It might be the understatement of a century to note that there are significant differences between 1908 and 2012. At the time of the Guangxu Emperor’s death, the Qing empire was in the midst of a financial crisis, burdened by excessive indemnity payments to the foreign powers, tariffs fixed by treaty and interest payments on loans to foreign banks. The same foreign powers had divided much of China into “spheres of influence”, keeping large areas of the country under their control through a system of unequal treaties backed by the threat of military force. China today is the world’s second-largest economy and a regional military power.
As Peter Perdue, a Qing historian at Yale University and others have pointed out, the Achilles’ heel of autocratic governments—whether imperial dynasties or one-party states—is the question of succession. Certainly, the urban elites of the late Qing took little comfort in being ruled by a series of toddlers.