The Consolidation of Hubei's Military Governorship
Unlike Tan Yankai, Li Yuanhong was, of course, a military man, and his military rank and reputation were important factors in his selection as Hubei military governor. His control of military force, however, was not an asset he brought with him to the post. On the contrary, his inability to prevent his own troops from joining the Wuchang uprising showed the weakness of his personal military power. Furthermore, because of his initial opposition to the revolution, Li began his tenure as
military governor with very little power of any sort. This was recognized even by those who supported his selection as military governor. One revolutionary activist later recalled: "At the time, Li only had the empty title of dudu . The actual intention of revolutionary party members was only to use Li's name to calm the hearts of the people. They saw no need for Li to bear any real responsibility or to interfere in any practical matter." Despite this weak beginning, within a year of the Wuchang uprising, Li had consolidated his position as Hubei's military governor and had become a political force to be reckoned with, both provincially and nationally. Chapter 4 will show that Li's careful attention to the problem of military control was one element in the strengthening of his position. At the same time, an equally important factor was Li's ability to take advantage of the political consensus that had brought him to the military governorship in the first place.
In the first two months after the Wuchang uprising, Li had to face a number of challenges from revolutionaries who were uneasy with the authority that had, at least theoretically, been placed in his hands. The first challenge came with the establishment of a branch military government in Hankou immediately after that city's New Army uprising. The organizers of this government were primarily members of the Literature Society who were disturbed by the prominence of non-revolutionaries such as Li Yuanhong and Tang Hualong in the Wuchang military government. In establishing the Hankou branch government, these men consciously saw themselves as creating a more revolutionary alternative to the Wuchang government, and they ignored its orders as they saw fit. This attempt to create an autonomous revolutionary base was, however, short-lived. With the Qing reconquest of Hankou in early November, the Hankou branch government disintegrated, and most of its leaders left Hubei to assist revolutionary struggles in other provinces.
A different sort of challenge to Li's authority came when Huang Xing arrived in Wuhan on October 28 to take command of military defenses against counterattacking Qing forces. Huang's Tongmenghui entourage assumed that his leadership would be accepted by Hubei's revolutionaries, and sought a position for him that would make him equal if not superior to the military governor. They quickly found that there was strong opposition to this proposal, and not just from constitutionalists and moderate New Army officers. Local revolutionary activists, who were proud of Hubei's achievement in initiating the revolution, were unwilling to subordinate themselves to a late-arriving outsider, even one with Huang's revolutionary status. Eager to avoid
any break in revolutionary ranks, Huang placed himself under the Hubei military government by accepting the post of commander-in-chief from Li. It is possible that an important military victory by Huang might have strengthened his position enough to make him a threat to Li. However, when Hanyang fell to Qing forces on November 27, many Hubei revolutionaries, rightly or wrongly, held Huang responsible. Shortly after this defeat, Huang and his entourage left Hubei for Nanjing, where they made a fresh start in the establishment of a Tongmenghui-dominated government.
Finally, there was one other equally unsuccessful attempt to create a revolutionary post with authority over Li in the establishment of the Office of General Supervision (Zongjianchachu) under Liu Gong, the president of the Forward Together Society. This office was supposed to have supervisory powers over the entire military government, including the military governor. However, having largely obtained his position in the Forward Together Society because of his financial contributions, Liu did not have sufficient status within the revolutionary movement to turn his post into a position of real political strength. Recognizing this, Liu finally left Wuchang in early 1912 to organize an expeditionary army in northern Hubei.
