The Fall of Zhang Jingyao
Hunan's experience during the North-South War helped to recast the province's strong provincialist sentiments into an anti-warlord movement. Duan Qirui's policy of military unification ended the brief revival of provincial self-government that had followed Tang Xiangming's
overthrow. The intrusion of northern military power subjected Hunan to a devastating civil war. The behavior of invading northern troops particularly antagonized the Hunan people. With the exception of some better disciplined forces under the control of commanders like Wu Peifu and Feng Yuxiang, many northern forces engaged in systematic campaigns of looting, rape, and destruction. One of the areas hardest hit was Liling county, east of Changsha, where rampaging northern troops slaughtered over twenty thousand civilians and destroyed property valued at over 19 million yuan. Such events focused Hunan's hostility to outside political intervention on the invading northern armies. The appointment of Zhang Jingyao as military governor gave this hostility a specific target. The corruption of Zhang's regime and his ever-increasing financial exactions perfectly represented the ills attributed to a lack of popular self-government. Meanwhile, Zhang's expropriation of civilian funds for military expenses and the particular ill-discipline of his own bandit-infested armies exemplified the evils of military rule. Thus, the character of Zhang's warlord regime not only stimulated renewed Hunan demands for provincial autonomy, but made Zhang's overthrow the sine qua non of this objective.
Zhang's control of military and police powers naturally made it difficult to organize open opposition to his regime inside Hunan. Many members of Hunan's political elite accordingly left the province to carry on their struggle against Zhang out of his reach. Some appealed directly to the Beijing authorities to cancel Zhang's appointment. Others gathered in Shanghai, where they tried to bring Hunan's case for provincial self-government before northern and southern representatives engaged in peace negotiations. Some activists established an organization in Shanghai, the Hunan Rehabilitation Association, that publicized the atrocities committed by northern troops in Hunan and the abuses of Zhang's administration. They used this evidence to appeal to both the Beijing and the Canton governments to support their demands for Zhang's removal. However, none of these efforts achieved their objective.
The anti-Zhang movement received a new impetus in mid 1919 as a result of the May Fourth Movement, which began as a protest by Beijing students against a secret treaty signed by the Beijing government, under Duan Qirui's influence, accepting Japan's seizure of German concessions in China during World War I. From the outset, this protest was both anti-imperialist and anti-warlord, directed equally at Japan and at the Beiyang military men who had acceded to Japanese
demands. The protest quickly spread outward from Beijing to most major Chinese cities. The movement also increased the politicization of Chinese society, involving not only students but educators, merchants, and even substantial portions of the urban working class in political activities ranging from demonstrations and strikes to economic boycotts. The suppression of these political activities by provincial warlord regimes helped to bring a new nationalist fervor to local anti-warlord struggles.
Changsha students responded immediately to the news of the Beijing student protest with their own demonstrations. In Zhang Jingyao's eyes, though, the student protests were not a patriotic movement but a source of political disorder. He was also unwilling to allow attacks on his patron Duan Qirui or actions that might invite Japanese reprisals. Accordingly, he moved quickly to ban political activities by students and to close newspapers that editorialized in support of the student movement. This suppression provoked an even broader student reaction. A citywide student organization formed to support further political action, including a general student strike. In the weeks to come, the students forged links with members of the Provincial Assembly, the Hunan Educational Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and other civic organizations to support patriotic activities such as a boycott of Japanese goods. Zhang responded with more acts of suppression. He closed schools, dissolved student organizations, arrested student demonstrators, banned the anti-Japanese boycott, and tightened censorship.
