Centralization and the Demise of the Provincial Regimes
Although Li and Tan ultimately stood in opposite camps during the Second Revolution, until the actual outbreak of conflict their political positions were not that far apart. Both men were strongly motivated by a concern for order, which led them to advocate peaceful mediation and political compromise. Although perhaps somewhat naive about the possibility of an accommodation with Yuan, their attempts to avoid military confrontation were very much in step with the general elite response to the Second Revolution. With the end of the war, their common political viewpoints, as well as the common interests of their provincial regimes, drew Li and Tan together again as natural allies. Their actions showed that they still hoped to reach a political settlement with Yuan that would permit the continuation of some degree of provincial self-government. As it turned out, the revolutionaries had been more correct in assessing Yuan's true intentions. Indeed, after his victory Yuan felt even less compelled to make compromises. In a calculated manner, Yuan initiated measures to install a centralized dictatorship and in the process cause the demise of most autonomous provincial regimes, including those of Hunan and Hubei.
One of Yuan's primary postwar objectives was to strengthen his executive authority as president. Up to this point Yuan had been "provisional" president, with elections for a "regular" president slated to take place after the drafting of the permanent constitution. Even before the Second Revolution ended, Yuan pressured the National Assembly to agree to earlier presidential elections. With the revolt's failure, the assembly agreed to Yuan's proposal and set October 6 as the date of the election. On this day, unwilling to leave anything to
chance, Yuan organized a "citizens' corps" that kept the assembly captive in its chambers until his reelection was assured. Yuan's desire to have the National Assembly renew his presidency reveals his recognition of the importance of representative assemblies in providing political legitimacy. His use of coercion to achieve his ends in the assembly, though, showed his mistrust of the participatory politics that was the real base of this legitimacy. Through this coerced election, then, Yuan strengthened the importance of force as an alternate determinant of political authority.
Having used the National Assembly to consolidate his position, Yuan set out to destroy it. His assault on the assembly began indirectly as an attack on the Nationalist Party. Despite the complicity of many of its leaders in the Second Revolution, the Nationalist Party represented a political coalition broader than the original revolutionary Tongmenghui. Thus the party was far from united behind the rebellion. Intent on fostering this division, Yuan made no attempt to suppress the party while the rebellion still continued. The majority of Nationalist Party assemblymen therefore dissociated themselves from the Second Revolution and remained in their positions.
Once Yuan was confirmed as president, however, he was ready for stronger action. In early November 1913, he ordered a nationwide ban on the Nationalist Party and the expulsion of all national and provincial assemblymen who had ever held membership in it. So many national assemblymen and their alternates were connected to the Nationalist Party that the National Assembly could thereafter no longer form a functioning quorum, and Yuan's final dissolution of the assembly on January 10, 1914, was something of an anticlimax. Yuan easily discarded a draft constitution prepared under the assembly's auspices that would have severely limited the powers of the presidency. In its place, he later directed the preparation of another constitution that would confirm his dominant position in the central government.
The consolidation of Yuan's executive authority in the central government was accompanied by an extension of central authority into the provinces. Indeed, the two processes were interconnected. By eliminating the National Assembly, Yuan removed the one voice in the central government most likely to defend provincial interests. Likewise, the constitution produced under his direction asserted the principle of centralized administration over that of local self-government. This simply confirmed centralizing measures that Yuan had already initiated. This process began immediately in provinces, such as Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Anhui, that had been militarily defeated and occupied
by Beiyang Army units. Centrally appointed provincial officials were quickly installed, and provincial assemblies that had supported declarations of independence were dissolved. Yuan was more cautious about pressing his objectives too quickly in areas beyond the immediate reach of his army. For a time, this caution seemed to hold out some hope for the survival of Hunan's provincial regime.
The main difference between Hunan and other defeated provinces was that Tan had annulled his province's declaration of independence before any northern troops crossed its borders. With no occupying army on Hunan soil to enforce his will, Yuan initially accepted Hunan's submission without insisting on Tan's removal. Yuan was also restrained by Li Yuanhong's personal pleading in Tan's favor. As noted above, Li claimed that Tan had been coerced into declaring independence against his will. In recognition of this, and in the interests of preserving order in Hunan, Li argued for the retention of Tan in his post. For a short period these conditions appeared to provide Tan with some leeway for independent action. Thus, while on the one hand Tan placated Yuan by suppressing revolutionary plots seeking to force a second declaration of independence, on the other hand he also aided in the escape of revolutionary leaders whom Yuan had ordered arrested. Tan also sought a settlement with Yuan that would preserve at least some elements of provincial self-government. Thus while Tan agreed to the dissolution of the Hunan Provincial Assembly, he worked to negotiate conditions for its revival. He even appeared to obtain Yuan's acquiescence to reconvening a rump assembly. Realizing that the absence of northern troops was crucial to his political flexibility, Tan also used Li as a mediator to delay the advance of Beiyang forces into his province. Even though Yuan insisted on sending some northern troops into Hunan as a sign of his authority, a settlement seemed possible when he initially limited the advance of his troops to Yuezhou on Hunan's northern border. Indeed, the occupation of Yuezhou by northern army and navy forces did not occur until late September, over a month after Hunan's formal submission.