Despite these efforts to place some check on Li Yuanhong's authority, there was rarely any serious discussion about replacing him. One exception to this occurred when Wuchang came under Qing artillery fire after the loss of Hanyang. Fearing for his own safety, Li left the city and set up headquarters in a neighboring town. This outraged many revolutionaries determined to defend the capital, some of whom proposed removing Li from office on the charge of deserting his post. Just at this point, though, a cease-fire was arranged between the Qing and revolutionary forces. Cooler heads argued that, to preserve revolutionary strength in the upcoming peace negotiations, every effort had to be made to prevent any break in revolutionary ranks. So Li was encouraged to return to Wuchang, and the incident was forgotten. This affair reveals one reason Li Yuanhong was able to survive in his post. Since he had been raised up as a figurehead to inspire popular confidence in the revolution, any attempt to remove him might have the opposite effect. Indeed, Li's flight from Wuchang had caused a panic among the city's inhabitants, who feared that it presaged a revolutionary defeat. The maintenance of popular morale was a strong argument against any attempt to oust Li from his post.
Li's official position as head of the military government was also never effectively challenged for the same reason he had been chosen
for the post in the first place. No one else in Hubei was acceptable as a leader to all the different supporters of the revolution. Li's selection as military governor had been instrumental in winning the support of non-revolutionary elites and New Army officers. Whereas these people were willing to serve under Li, they were less willing to accept the leadership of revolutionary activists. The revolutionaries might have ignored this sentiment if the revolutionary party itself had presented a united front. This was not, however, the case. Forward Together Society members, who had a strong presence in the Wuchang government, opposed the autonomy of the Hankou branch government, with its predominantly Literature Society leadership. Literature Society members, meanwhile, were unwilling to accept the authority of Forward Together Society leaders such as Liu Gong. Huang Xing likewise found his efforts to assert a broader Tongmenghui-based authority over the Hubei government blocked by the provincialist sentiments of Hubei revolutionaries. Given their own factional differences, Hubei's revolutionaries found they could only compromise on a non-revolutionary military governor.
Finally, revolutionary unease about Li's authority as military governor may have been mitigated by apparent revolutionary control over Hubei's military government in its early stages. In the first few days after the Wuchang uprising, the actual day-to-day decisions of the Hubei government were made by revolutionary activists in a specially created Strategy Council (Mouluechu). In the subsequent reorganization of the military government, this power was passed to the Ministry of Military Affairs (Junshibu), which was again controlled by revolutionaries. Wartime exigency allowed this ministry not only to have final authority over military affairs, but to intervene in civil administration and foreign affairs. Despite the military governor's nominal authority, real power was in the hands of this ministry, which wielded it with little reference to Li. Finally, major policy decisions in the first months of the new regime continued to be made in assemblies that were easily dominated by revolutionaries. Thus the revolutionaries had no trouble undermining Tang Hualong's attempt to keep civil administration in constitutionalist hands. Given these conditions, most revolutionaries saw no immediate need to force Li Yuanhong's removal. At the same time, many of them bore little personal respect for Li except in his role as a useful puppet.
Despite initial revolutionary disregard for his authority, Li Yuanhong had the potential to be much more than a figurehead. Even if he had not originally been a supporter of the revolution, Li gained
prestige simply by being the first military governor in the province that had initiated it. Li's prestige was further enhanced when, in recognition of Hubei's contribution to the revolution, he was elected vice president of the Republic in December 1912 by the provisional national government at Nanjing. As Li's reputation grew, he also began to take a more active role in the actual administration of the Hubei government. Hubei's revolutionaries had insisted on a concentration of power in the military governor's office, and Li was the ultimate beneficiary of this policy.
Continuing political divisions within the revolutionary camp also aided the consolidation of Li's political authority. In Hubei, unlike in Hunan, revolutionaries, not constitutionalists, emerged from the revolution as the more powerful political force. Hubei's revolutionaries, though, remained sharply divided into factions largely rooted in the original division between the Forward Together Society and the Literature Society. Two Forward Together Society leaders, Sun Wu and Zhang Zhenwu, and one Literature Society leader, Jiang Yiwu, were the most important faction leaders at this time. Because of the common character in each of their names, they were often referred to collectively as the "Three Wus." Not coincidentally, Sun Wu was the head of the powerful Ministry of Military Affairs, while Zhang and Jiang served as its vice ministers.
