The Political Threat of the Military
The late Qing politicization of the military culminated logically in the revolution that brought the Manchu dynasty to its end. At the same time, the revolution itself was a politicizing event. Officers and soldiers who had previously stood aside from politics had to make political decisions either to support or to oppose the revolution. For many men who responded to the revolutionary call, enlistment in the
revolutionary armies was itself an act of political commitment. At the same time, more than simply providing the manpower for the revolution, the military also played an active role in the political decisionmaking of the early revolutionary regimes. Thus, military representatives were participants in the informal meetings held in the wake of revolutionary uprisings to organize military governments, select top officials, and determine major policies. The success of the 1911 Revolution therefore validated the military's political role and set a precedent for further political activism.
During the revolution, some military men made broad claims on behalf of an expanded political role for the military. "The military shall have the right to participate in decisions on constitutional law and the organization of parliament, as well as all other affairs of national importance," prorevolutionary mutineers in the Beiyang Army demanded, for example. Such statements, though, clearly represented a minority view. Very few people, even within the military, actually expected or advocated regular political participation by military men in government once the revolution had succeeded. Indeed, as the new provincial regimes stabilized, such participation was sharply reduced. Military men continued to hold posts in military administration, but few were considered for civil government positions. Indeed, the exclusion of military men from such posts was so pronounced that several incidents occurred in Hubei and Hunan in which soldiers expressed their resentment of civilians whom they saw appropriating the political benefits of the revolution, which, in their eyes, had been won with military blood. Even so, it was difficult to translate such dissatisfaction into a demand for greater military representation in government. No matter what political interests or ambitions individual military men may have had, the prevailing political culture continued to view military participation in politics in a negative light. This was evident in the widespread support of Li Yuanhong's characterization of the baneful effects of military rule in his April 1912 proposal for the separation of military and civil administrations. Likewise, drawing on the model of the Western democracies, the regulations establishing new provincial assemblies forbade military men in active service to seek seats in the assemblies or vote in their elections. Therefore, with the obvious exception of military governorships, there was no real consensus for the broader institutionalization of the military's political role.
If the opportunity for legitimate political participation by military men was somewhat restricted, the possibility of more irregular exercise of political influence by the military remained a constant threat. Inci-
dents following the revolutionary uprisings in both Hunan and Hubei suggested the military's continuing potential for violent political intervention. Hunan saw the New Army assassination of Jiao Dafeng, and Hubei experienced the February 1912 military disturbance aimed at the removal of Sun Wu and his faction from the provincial government. These incidents were not military coups in the usual sense of military seizures of power. They were, however, violent military interventions serving political ends, pointing to the susceptibility of the provincial regimes to military pressure. Certainly Jiao's assassination worked to Tan Yankai's benefit, and the removal of Sun Wu may have also aided the consolidation of Li Yuanhong's political position. Nonetheless, neither Tan nor Li could be comfortable with the knowledge that similar military pressure might well be directed against them in the future.
The political participation of the military that began in the revolution carried over into the political conflicts of the new regimes. In both Hubei and Hunan, officers and soldiers formed political factions and joined political parties. As a result, wider political disputes were often replicated inside the military itself. The increasing antagonism among Hubei's political parties manifested itself in a July 1912 military conference when Republican Party officers openly charged Tongmenghui leaders with plotting against the government. The danger in such situations was the temptation to apply military force to settle political disputes. One such case occurred in April 1912 in a conflict over a proposal in the Hunan Provincial Assembly to abolish the Revenue Bureau. This proposal arose from complaints about the heavy levies assessed by the bureau on many of Hunan's leading gentry families. As military expenditures relied heavily on these revenues, these complaints also sparked discussions about the need to disband excess troops and cut troop pay. Using this connection, supporters of Zhou Zhenlin, the revolutionary activist who headed the bureau, were able to incite a military mob to march on the Provincial Assembly to protest the proposal. Threatened with physical abuse, the assembly adjourned, and its president fled to Hubei. Such military interventions not only heightened the potential for violence in politics but increased the military's political volatility.
The politicization of the military also had a very direct effect on the problem of military discipline and control. Li Yuanhong cited one reason behind the breakdown of military order as the tendency "to take military rank as an asset in forming [political] parties, and to see military command as a protective talisman." Tan Yankai was likewise said to harbor concerns that within the Hunan army "there
were many cadres who relied on their revolutionary achievements at every turn to organize meetings and make threats, until discipline completely disappeared." Insofar as military men saw themselves as participants in politics, they became less reliable as instruments for the enforcement of the political will of the provincial regimes.
While the political activity of the military in the first year of the Republic appears in some ways to be the harbinger of warlordism, in other ways it was significantly different. One characteristic of warlordism was that armies were essentially the political tools of their commanders. Revolutionary politicization, however, had included lower officers and even common soldiers. The combination of this broader politicization with the breakdown in military discipline meant that the political instability of the Hubei and Hunan armies came less from "proto-warlords" among their commanders than from the lower ranks. The greatest political threats to Tan Yankai and Li Yuanhong came when opponents of their regimes periodically attempted to replicate the success of the 1911 uprisings by the subversion of the military rank and file.
