preoccupation of the western powers with the war in Europe, was able to force Yuan to accede to its 21 Demands, a humiliating list of concessions which, had they been fully implemented, would have reduced China to little more than the status of a Japanese protectorate. Yuan's weakness in the face of these demands reduced his prestige even among his military cohorts, and when, in late 1915, he announced that he was preparing to restore the Imperial throne with himself as the new emperor, they forced him into a further humiliating climb-down. He died shortly afterwards.
Yuan's concentration of power into the hands of a military elite made, in the short term, for effective, if reactionary, government. However, he left no obvious heir, and although a junta of military leaders ruled China subsequently, within a very few years this began to collapse into faction and civil war. The so-called Warlord Era in Chinese history is generally reckoned as lasting from 1916 to 1928, but warlordism was a major factor in Chinese politics right up to the Communist victory in 1949, and even after that the Communist rulers were very sensitive to any manifestations of regionalism and warlordism within their own ranks.