One result of Zhang's suppression of the May Fourth Movement in Hunan was to make his removal from power an increasingly important objective for its participants. In September 1919, the main student organization, still active despite Zhang's ban, committed itself to seeking his overthrow. Working secretly, students began to spread anti-Zhang propaganda and search for other anti-Zhang allies. Following the suppression of the anti-Japanese boycott in November, the student organization became even more open in its opposition to Zhang's rule. "Until that Zhang leaves Hunan, students will not return to their classes," the leaders of a general student strike in December publicly announced. In this same period, student representatives journeyed to Beijing to petition the central government for Zhang's removal. Other delegations sought support from major communities of Hunan natives outside Hunan. Although anti-Zhang protests grew, protests alone could not force Zhang from office, and the student organization therefore sent representatives to plead its case before Tan Yankai and the
Hunan army at Chenxian, Wu Peifu at Hengyang, and Feng Yuxiang at Changde. In so doing, the students acknowledged the need to seek military support for their cause.
Ultimately, the civilian anti-Zhang movement in Hunan found no way to effect Zhang's removal without the application of military force. As long as Zhang remained in control of his army, he could continue to suppress protests against his rule in Hunan. Meanwhile, fearing to lose Zhang's military support, the central government turned a deaf ear to Hunan complaints. A founder of the Hunan Rehabilitation Association, Zuo Linfen, noted that since attempts at Zhang's removal by peaceful means had failed, only a "military solution" was left. Zuo then joined the increasing number of anti-Zhang activists, like the student delegates, who journeyed to South Hunan to seek military support for the anti-Zhang struggle.
There was good reason to hope that a military overthrow of Zhang might be possible. First, Zhang's military power was much weaker than the number of his troops might imply. Zhang's army was an ill-disciplined force, which had seen little battle action during its advance into Hunan, and recruitment of great numbers of poorly trained men, pacified bandits among them, had added little to its fighting ability. Although Zhang's forces had no difficulty dominating Hunan's civilian population, their military effectiveness was open to question. Second, there was a military force willing to take up the struggle against Zhang Jingyao in the Hunan army. The only obstacles to its advance against Zhang were Wu Peifu's strong, experienced, and well-disciplined army in South Hunan and, to a lesser extent, Feng Yuxiang's forces at Changde. These forces, in effect, defended Zhang against a southern attack. Here the antagonism between these Zhili-allied forces and Zhang provided some room for political maneuver. Wu's disregard for Zhang and dissatisfaction with Zhang's appointment as military governor were made clear by Wu's unauthorized cease-fire in mid 1918. In early 1920, increasing tensions between the Zhili and the Anhui factions over the control of the Beijing government also encouraged Wu to consider withdrawing his army from the Hunan front. In the event of open military conflict between the two factions, the presence of Wu's troops in North China was essential to guarantee a Zhili victory. Wu thus became the main target of anti-Zhang delegations who hoped he might turn his army against Zhang, or at least not oppose such action by others. These delegations were encouraged when they received a sympathetic reception at Wu's headquarters.
The most serious negotiations with Wu, those that finally gained his acquiescence to Zhang's removal, were carried out by Tan Yankai and a group of his civilian supporters. Immediately upon his arrival in South Hunan, Tan sent representatives to meet with Wu. Wu in turn allowed Tan to station a permanent delegation at Hengyang to keep lines of communication open. Tan thus assumed the role of a conduit for Wu's negotiations not only with the independent Hunan forces but with other southern provinces. Through Tan's good offices, Wu eventually even signed a secret alliance with the south against the Anhui clique. Ironically, at the very time when Tan was helping drive Cheng Qian out of the Hunan army for allegedly dealing with the enemy, Tan was negotiating with Wu. These negotiations finally reached a conclusion in early 1920, when Wu agreed to withdraw his forces from Hunan. Although Wu's withdrawal was largely motivated by the upcoming confrontation with the Anhui faction, his departure from Hunan was helped along by a gift of half a million yuan that Tan obtained for Wu from Lu Rongting.
On May 27, 1920, Wu began moving his army out of Hunan. As arranged, Wu allowed Hunan forces to advance into the territory he left behind. Most of the other Zhili-allied northern forces in Hunan made their own arrangements to follow Wu out of the province. Zhang Jingyao vehemently opposed this withdrawal but dared not use military force to stop it, and when his own troops finally confronted the advancing Hunan army, they were quickly defeated. On June 11, Zhang fled Changsha. A conjunction of favorable military circumstances had therefore enabled the anti-Zhang movement to achieve its most important objective.
