The Consolidation of Wang Zhanyuan's Warlord Regime
Conditions in Hubei at the end of the Anti-Monarchical War were radically different from those faced by Tang Xiangming in Hunan. The war never reached Hubei's borders, and Wang Zhanyuan's position as military governor was never seriously threatened by either extraprovincial or local forces. Wang therefore emerged from the war
strong enough to avoid the type of internal political or military conflict that had led to Tang's downfall. Indeed, in the period immediately after Yuan's death, Wang consolidated his political and military power in Hubei, strengthening his position as an emerging warlord.
Wang's main political opponents at the end of the war were revolutionary activists who had led uprisings against him as part of their efforts to bring Hubei into the anti-monarchical struggle. Although weakened by repeated defeats, a large revolutionary presence remained ensconced within the security of Hankou's foreign concessions. Yuan's death divided anti-monarchical activists in Hubei into two camps, radicals who called for a continuation of the struggle against Wang and moderates who felt that peace should be made with Wang to avoid further political strife. This moderate position received support from many eminent Hubei political figures, including Li Yuanhong. After succeeding to the presidency, Li expressed his support for Wang and used his personal influence to urge Hubei's revolutionaries to reach a compromise. Finally, in July 1916, Wang negotiated an agreement with a majority of "popular party" leaders in Hankou to dissolve all political parties or organizations that had been formed in opposition to the monarchy. In doing so, these leaders acknowledged their acceptance of Hubei's political status quo. In exchange, Wang offered revolutionary leaders and their followers "passports" guaranteeing their safety and traveling stipends to help them leave the province.
A small group of revolutionaries, particularly those connected to Sun Yat-sen's Revolutionary Party, refused to accept this settlement. Aware of this, Wang also negotiated with concession authorities to expel the dissenters from their safe bases. Forced into action, the revolutionaries led an ill-disciplined mob of several hundred men out of the concessions on July 30 in a last-ditch uprising attempt. Whatever the political goals of the uprising's leadership, they were soon lost in the ensuing riot. Seeing little hope of success, the mob turned its attention to looting Hankou's shops. The Chinese city of Hankou suffered considerable damage before Wang's troops arrived to disperse the rioters. The suppression of this uprising removed the last revolutionary threat to the consolidation of Wang's rule.
The weakness of the July 30 uprising reflected a general lack of popular support for a struggle against Wang Zhanyuan. Here another contrast with Hunan is apparent. Whereas widespread popular antagonism contributed to Tang's fall, Wang enjoyed a fairly good popular reputation. Wang's late assumption of the military governor's chair
meant that Duan Zhigui bore the brunt of antipathy in Hubei for implementing the policies of Yuan's dictatorship. Equally important, in contrast to the arrogant attitude Duan exhibited in the performance of his office, Wang was generally regarded as a modest, amiable man. He made particular efforts to show his sensitivity to the interests of the common people and the merchant community. To give but one example, while serving as acting military governor for Duan, Wang abandoned Duan's habit of clearing the streets before his passage. Traveling instead with only a few guards, Wang reportedly commented, "How can I harm business by forcing merchants to clear the way just because a single person like myself wants to go out?" Wang also created a favorable impression by the strict enforcement of discipline among his troops. Newspaper accounts praising this discipline noted Wang's execution of soldiers caught stealing, his insistence that his men pay market prices for goods and services, and even a ban on the use of rickshaws by soldiers after reports of abusive behavior toward pullers. At a time when the deportment of so many northern armies in southern provinces was far from exemplary, the orderly behavior of Wang's troops was widely appreciated. As a result, Hubei public opinion was generally supportive when Wang first succeeded to the military governorship, and little occurred over the course of 1916 to alter this situation.
The most important factor working in Wang's favor, though, was continuing popular concern for the preservation of order. After the devastation that had been visited upon Hubei during the 1911 Revolution, few were eager to see their province swept into the disorder that engulfed their southwestern neighbors during the Anti-Monarchical War. The presence of Wang's disciplined troops seemed to guard against this eventuality. Indeed, Li Yuanhong based his support for Wang on his "merit" in keeping order. Wang himself encouraged the assumption of his indispensability by playing on the fear of disorder, often commenting, "Who else but I has the ability to preserve Hubei's local order?" Wang's reputation for keeping order was generally seen as a major reason for the lack of broader support for the July 30 uprising. Indeed, the desire for peace and order, and Wang's ability to provide it, would be the main yardstick used to judge Wang's rule for some time to come. Even an anti-Wang account written after his fall from power concluded a long catalogue of Wang's transgressions with the comment that "the foolishness of the Hubei people can be seen in that despite such policies toward Hubei, they still praised Wang Zhanyuan for preserving order." Hubei's case
shows that in a condition of persistent civil war, politically ambitious generals could gain some popular acquiescence for their rule by promising to provide peace.