One of the most divisive issues for Hubei's revolutionaries in early 1912 turned on their relationship to the national leadership of the Tongmenghui, and to the Tongmenghui-dominated Nanjing provisional government. Given their province's contribution to the revolution, Hubei revolutionaries had expected to be well represented in the Nanjing government. A number of them, including Sun Wu, had gone to Nanjing in the hope of receiving high posts. However, when ministerial appointments were announced, no Wuchang uprising participants were included. Another event that poisoned relations between Nanjing and Wuhan was a Nanjing proposal to raise funds through a foreign mortgage on Hubei's mines. The defense of provincial resources against central actions favoring foreign control had played an important role in elite disaffection from the Qing dynasty. No matter how this proposal was justified by the new "center," it raised the same defensive nationalist response among Hubei's elite. Playing on these antagonisms, Sun Wu banded together with a number of other disappointed office-seekers to organize a new political party, the Minshe, or People's Society. Although the party was open to all, its active membership was predominantly Hubei-based. The principles of
the Minshe were vague, except for consistent opposition to the Tongmenghui and its leaders, Sun Yat-sen and Huang Xing. In order to create a political alternative to the Tongmenghui, the party threw its support to Li Yuanhong.
The establishment of the Minshe was a key event in the development of political parties in Hubei. Originally a haven for revolutionaries alienated from the Tongmenghui, the Minshe soon drew close to other political parties formed from the Tongmenghui's constitutionalist opposition. In mid 1912, the Minshe merged with these parties to form the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the Literature Society faction around Jiang Yiwu became the main base for the Hubei branch of the Tongmenghui, and later the Nationalist Party. Many of the more radical members of the Forward Together Society, especially those associated with Zhang Zhenwu, also turned away from Sun Wu to support the Tongmenghui. Zhang Zhenwu himself though remained something of a political maverick and was frequently at odds with both Sun Wu and the Tongmenghui.
Li Yuanhong benefited from the political infighting among Hubei's revolutionaries in several ways. Most obviously, the lack of revolutionary unity weakened their ability to act as a counterforce to the powers of the military governor. At the same time, factional struggles within the Hubei government also forced many revolutionary leaders from their posts. The worst offender in this case was again Sun Wu, who used his influence as minister of military affairs to keep Literature Society leaders from positions of power. Sun's blatant attempts to strengthen his own faction's power created many enemies, some of whom began to plot his overthrow. On the night of February 27, 1912, these conspirators led a mob of troops and disbanded soldiers to attack the Ministry of Military Affairs and other offices of Sun's supporters. Although originating as a coup against Sun Wu, a riot ensued that became an opportunity for others to settle their own political grudges. For example, rioting troops killed Zhang Tingfu, the only member of the Literature Society to attain the rank of division commander in the Hubei army. Other civil officials and military officers unconnected with Sun were also attacked and the entire government was thrown into temporary disorder.
The February 27 incident was essentially an internal struggle among revolutionaries, and Li Yuanhong emerged from it unscathed. At the same time, the restoration of administration in the wake of this disorder provided Li with a golden opportunity to strengthen his own position vis-à-vis Hubei's revolutionaries. Sun Wu and many of his
followers were forced to resign from their government and army positions in the face of the opposition shown to them in the incident. In the confusion of the moment, other revolutionary officeholders also fled their posts or resigned. Li was therefore given a chance to refill these offices with men more to his own liking. The most important change was the appointment of Zeng Guangda, a non-revolutionary New Army regiment commander, to succeed Sun Wu. This began the breakup of the independent revolutionary power base that had existed within the Ministry of Military Affairs. This change was symbolically represented by the ministry's demotion to the level of a department. In replacing other officials, Li announced his intention to seek out "famous scholars and gentry of high repute." To give a few examples, Li nominated Fan Zengxiang, a former Qing provincial treasurer, as minister of the interior, replacing a Japanese-educated Tongmenghui and Forward Together Society member. Likewise, the minister of education, another Forward Together Society member, was succeeded by a former Hanlin scholar and president of the Hubei Education Association. Under Li's influence, then, the administration of the Hubei government was slowly placed in the hands of more conservative gentry and former officials. At the same time, Li was able to carry out this pervasive administrative shake-up without attracting too much antagonism from outgoing officeholders, who blamed their factional enemies, not Li, for their problems.
