Political Authority and Coercion under the Dictatorship
The process of administrative centralization carried out by Yuan Shikai in the provinces after the Second Revolution was accompanied by an equally dramatic change in the nature of the political authority behind provincial government. The legitimacy of the previous provincial regimes in Hunan and Hubei had been grounded in the expanded elite politics that had also provided the consensus for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. To some degree, Yuan's victory in the Second Revolution was also facilitated by a political consensus, at least among non-revolutionary elements of the elite, that Yuan's leadership provided the nation's best hope for order and unity. There is no evidence, though, that this consensus extended to Yuan's subsequent destruction of provincial self-government and representative institutions. In eradicating these manifestations of elite political participation, Yuan showed that he had no intention of making the success of his centralizing program dependent on elite consent. Instead, under Yuan's dictatorship, provincial administrations again derived their authority bureaucratically from the central government in a manner reminiscent of the imperial period. These administrations were thus designed not to incorporate political participation but to extract political obedience.
As a consequence, Yuan's authority depended increasingly on his ability to ensure the acceptance of his programs through coercion.
Political coercion in the Chinese Republic did not, of course, begin with Yuan Shikai. Postrevolutionary elite provincial regimes regularly suppressed any threat to their rule from below. In a number of provinces, factional political struggles also resulted in heavy-handed acts of political suppression. Thus, in the last half of his term in Hubei, Li Yuanhong increasingly inclined toward authoritarian measures to deal with challenges to his rule. In general, though, government in the early Republic had a consensual authority that was not based on coercion. Ultimately, the survival of this polity depended on ensuring that consensus not force remained the foundation of political authority. This battle was lost with the imposition of Yuan's dictatorship. Once he had turned his back on the consensus-building potential of participatory politics, coercion became the primary means for Yuan to impose his political will on the provinces. The foundation for this political coercion was laid by the expansion of Yuan's military power during the Second Revolution. Once this military power was in place, Yuan ensured the acceptance of his objectives by extensive political suppression and even terror.
The ostensible purpose of political suppression carried out after the Second Revolution was to prevent any further uprisings by revolutionaries, officially identified in this period as luandang , or "disorderly parties." In both Hunan and Hubei, alarms over real or suspected revolutionary plots justified the frequent imposition of martial law, until martial law almost became a normal state. Walled cities, in particular the capitals of Wuchang and Changsha, were heavily guarded and patrolled by armed troops. Soldiers manned checkpoints at city gates and wharves to search for suspicious persons, weapons, or revolutionary literature. To guard against the movements of revolutionary organizers, stringent residency requirements were enforced, neighborhood mutual responsibility systems were activated, and hotels and schools were closely watched. Even personal letters and telegrams were regularly scrutinized for suspicious wording that might indicate revolutionary activity.
Political suppression in practice was not just aimed at the capture of revolutionaries but at the more general repression of all forms of political dissent. This broader goal was most clearly discernible in the censorship of newspapers. On his arrival in Hunan, Tang Xiangming closed all Nationalist Party papers and forced all others to accommo-
date themselves to official views. Any offense was sufficient to cause the closing of a newspaper and the arrest of editors or reporters. For example, the Hunan gongbao was banned for half a year for questioning the appropriateness of one political execution and then closed for two months more for simply reporting the 1914 Chenxian mutiny. By 1916 Hunan newspapers had to submit to prior censorship and often appeared with blank columns where articles had been excised. In Hubei, many newspapers were published within the Hankou foreign concessions and so had slightly more freedom from arbitrary censorship. Even so, many newspapers were closed down for political offenses, either by direct government order if within the Chinese city or by negotiation with foreign authorities if within the concessions.
One important manifestation of heightened political suppression in this period was a proliferation of government spies and detectives. One special investigative bureau established by Tang Xiangming reportedly employed over four thousand detectives. Detective units were also attached to county government offices, police organizations, and military commands. In Hunan, there was even a special unit of women spies used to seek out female revolutionaries. Undercover detectives loitered at teahouses and hotels, patrolled the streets, and took passage on steamers, always on the lookout for suspicious persons or activities. Generous rewards were offered for the capture of revolutionaries or the discovery of revolutionary organs. According to one itemized account, in the last two months of 1913 alone, Tang Xiangming paid out over thirteen thousand yuan in such rewards. As a further inducement, detectives were also sometimes required to fill quotas of suspects to retain their jobs.