Wang's ability to present himself as the guarantor of order in Hubei was, of course, ultimately based on his control of military force. As military governor, Wang made every effort to maintain the core military force that was the basis of his power and strengthen his personal control over it. Upon assuming the military governorship, Wang nominally gave up his command of the 2d Division. He assured his continued control over it, though, by transferring the command to a trusted subordinate, Wang Jinjing. As noted in Chapter 5, Wang Jinjing had originally been a brigade commander under Wang in the 2d Division. In 1914, he had been given command of the National 6th Mixed Brigade, a unit created out of supplemental troops added to the 2d Division. To keep the 6th Mixed Brigade under his influence after Wang Jinjing's promotion, Wang Zhanyuan appointed another of his subordinates, the 2d Division brigade commander, Wang Maoshang, to its command. Wang Zhanyuan's influence over these two officers was based on close personal ties developed during their long service together in the 2d Division. Indeed, Wang Zhanyuan's rise through the 2d Division, culminating in his years as division commander, helped him to build strong ties with most of its officers. Here the effect of Yuan's failure to continue the rotation of Beiyang commanders becomes particularly clear. The authority Wang gained as military governor over pay and promotions increased his ability to act as these officers' patron. Control of such resources thus helped Wang turn the 2d Division and offshoots of it, like the 6th Mixed Brigade, into his personal army.
Wang Zhanyuan's appointment as military governor also enhanced his military power by extending his authority over other forces garrisoned in Hubei. First, he gained direct control over provincial forces such as Shi Xingchuan's Hubei 1st Division and Lü Jinshan's Hubei 3d Brigade. Second, the weakened condition of the central government also increased Wang's supervisory authority over "national" forces based in Hubei, such as Li Tiancai's 9th Division and some lesser units withdrawn to Hubei from southern war zones. With these forces added to his 2d Division base, Wang's military power far exceeded that of any of his immediate predecessors in the Hubei military governorship.
Aware of the importance of military power to his position, Wang took every opportunity to expand the armed forces under his control.
The Anti-Monarchical War provided a perfect justification for such expansion, even though the war never reached Hubei's borders. Early in the war, Wang recruited fifteen hundred new northern soldiers to reinforce the 2d Division. He also received Yuan's approval to allow Lü Jinshan to expand the Hubei 3d Brigade into a mixed brigade by adding cavalry, artillery, engineering, and transport units. In spring 1916, Wang recruited five thousand more troops from Shandong (his home province), most of whom were organized into a new two-regiment Provincial Defense Corps (Shengfangtuan). Wang originally viewed the organization of this force as a first step toward creating a second Hubei army division. Being recruited outside Hubei, this division would be more dependent on Wang and so more closely under his own control than Shi Xingchuan's 1st Division. The end of the war temporarily brought these plans to a halt. Continued recruiting would have defied both popular postwar demands for troop reductions and direct central orders against further military expansion. At the same time, Wang had no intention of obeying central orders to disband special or irregular forces raised during the war. Indeed, he maintained the full strength of all the forces under his command, including such special forces as the Provincial Defense Corps.
Wang's selective compliance with orders from the central government with respect to his military forces was fairly representative of his relations with it at this period. On the one hand, Wang continued to profess obedience to central authority, as he had done while Yuan lived. On the other hand, Wang's actions were tempered by an appreciation of the postwar central government's greatly reduced ability to enforce its will on the provinces. This provided Wang with an opportunity to extend his control over provincial administration with greater autonomy from central control.
Wang's growing political autonomy was most apparent in the extension of his influence over Hubei's civil administration. Initially, after his appointment as military governor, Wang limited himself almost entirely to military administration. As the weakness of the postwar central government became apparent, Wang moved to increase his power over civil administration. Wang's opportunity came with the death of the centrally appointed civil governor in July 1916. In a supposedly interim act, the central government recognized Wang as Hubei's acting civil governor. Yuan had previously had doubts about Wang's ability to serve as military governor, but Wang's qualifications to be civil governor were even more questionable. Wang's most blatant defect was that he was only semiliterate. Indeed, documents
written in more literary Chinese were reportedly translated into the vernacular and read aloud to him.