Following Zhang's flight, Tan Yankai returned to Changsha in triumph to begin his third term as Hunan's military governor. From this position he proclaimed his intention of commissioning a provincial constitution that would eliminate the post of military governor and substitute a popularly elected civil governor. He proposed that Hunan take the lead in implementing federalist ideals by the restoration of provincial self-government. At this point the broader civilian objectives of the Hunan provincial autonomy movement became apparent. Tan quickly received support from civilian groups and politicians who sought not only the elimination of the military governorship but the disbandment of armies and a constitutional limitation on military expenses. These ambitions were, however, grounded in the unwarranted assumption that Hunan's military men would subordinate themselves willingly to a new civilian regime.
Since the beginning of the North-South War, Hunan's military commanders had grown accustomed to a degree of independence. Despite their limited territorial base, Hunan's military forces had also grown in size and number. Simply to accommodate the most prominent commanders, a complicated military system was established, consisting of one division (with three rather than the normal two brigades) and twelve independent military district commands. This system did not even include the West Hunan forces, which remained practically independent of provincial control. All of these forces were sharply divided among a number of factions, but Zhao Hengti unquestionably emerged as the single most important commander, with the largest military following. Ultimately, Tan's ability to maintain his position at the head of the Hunan government and carry out his political goals depended upon Zhao's continued support, and Tan soon found that Zhao's loyalty had its limits.
Political conflict between Tan and Zhao was apparent immediately after the recovery of Changsha. On his own authority, Zhao put a number of his followers in important financial posts. Rejecting Zhao's right to make such appointments, Tan replaced them with his own men. Tan based his authority not only on his position as military governor but on his claim to the titles of civil governor and commander-in-chief of the Hunan army. However, Tan had originally led Zhao to believe that he would yield the military governorship to him in return for his military support. Tan reneged on this understanding by retaining the military governorship and by announcing his plans to eliminate this office altogether. Although Tan awarded Zhao the vaguely defined title of "general commander" (zongzhihui ), this was hardly adequate compensation.
Tan's treatment of Zhao was apparently an attempt to ensure in advance the political subordination of the military that he hoped ultimately to enshrine in the new provincial constitution. In the past, Hunan's military officers had deferred to Tan's authority as leading civilian politician, and he counted on this deference to achieve his objective of civilian primacy. Because of the patronage Tan had shown him in the past, Zhao was indeed reluctant to come out in open opposition against Tan. There were other officers, though, who lacked this inhibition. In November 1920, a group of commanders formerly associated with Cheng Qian denounced Tan and began to march on Changsha. This gave Zhao a chance to reveal his own dissatisfaction without taking action against Tan himself. Instead of moving to block this military threat, Zhao stood aside. Without Zhao's support, Tan
could not maintain his position. On November 23, 1920, therefore, just six months after his return to Changsha, Tan yielded control of Hunan's government to Zhao and left the province. Only then did Zhao move to suppress the military revolt, in the process establishing his own authority.
The overthrow of Zhang Jingyao thus ultimately ended in the replacement of one warlord regime headed by a northern military commander with another led by a Hunan commander. In taking power, Zhao did not renounce the goals of provincial self-government. Instead, he announced his intention to support and implement them. Under his government, Hunan was, after all, ruled by a Hunan native. Zhao went through the motions of promulgating a provincial constitution and even had himself elected civil governor. Perhaps because of his Hunan background, Zhao's government was generally less corrupt than Zhang's and more responsive to Hunan concerns. However, there was never any question but that Zhao held his position because he commanded the strongest military force in the province, and he would remain in that position until ousted by a rebellious military commander in 1926. The anti-warlord goals of civilian provincialism were therefore distorted to support the rule of a provincial warlord.