As it turned out, Yuan had been simply waiting until his position was consolidated elsewhere before turning his full attention to Hunan. Although giving the appearance of a compromise, the military occupation of Yuezhou seriously weakened Hunan's position. Located at the point where Hunan's main river, the Xiang, flows into the Yangzi River, Yuezhou was Hunan's main transportation and commercial gateway. With the northern occupation of this city, Hunan not only yielded its most defensible point but gave Yuan the ability to place an
economic stranglehold on the province. In early October, Yuan appointed Tang Xiangming, the commander of northern naval forces at Yuezhou, to a special inspector's post (chabanshi ) over Hunan and ordered him to proceed to Changsha with a small troop detachment to "meet" with Tan. As soon as Tang reached Changsha, Tan was ordered to Beijing to "await punishment." Given the larger northern forces waiting at Yuezhou, Tan had little alternative but to obey. Once Tan was gone, Tang was formally appointed military governor in his place.
Because of his background and connections, Tang Xiangming's appointment as military governor served to soften the entry of northern power into Hunan. First, Tang was a naval officer, educated in England and France, and so strictly speaking not a member of Yuan's "Beiyang faction." Tang also had a revolutionary reputation for bringing the Yangzi naval fleet at Wuhan over to the revolutionary side in 1911. More important, Tang was the younger brother of Hubei's leading politician, Tang Hualong. As head of Hubei's late Qing Provincial Assembly, Tang Hualong had developed close ties with his Hunan counterpart, Tan Yankai, in the constitutionalist movement. After his short service in the Hubei revolutionary government in 1911, Tang Hualong had moved into national politics and was elected speaker of the lower house of the National Assembly. Thus because of his own background and his elder brother's political influence, Tang Xiangming's appointment was more easily accepted in Hunan than one of Yuan's Beiyang generals. Likewise, because of Tang's Hubei background, Li Yuanhong also approved the appointment, even though he opposed Tan's removal. Nonetheless, there was no question as to where Tang's loyalties lay. During the Second Revolution, Tang gained Yuan's appreciation by actively leading naval forces in support of Yuan's army along the Yangzi River. Tang's assumption of the military governor's post marked the end of Hunan's provincialist regime and paved the way for the extension of Yuan's control over the province.
Once Yuan had dealt with the provinces that had opposed him in the Second Revolution, he turned his centralizing efforts against the provincial regimes of putative allies such as Li Yuanhong. Despite Li's professed loyalty to the central government, Hubei's independence of central control was only slightly less than Hunan's. Yuan also had political reasons to be concerned about Li's position in Hubei. Li's prestige as the first revolutionary military governor and vice president of the Republic could as easily be turned against Yuan as used in his
favor. Indeed, rather than showing complete subservience to Yuan, Li continued trying to carve out a special role for himself as a mediator between Yuan and his political opponents. Li's attempt to intervene on Tan Yankai's behalf was only one example of his political maneuvering. Li also took an ambiguous position on Yuan's attempt to destroy the powers of representative assemblies. In November 1913, Li willingly carried out Yuan's orders banning the Nationalist Party in Hubei and expelling its members from both provincial and county assemblies. Li was less willing, though, to accept the permanent dissolution of representative institutions. By December, Li was actively involved in negotiations for the revival of national and provincial assemblies. By continuing to act as a political mediator, Li might emerge as a rallying point for those opposing Yuan's policies, so from Yuan's perspective he had to be removed.
Yuan had tried to entice Li away from Hubei on a number of occasions. Nonetheless, even the quite reasonable argument that Li's position as vice president required his presence in Beijing had been insufficient to achieve this end. By late 1913, the general consolidation of Yuan's power and the occupation of Hubei by Beiyang forces seriously reduced Li's maneuverability. Finally in early December, Yuan sent his minister of war, Duan Qirui, to Wuhan to "invite" Li personally to proceed to Beijing. Li could no longer refuse. On December 9, he boarded a train for Beijing, leaving his chief of staff as acting military governor. Even before Li's train reached Beijing, central orders named Duan as acting military governor in Li's place. In February, Duan Qirui returned to his post in Beijing and was replaced by another loyal member of Yuan's Beiyang Army faction, Duan Zhigui. While the immediate effect of these appointments was to bring Hubei within the orbit of Yuan's power, they also initiated a rule of Beiyang generals in Hubei that did not end until 1926.
The removals of Tan Yankai and Li Yuanhong were parts of a more general program of administrative centralization under Yuan that ultimately placed the majority of China's provinces under Beijing's dominance and significantly increased central influence over the others. Given the semi-autonomy of most provinces following the 1911 Revolution, this was a considerable achievement. The success of this centralization, however, also meant the demise of the distinct provincialist regimes that had emerged from the 1911 Revolution. Yuan's determination to undercut the political bases of these regimes was especially apparent in early 1914, when he finally ordered the nationwide dissolution of all remaining provincial and county assemblies.
Yuan thus destroyed the institutions that had legitimated the provincial regimes, as well as the channel they had provided for expanded political participation. The authority of the provincial governments that followed had no similar political foundation. Instead, they were extensions of central military and bureaucratic power.