All these measures resulted in a steady stream of politically motivated arrests and executions. By all accounts, the number of executions carried out in Hunan was particularly high. One investigation completed after Tang's fall from power compiled the names of over sixteen thousand people who were killed during his rule. Besides these victims, countless other unidentified people were also reported to have lost their lives. The scale of executions in Hunan earned Tang the popular nickname of "Butcher Tang." Shanghai newspaper accounts for the period also report a very high frequency of arrests and executions in Hubei, even though no exact figures are given. The U.S. consul at Hankou noted "reports received from our many American mission stations scattered throughout the central Yangzi region that the local officials are, with but few exceptions, vigilant in apprehending suspicious characters, and numerous executions are reported."
The sheer number of executions led to a new level of brutality. One account from Hunan reported that overworked executioners virtually hacked prisoners to death with blades dulled from use. An English-language newspaper in Hankou made an unfavorable contrast between the brutal executions of 1914 and the orderly and cleanly administered beheadings of the late Qing era.
The detective system, with its rewards and quotas, encouraged not only arrests on very little evidence but a great number of false accusations based on guilt by association, fabricated evidence, and coerced confessions. One example occurred in Hubei's Yangxin County, where detectives attached to the local garrison sought extra merit by accusing innocent townspeople of revolutionary involvement. Broken by torture, these people not only confessed to revolutionary plotting but implicated their friends and relatives. In a short time, over three hundred people had been arrested, and many were executed. Soon the entire town was hiding behind locked doors while merchants paid out bribes to detectives to avoid false accusations. This reign of terror only halted when the local battalion commander finally intervened to demand more exact proofs of guilt. The use of torture to extract confessions was not an uncommon occurrence. The head of the Hunan Office of Military Law acquired the sobriquet "Living King of Hell" for his creative torture devices and his seeming pleasure in their application. Opportunities for corruption also existed everywhere, since detectives used searches to extort funds from a terrified citizenry. One account described Wuhan detectives as "beasts of prey" who "squandered money like dirt, and were luxuriously clothed and fed." Any opposition to their exactions brought accusations of luandang involvement, against which there was very little defense.
Without a doubt, this political suppression achieved some of its desired effect. In late 1914, the U.S. consul at Hankou wrote that "the general consensus of opinion throughout the territory is that conditions are peaceful, more so, in most cases, than at any other time since the revolution." Nonetheless, he also noted that, despite these generally peaceful conditions, executions of political suspects continued unabated. There is a suggestion here that the level of suppression far exceeded any real revolutionary activity. Yet the continued terror did serve a purpose. When the slightest expression of dissatisfaction with the government could be severely punished as luandang rumormongering, any political discussion became dangerous. The execution of a middle-school teacher in Hunan for expressing general concern over national affairs in the classroom was not an exceptional case.
A 1914 account of conditions in Hunan noted an atmosphere that chilled even trivial political conversation: "Detectives are everywhere, and the people are silent as cicadas in winter. On guard against each other, they dare not speak about current affairs. There have already been numerous cases where people have been arrested over some ambiguous idle talk." Another account of the effects of political suppression in Hunan frankly described the province as a "world of terror."
A significant feature of the political terror in this period is that even the generally privileged gentry received no immunity. In the eyes of Hunan's elite, the most shocking action taken by Tang Xiangming was his arrest of many gentry members of Tan Yankai's administration. These men had not believed themselves in danger, and had remained at their posts to smooth the transition to Tang's regime. Subsequently, several of these highly respected men were executed for little more than having carried out their normal administrative duties during Hunan's short period of independence. These executions were an object lesson that social status alone would offer no protection in the case of political offenses. Indeed, the literate and politically conscious gentry were particularly targeted by censorship and the suppression of political dissent. By all indications, previously politicized elites were generally cowed by the extension of political terror into their ranks. Political suppression, then, may have been at least superficially successful in strengthening bureaucratic administrative control by silencing potential political opposition. It did so, though, at the cost of alienating much of whatever support Yuan may have still had among the nation's elite.