Administrative Centralization in the Provinces
The replacement of provincial governors with central appointees and the elimination of provincial assemblies were essential steps toward the reintegration of provincial governments under central bureaucratic control. To complete the destruction of the postrevolutionary provincial regimes, Yuan revived the late Qing law of avoidance preventing officials from holding posts in their native provinces. Provincially oriented politicization in the late Qing period had led to a rejection of this rule during the 1911 Revolution and its replacement by an opposite tendency—the monopolization of provincial and local offices by the native gentry of the province. This was one feature of the Hubei and Hunan regimes that gave them their distinct provincialist character. Some claimed, though, that rejection of the law of avoidance had brought about the very corruption that the law had originally sought to prevent. According to one report in early 1914, the domination of Hubei posts by local gentry had led to a situation where "officials and gentry colluded together to devour public funds and exploit the common people." Whether accurate or not, such charges served to justify administrative purges of the previous provincial regimes. In both Hunan and Hubei, one of the first duties of the new centrally appointed governors was the wholesale replacement of local officeholders.
It is debatable whether the restoration of the law of avoidance had any real effect on reducing corruption or improving the quality of officials. Indeed, the rapid turnover of officials provided an opportunity for a new favoritism by provincial administrators. The only difference was that this favoritism benefited men from the native provinces of officials, not from the provinces where they held their offices. In Hunan, the most influential man under Tang Xiangming in the selection of
magistrates and financial officials was Hu Ruilin, head of both the Department of Finance and the Department of Internal Affairs. Hu owed his own position to his personal ties to Tang Xiangming. Hu was a Hubei native, a long associate of Tang Hualong's, and was even related to the Tang family by marriage. Provincial connections in turn figured prominently in the nominations Hu made for Hunan government posts. Almost 80 percent of these nominees were Hubei natives, many of whom turned out to be very poorly qualified for their posts. In Hubei, Duan Qirui, Duan Zhigui, and Lü Diaoyuan were all Anhui men. Not unexpectedly their fellow provincials claimed a large number of Hubei posts. Because a preference was shown for supposedly better qualified late Qing officials, the removal of less experienced native officeholders was justified as an improvement in administration. According to one account, though, the effect of these changes was simply to "drive the tiger away from the front door, while letting the wolf in at the back."
Although Yuan was generally willing to accede to the recommendations of top provincial officials with respect to lower-level posts, he was not content to leave personnel selection entirely in their hands. He therefore made serious efforts to institute new central standards to improve the quality of officeholders. Among the measures introduced was the establishment of a new national examination system for magistrates. Such measures were not without results. For example, in early 1914 over thirty unqualified Hubei magistrates were removed from their posts and sent to Beijing to participate in the new examinations. When Duan Shuyun assumed office as civil governor in October 1914, he was forced to turn away many former subordinates who came to him seeking offices. Although this was partially owing to conflicts with Duan Zhigui and other officials, stricter central qualifications for officeholders also limited Duan Shuyun's ability to recommend his own favorites for office. Through such means the central government began to tighten its authority over the appointment process.
In a number of cases, Yuan was also able to exert even more direct control over key provincial posts below the governors, which helped central influence penetrate provincial government even more deeply. One example occurred in Hubei, where the central Ministry of Finance made its own candidate concurrently head of the province's National Tax Office and Department of Finance. This man assumed sole authority over Hubei tax collections and the selection of local
financial personnel. The civil governor's power in these areas was thereby reduced to a supervisory role.
The assertion of central appointment powers was not an end in itself. Rather, it was a necessary prerequisite to make the provincial governments more responsive to central administrative direction. The progress made toward this goal could be seen in increased central control over provincial fiscal affairs in both Hubei and Hunan. The underlying objective here was to revive the flow of provincial funds to the central government, which had largely halted since the 1911 Revolution. To this end, the central government began to set provincial budgets and to project large surplus revenues in them. Both Hubei and Hunan then came under relentless pressure to remit these surpluses to the central government. At one point, the annual remittances targeted for Hubei and Hunan were over nine million and four million taels respectively.
To enable the provinces to meet its demands, the central government again intervened in provincial finances from two directions. First, the government ordered, and the provinces implemented, the restoration of all Qing taxes that had been abolished after the 1911 Revolution and imposed a wide range of new taxes. Second, the provinces were forced, again often under specific Ministry of Finance orders, to cut back provincial government expenses. This demand necessitated the retrenchment of provincial reform programs. Education, a primary concern of gentry reformers, was particularly hard hit in both Hunan and Hubei by this program of fiscal austerity. In Hubei the Department of Finance seized provincial and local educational funds to finance other expenses after centrally ordered cutbacks. As a result, the Department of Education closed all county technical and middle schools and consolidated all primary schools into one per county. In Hunan, Tang Xiangming also reduced educational funds and closed schools, halting educational development plans drawn up after the 1911 Revolution. These measures, according to one Hunan educator, effectively shattered the province's educational dreams.
The constant pressure on Hubei and Hunan by the central government for more funds suggests that they never fully met its demands. Both Hunan and Hubei continued to plead special financial difficulties, and apparently the provinces had some leeway to negotiate the level of their contributions. Nonetheless, this does not obscure the essential fact that both provinces were actively forwarding a significant amount of their revenues to the central government on a regular basis.
Yuan's ability to tap into provincial finances was an important reflection of the increased subordination of provincial administration to the central government.
The attempt to make provinces more responsive to central control in some ways mirrored the two-sided approach in the military arena that combined the imposition of central-government troops with the undercutting of provincial forces. On one side, the "provincialist" bases of previous administrations were undermined by the removal of independent military governors, the dissolution of local and provincial assemblies, and the restoration of the law of avoidance. From the other side, Yuan asserted the power of central appointment over top provincial officials and increased central-government influence in selecting lower-level personnel. The new provincial administrators were more dependent on the central government, and hence, as seen in the case of provincial finances, much more responsive to its direction. Although the goals of administrative centralization were far from completely attained, there had been a definite shift in the balance of power between the center and the provinces in favor of the center.