Li was also very careful to make sure that these personnel changes did not take on the look of a purge of revolutionaries. Thus he made a special effort to placate Sun Wu with praise for his achievements, even while accepting his resignation. A number of revolutionaries also continued to hold important positions in the Hubei government at the ministerial or department-head level. What mattered more to Li was not their revolutionary backgrounds but their willingness to accept his authority. Finally, Li tried to give the appearance of favoring "new men" in assistant positions where they could gain experience. By this means, Li avoided alienating the large number of revolutionary appointees at the lower levels of his administration. Li can therefore be seen as performing a delicate political balancing act. While clearly attempting to replace independent-minded revolutionaries in his administration, he tried to do so without turning the entire revolutionary camp against him.
Li's ability to maintain amicable relations with many revolutionaries, even while consolidating his own political power, was consistent with his general response to the political struggles that emerged in
Hubei after the 1911 Revolution. An American consular report written in February 1912 noted that Li was becoming a strong leader precisely because he belonged to no one faction, and so remained the one person that all different factions could unite behind. The pattern of Li's actions in 1912 suggests that he was very aware that he had gained his position by being acceptable to a broad spectrum of political forces. He sought to strengthen his position, not by throwing his support to any one group, but by maintaining his place above them all. As noted in a later consular report, as a result of his nonpartisan appearance, all political factions willingly supported Li as an alternative to seeing any other faction gain a dominant position.
Li's nonpartisan approach characterized his relationships with emerging political parties. Like Tan Yankai in Hunan, Li did not, in the beginning, tie himself to any one party. Certainly, Sun Wu's People's Society, and the Republican Party that succeeded it, looked to Li as their leader, and Li was more than willing to accept their political support. However, Li's association with the People's Society was not proof, as some historians have asserted, of Li's break with the revolutionary party. Indeed, Li also joined the Tongmenghui after its transformation into a legal political party in early 1912 and was elected as one of its vice chairs (xieli ) along with Huang Xing. Hubei's factional politics were increasingly subsumed within the conflict between the Republican Party and the Tongmenghui, but Li retained his connections to both parties and was usually seen as taking an unbiased position between them.
Li did not, however, simply stand aloof from Hubei's political struggles. Rather, he took advantage of his position to mediate political disputes. One example of this occurred when Sun Wu returned from his failed attempt to acquire a post in Nanjing and created a political controversy by suggesting that Hubei should withdraw its recognition of the Nanjing government. Li stepped into this conflict to reconcile Sun Wu with angry Tongmenghui supporters and to prevent a break with Nanjing. Newspaper accounts of conflicts between the Tongmenghui and the Republican Party in Hubei also frequently note Li's role as a mediator. Indeed, he acquired the sobriquet "Auntie Li" for his likeness to an aunt conciliating her quarreling nieces and nephews. Through this role, Li effectively strengthened his political role as the neutral representative of Hubei's political consensus.
By late 1912, when Hubei's political conflicts began to take a more violent turn, Li's position as military governor was strong enough for him to take a more forceful approach to challenges to his authority. In
July 1912, persistent rumors began to circulate that Tongmenghui activists in Hubei were plotting to overthrow Li's government. Finding this useful political ammunition, the Republican Party openly charged the Tongmenghui with subversion. A military conference called by Li in early July dissolved into a fistfight when Republican Party members repeated these charges against several Tongmenghui officers. Tongmenghui leaders consistently denied these rumors and generally blamed Sun Wu for spreading them. Nonetheless, some revolutionary activists had indeed become dismayed with the increasingly conservative cast of Li's administration, and a number of them had begun to consider such action. On July 17, three such men, all former Literature Society activists, were arrested in Wuhan, accused of fomenting rebellion, and summarily executed. The furor over this incident had barely died down when, in mid August, Yuan Shikai, on Li Yuanhong's request, had Zhang Zhenwu and one of his close associates arrested in Beijing. Without bothering with a formal trial, Yuan had both men immediately executed.