With apparent modesty, Wang at first acknowledged his own inadequacies and stated his willingness to yield the civil governorship to a more deserving man. As a result, the issue of the Hubei civil governorship became a hotly debated point among various central and provincial political factions, each promoting their own candidate. As time went on, though, Wang let it be known that he had no intention of giving up the post unless it was to someone he could control. Unwilling to risk alienating Wang by trying to force an unacceptable candidate on him, the central government settled the issue by allowing Wang to retain the post. This marked the effective end to the separation of military and civil powers in Hubei, and a recognition of the extension of Wang's authority over civil administration.
The increased weakness of the central government in the postwar period was perhaps most apparent in its loss of appointment powers. For the most part, the governors of provinces that had declared independence during the war retained their control over provincial and local posts after the war's end. Central appointment powers were reduced to the confirmation of provincial "nominees." In Hubei, Wang Zhanyuan was somewhat constrained by his attempt to portray himself as a consistent supporter of the central government in contrast to the more recalcitrant southern provinces. As related by one member of his staff, Wang resolved this difficulty by accepting central appointments to relatively powerless posts for the sake of appearances, while insisting on his own nominees for more important positions. To ensure his control, Wang often drew his candidates from his own military staff. Through such key appointments, Wang assured his dominance over Hubei's civil bureaucracy.
In his efforts to establish control over civil government, Wang also had to contend with resurgent provincial political interests, particularly in the form of the revived Provincial Assembly. As previously noted, Wang's negative attitude toward Hubei's anti-monarchical movement had been grounded in a general antipathy for partisan politics, as well as in a desire to prevent the rise of political forces inimical to his position. His insistence on the disbandment of anti-monarchical political organizations after Yuan's death was clearly linked to these concerns. Nonetheless, in Hubei, as elsewhere, there was a strong expectation among politically conscious members of the provincial elite that the end of Yuan's dictatorship would mean the restoration of the Provincial Assembly. Wang originally opposed the revival of the assembly,
but he could not persist in this opposition without reinforcing his own association with Yuan's discredited policies. Perhaps seeking to defuse potential opposition to his rule by an accommodation to provincialist sentiment, Wang ultimately acquiesced in the recall of the Provincial Assembly. Wang's only victory was in resisting calls for the early reopening of the assembly, delaying the event to October 1, 1916.
As it turned out, the Hubei Provincial Assembly was still too factionalized to be an effective threat to Wang's power. The assembly spent its first months almost entirely in bitter factional disputes over the elections of its president, two vice presidents, and new national assemblymen. During this period, Wang made a diligent effort to perform his duties as civil governor by presiding over the assembly's sessions. His observation of this formality reflected a certain effort to present himself as sympathetic to provincial political interests. Nonetheless Wang's discomfort with the assembly's long and tedious debates was obvious to all. Besides confirming his original dislike of factional politics, the bitter internal divisions within the assembly helped dispel Wang's apprehension that it might challenge his authority. While continuing to accept the assembly's existence for appearance's sake, Wang began ignoring it in all matters of real importance. Although the assembly was supposed to have authority over local and provincial budgets, Wang was soon allocating provincial funds without the assembly's approval. In one case, Wang used educational and local self-government funds to support the Provincial Defense Corps over the opposition of the Provincial Assembly. For Wang, the maintenance of his own military strength clearly took precedence over whatever powers the assembly might seek to claim. Once Wang refused to accept its authority, the Provincial Assembly had little means to enforce its political will.
Wang's control over Hubei's military and civil administration was largely achieved at the expense of central-government prerogatives imposed during Yuan's dictatorship. In this regard there was very little difference between Hunan and Hubei. There was a difference though in Wang's ability to take advantage of this situation when compared to Tang Xiangming. Unlike Tang, Wang emerged from the Anti-Monarchical War in a strong military and political position, which enabled him to forestall any revival of a provincialist elite regime. In this case, the only possible countervailing force may have been a renewed centralizing effort from Beijing to restrain the growing autonomy of supposedly loyal military commanders, such as Wang claimed to be. However, the central government was in no better position than Yuan
to risk alienating Wang, especially when it needed all the support it could get to confront the even greater provincial autonomy of the southern provinces. With little restraint from either internal Hubei political forces or the central government, Wang's government in Hubei increasingly took on the character of a warlord dictatorship.