Although exact comparisons are difficult to make, contemporary accounts give the impression that the Hubei army remained much more politically active, and politically divided, than the Hunan army. This difference was no doubt related to the comparative strength of revolutionary organizations within the Hubei army before the revolution, and the persisting influence of these organizations into the early Republic. Indeed, as Chapter 3 noted, the prerevolutionary division between the Literature and Forward Together Societies generally defined Hubei's early Republican political factions. The particularly strong political involvement of the Hubei army also explains the special efforts taken by Li Yuanhong to depoliticize it.
From the beginning Li took an unforgiving stand against military plots or coup attempts. Li had little choice but to accept the immediate political effects of the February 1912 military riot, and he may have even benefited from it. Nonetheless, he expressed his outrage over the "inappropriateness" of such actions, charging that the infant Republic's reputation and foreign recognition might be endangered. More important, Li tried to make sure that the perpetrators of the coup did not go unpunished, approving the summary execution of several dozen soldiers charged with inciting riot and forcing the resignation of the brigade commander who had instigated the incident. Attempted military uprisings in Hubei in the following year would be met with even more executions as a warning to political conspirators.
As factional political infighting intensified in Hubei, Li also sought
means to limit the military's involvement in politics in order to reduce the likelihood of military conflict. He reminded military men that their primary duty to obey the government was inconsistent with political activity and ordered them to sever their connections with political parties and associations. Li also appealed to his officers' sense of military professionalism by pointing out the non-involvement of Western military men in party politics. In July 1912, the majority of Hubei's senior officers responded to Li's pleading with a public statement renouncing their political affiliations. In August 1912, Li issued another order that not only prohibited officers and soldiers from belonging to any type of party or society, but even barred them from participating in any public meeting. Summary execution was the penalty for anyone attempting to entice military men to violate these orders.
These attempts to depoliticize the military by fiat were never completely effective. Nothing shows this more than Li's periodic repetition of his orders prohibiting military men from joining political parties. Even the pledge he received from his officers agreeing to sever their party ties was qualified in such a way as to show their reluctance to relinquish their political influence. Instead of forswearing politics entirely, they claimed that by their ending their party affiliations the army would be better able to act in a proper "supervising" position to "arbitrate" in party conflicts. The most telling sign of Li's failure to depoliticize the Hubei army, though, was the recurrence of revolutionary-inspired military uprising plots.
It is important to note that Li himself did not provide the best example of what he expected from the rest of the military. Li's political opponents did not hesitate to point out the incongruity between Li's call for military men to sever their ties with political parties and his own willingness to accept the presidency of a party like the People's Society while serving as military governor. Nor was Li himself beyond using military power for political purposes. For instance, in May 1912, Li enlisted the support of Hubei's military commanders to encourage Fan Zengxiang to take office as civil governor. A more blatant example occurred in the political turmoil that followed the execution of Zhang Zhenwu in August 1912. Criticism in the National Assembly of Li's role in engineering Zhang's death was countered by telegrams of support for Li from Hubei's senior military officers. These wires justified the execution as a military matter approved at a military conference in accord with military law. Ominously, they warned that Hubei would be "shaken" if Li were forced to leave his post and asked
if politicians seeking his removal would accept responsibility for the disorder that was certain to follow. Li also received support from civilian quarters, with wires from chambers of commerce and other public organizations in Hubei expressing similar concern for the preservation of order. This combination of military and civilian backing enabled Li to offer his resignation over the issue confident that he would be "forced" to stay in office.
Li Yuanhong was not the only political figure to use the threat of military disorder to solidify his political position. Earlier in 1912 Yuan Shikai had used a military riot in Beijing to resist revolutionary pressure to move the national capital to Nanjing. Later warlords would perfect the application of military intimidation to silence opposition to their regimes. As such, Li's political use of his military commanders in the Zhang Zhenwu case was a foreshadowing of warlord tactics. At the same time, Li's ability to engineer such support from his senior officers also reveals some of his success in bringing the commanders of the Hubei army under his control. Nonetheless, this did not mean that Li had solved the political problems presented by the Hubei army. Indeed, a major uprising by cavalry troops garrisoned at South Lake outside Wuchang in September 1912 served as a reminder of the army's more pervasive political instability.
In the end, the political behavior exhibited by the postrevolutionary provincial armies strengthened arguments for their disbandment. The politicized condition of these forces contributed to their poor discipline, undermined the institutionalization of new political processes, and even threatened the existence of the provincial regimes. It was unlikely that troops who had grown accustomed to treating authority in a cavalier fashion could be turned back into disciplined fighting men, or that their habit of political participation could be easily reversed. The obvious solution was the demobilization of these forces to make way for new troops who could be better trained and disciplined, as well as free of the political habits of their predecessors.