Yuan was able to bind to himself the majority of the leading generals, and in 1911, when the Manchu dynasty was overthrown, his plots and intrigues began to bear fruit. By crafty juggling of the rebels and Manchus he managed to get himself elected president of the new republic, although he did not for a moment believe in the republican form of government. He was always a monarchist at heart but was perfectly willing to declare himself an ardent republican so long as such a declaration could be used as a stepping stone to the throne which he kept ever as his ultimate goal.
As president he ruled with a high hand. In 1913 there was a rebellion in protest against his official acts but he defeated the rebels, won over more of the older generals, and solidified the army for his own interests, making himself stronger than ever before.
At this time he might well have made a coup d’etat and proclaimed himself emperor with hardly a shadow of resistance, but with the hereditary caution of the Chinese he preferred to wait and plot and scheme. He wanted his position to be even more secure and to have it appear that he reluctantly accepted the throne as a patriotic duty at the insistent call of the people.
Yuan’s ways for producing the proper public sentiment were typically Chinese but entirely effective, and he was making splendid progress, when in May, 1915, Japan put a spoke in his wheel of fortune by taking advantage of the European war and presenting the historical twenty-one demands, to most of which China agreed.
This delayed his plans only temporarily, and Yuan’s agents pushed the work of making him emperor more actively than ever, with the result that the throne was tendered to him by the “unanimous vote of the people.” To “save his face” he declined at first but at the second offer he “reluctantly” yielded and on December 12, 1915, became emperor of China.
But his triumph was short-lived, for eight days later tidings of unrest in Yuen-nan reached Peking. General Tsai-ao, a former military governor of the province, appeared in Yuen-nan Fu, the capital, and, on December 23, sent an ultimatum to Yuan stating that he must repudiate the monarchy and execute all those who had assisted him to gain the throne, otherwise Yuen-nan would secede; which it forthwith did on December 25.
Without doubt this rebellion was financed by the Japanese who had intimated to Yuan that the change from a republican form of government would not meet with their approval. The rebellion spread rapidly. On January 21, Kwei-chau Province, which adjoins Yuen-nan, seceded, and, on March 13, Kwang-si also announced its independence.