||This paper proposes a new perspective to understand the local self-government movement during the late Qing New Policies era. On the one hand, this new perspective moves beyond the common practice of interpreting the local self-government movement as failed state efforts to bridle the local elite by enlisting them into bureaucracy, and instead looks at it from the perspective of local society. On the other hand, it emphasizes the relations between local self-government institutions and other contemporaneous professional associations, like the chamber of commerce, education association, agriculture association, and the anti-opium bureau.
To facilitate a comprehensive understanding of the local self-government movement, this paper examines the case in Jiaxing from 1905 to 1914. This period witnessed the whole process of the first wave of the local self-government movement from its start and preparation in the last years of the Qing to its abolition by Yuan Shikai in the Republic.
A clear understanding of local power structure is indispensable for researching local self-government. Previous scholars generally draw a line between upper-degree elites and lower elites, urban elites and countryside-based elites, suggesting that there were serious conflicts between upper urban elites and lower elites during the local self-government movement. My research on Jiaxing shows provides corrective to this interpretation. Traditional degrees and lineage were still important, but they were no longer major factors for elite to form establishments, seek support, and construct identity. By participating in various professional associations, Jiaxing elites gradually began to organize themselves along with associations and take action in the name of these associations.
The emergence of professional associations was a significant political development in modern Chinese history. They performed many local works independently and often advocated for public benefits, local self-government and a constitutional government, either alone or together with other associations. There were numerous examples of the close cooperation between different professional associations and local self-government institutions. It were the members of professional associations who first promoted and dominated the self-government institutions. For the Jiaxing elites, local self-government was merely one among the many organizations for them to participate in local affairs and exert influence.
All these linkages and cooperation between different institutions and associations contributed to a power balance in Jiaxing society in the last years of the Qing dynasty. Public management functions were clearly delineated among various associations whose members were mainly New Policies activists who wished to make the country better and stronger by building local society. There were some peasant uprisings, but during this period the urban-rural conflict may not have been essential in Jiaxing.
The 1911 Revolution changed this kind of balanced local power structure among local officials, self-government institutions, and professional associations. Magistrates gradually lost their control of local society, while local assemblies and executive boards became the major decision-making institutions in the first years of the Republic. The clearly delineated functions among self-government institutions, professional associations and local governments were disrupted. Eventually in 1914, Yuan Shikai abolished all of the local self-government institutions.