The execution of Zhang Zhenwu severely shook Li's reputation for political nonpartisanship and changed his relations with Hubei's political parties. In arranging Zhang Zhenwu's death, Li clearly overstepped his legal authority. After the fact, Li issued copious evidence of Zhang's supposed crimes. However, given the irregularity of the execution, and the known enmity between Zhang and Li, it was easy to see Li's action as politically motivated. For many Tongmenghui members, it was also disturbing evidence that Li was drawing closer to Yuan Shikai. Although Sun Yat-sen hoped to avoid an open break with Li, most of the Tongmenghui leadership felt that cooperation with Li was no longer possible, and he was therefore expelled from the newly formed Nationalist Party. From this point on, Li had no alternative but to look increasingly to the Republican Party as his main base of political support. The success of the Republican Party in the Hubei Provincial Assembly elections in early 1913 was in turn influenced by the stronger support it began to receive from Li.
Another result of the deteriorating relations between Li and the revolutionary party after Zhang Zhenwu's death was that more revolutionary activists began to plot in earnest for Li's overthrow and linked this to a broader struggle against Yuan Shikai. Most of these plots sought to replicate the success of the Wuchang uprising by organizing sympathetic troops in the Hubei army to carry out a military coup. The result was a series of military revolts, beginning with an uprising by cavalry troops at South Lake outside Wuchang on September 24,
1912. Li's response to such plots was forceful and unhesitating. The South Lake uprising, like others that followed it, was quickly and bloodily suppressed by troops that remained loyal to Li. To stop these plots, Li also resorted to the declaration of martial law and the summary execution of suspected rebels. By late 1912, Li's regime began to take on a more authoritarian cast, with the expansion of secret police forces, the surveillance and harassment of revolutionary leaders, and the censorship of newspapers .
Despite their best efforts, revolutionary plots against Li were never able to repeat the success of the Wuchang uprising. This failure cannot simply be attributed to the effectiveness of Li's political suppression. Rather, these plots clearly failed to evoke the same broad response that had been the key to the success of the 1911 Revolution. In trying to raise support for their cause, revolutionary activists declared that "the good fortune of the Republic could not truly be enjoyed" unless Li and Yuan were overthrown. This rather ill-defined goal no doubt suggested to many that the uprisings were motivated more by hopes of personal gain than by principled ideals. As such, the broader political elite saw no reason to risk potential disorder by supporting a struggle against Li. Indeed, the membership of the Nationalist Party itself was hardly united on this course of action. The uprisings against Li rested on a narrow base and so remained isolated military putsches.
It would appear that, rather than being shaken by revolutionary plots, Li's authority in late 1912 and early 1913 grew even stronger. There is little question that some of Li's increased power came from the consolidation of his control over Hubei's military and the use of coercive force to defend himself against revolutionary plots. Accounts sympathetic to the revolutionary cause have sometimes used this to portray Li as a militarist who only held power through the application of military force. Less attention is usually given, though, to the fact that the revolutionary plotters Li suppressed had themselves already abandoned civilian politics for military force as a means to achieve their political objectives. Under such circumstances, any government would claim the right to respond with force to prevent a military coup. At the same time, the complete failure of these plotters to provoke a popular uprising against Li suggests his success in maintaining the strong consensus he had built around himself in the first year of his rule. Finally, there is little indication that Li's own goal was to make himself into a provincial military dictator. Indeed, his advocacy of a division of civil and military power suggests quite the opposite intent.