The Fall of Wang Zhanyuan
An anti-warlord movement linked to demands for the revival of provincial self-government also arose in Hubei in opposition to Wang Zhanyuan. Ultimately, like Zhang Jingyao, Wang was driven from power, but as in Hunan military circumstances played the most important role in this outcome. The result in terms of civilian provincialism was even less satisfying. Wang was simply replaced as military governor by another Beiyang general. The only nod to the ideal of provincial autonomy in this case was that this general was a Hubei native.
One major difference between Wang Zhanyuan and Zhang Jingyao was Wang's comparative strength in Hubei. First, Wang ruled Hubei for a longer period. He thus had a greater opportunity to consolidate his control over Hubei's provincial administration. Second, Wang was in a much stronger military position, both in terms of the greater size of his own army and of its superiority to miscellaneous other forces in Hubei. Finally, Wang had at least some conservative support within the Hubei population owing to a perception that he had prevented the disorder that had arisen in so many other provinces. Early in his rule, Wang's troops were generally well-disciplined and maintained
order without causing the type of disturbances Zhang Jingyao's soldiers had been notorious for in Hunan. Rightly or wrongly, Wang was also given credit for keeping Hubei out of the civil wars that had devastated some of Hubei's neighbors. One exception to this was the rebellion by Li Tiancai and Shi Xingchuan, but Li and Shi, not Wang, were generally blamed for provoking this incident. Wang's tendency to take a mediating position in most military conflicts was generally seen as having a positive effect in keeping these conflicts outside Hubei's borders.
Wang's relatively strong military and political position slowed the development of an anti-warlord movement in Hubei. For example, Wang like Zhang took strong measures to suppress the spread of the May Fourth Movement in his province, and Hubei's student activists became his implacable enemies, but Wang's suppression of the student movement did not immediately generate the same broadly based opposition to his regime that Zhang faced in Hunan. Underneath the general acquiescence to Wang's rule, though, there was a considerable reservoir of Hubei provincialist sentiment that if given the option would have preferred a greater degree of self-government. This was especially true of Hubei's political elite, who found their chances of official employment stymied by Wang's deliberate reliance on non-Hubei bureaucrats. Even so, Hubei's self-government movement was only slowly transformed into an anti-Wang movement.
The initial issue that turned Hubei's provincialist sentiments into a broader self-government movement was a political struggle over Hubei's civil governorship. Ironically, Wang created the context for this struggle in August 1920 when he decided to appoint one of his relatives, Sun Chenjia, as civil governor. The Beijing government, as was its custom, simply approved Wang's recommendation. Sun did not have the official experience normally expected of a civil governor, however, and the appointment therefore sparked widespread opposition, including protests from the Hubei Provincial Assembly. As in Hunan, the most effective and vehement opposition came from Hubei natives living outside the province, who were less afraid than those living in Hubei of risking Wang's ire. The Hubei Residents' Association (Hubei tongxianghui) in Beijing emerged as the leading force in this opposition. With the backing of a large number of prominent Hubei public figures and former officials, including Li Yuanhong, the association used this example of blatant nepotism to show the need for greater Hubei self-rule and demanded Sun's replacement with a Hubei native.
These protests finally paid off. The Beijing government rescinded Sun's appointment and replaced him with Xia Shoukang, formerly civil governor under Li Yuanhong.
Wang was infuriated by Beijing's disregard of his will. Besides making his own protests to Beijing, he pressured Hubei's civic organizations and various military commanders to publicize their opposition to Xia's appointment. Wang even threatened to resign, claiming that he would be unable to guarantee the preservation of order in Hubei if the appointment were not withdrawn. Wang's opposition intimidated Xia so much that he declined to leave Beijing for Hubei for over two months. In the end, though, Wang decided that the issue was not important enough for it to be worth alienating Hubei public opinion completely or to risk an open break with Beijing. Fear that the issue might provide an excuse for challenges from his military competitors also made Wang soften his position, and he finally announced his acceptance of Xia's appointment. In late November 1920, Xia arrived in Hubei to assume his office.
Although he had nominally welcomed Xia to Hubei, Wang initiated a subtle campaign to block his effectiveness. On Xia's first day as governor, a large body of Wang's troops surrounded Xia's office saying they had come to "protect" him from angry soldiers. Fearing for his safety, Xia moved his office into the Hankou foreign concessions the next day. Xia also found himself hampered by a reemergence of Hubei's acrimonious political factions. With liberal funding from Wang, a faction calling for Xia's removal quickly emerged in the Provincial Assembly. After struggling with this situation for several months, Xia was ready to give up. Meanwhile, Wang patched up his relations with Beijing by bargaining his support for a cabinet change in exchange for Xia's transfer. In early March 1921, a new civil governor was appointed on Wang's recommendation. Although the new governor, Liu Cheng'en, was a prominent Hubei public figure, he had strong ties to Wang. Wang thus had no trouble reasserting his control over the civil governor's office.
Brief as it was, Xia Shoukang's tenure as civil governor inspired hopes for a return to greater self-government in Hubei. Numerous organizations sprang up to promote this objective. Many looked to a revival of the Provincial Assembly's power, sparking interest in the upcoming assembly elections. The treatment Xia received proved that Wang remained the main obstacle to greater self-government, however, and the provincial self-government movement began to take on a decidedly anti-Wang cast. By the time of Xia's removal, the Beijing
Hubei Residents' Association had taken a stand calling for Wang's ouster. However, the transformation of the self-government movement into an anti-Wang movement was not completed until a series of troop mutinies in Hubei undermined public confidence in Wang's ability to maintain order.
Wang's undoing ultimately arose from his inattention to his own military base. Superficially, Wang's military power continued to grow with the expansion of his armies, but the loyalty of these troops depended on Wang's ability to pay them. As Wang grew comfortable in his office, and somewhat arrogant about his indispensability, he began to give more attention to lining his own pockets than to ensuring that his men were properly paid. With troop wages frequently in arrears, dissatisfaction simmered through Wang's armies. Wang also antagonized his most loyal troops when he instituted a scheme to replace older soldiers. The dismissed soldiers were slated to receive a severance bonus equivalent to a single month's pay, which men who had been with Wang since before his arrival in Hubei considered shabby treatment for their years of service. This dissatisfaction soon manifested itself in a series of troop mutinies, culminating in major riots by the 21st Mixed Brigade in Yichang on June 4, 1921, and by the 2d Division in Wuchang on June 7. Both cities suffered enormous damage and considerable loss of life as mutinous soldiers plundered and then burned large sections of their commercial districts. These mutinies destroyed Wang's reputation as the defender of order by proving that he could no longer even control his own troops.
These mutinies provoked a massive public outcry against Wang. A number of civic organizations in Hubei openly risked Wang's displeasure by issuing protests critical of Wang's handling of the riots. However, the loudest opposition to Wang again arose among the more protected communities of Hubei natives resident outside Hubei. In a meeting of nearly a thousand people held on June 9, the Beijing Hubei Residents' Association passed a motion to be presented to the central government insisting on Wang's removal. In the following weeks, other, equally large meetings published detailed accounts of Wang's offenses, announced their support for greater provincial self-determination and federalism, and dispatched more anti-Wang delegations to meet the president and premier. Representatives were even sent to seek support from the foreign diplomatic corps. Arguing that Wang could no longer protect foreign property in Hubei, they hoped to have foreign pressure exerted on Beijing for Wang's removal. All of these efforts were without effect. Indeed, neither the president nor the
premier would even admit that they had the authority to remove Wang from his position, thus revealing the hollowness of Beijing's power.
As in the case of Hunan's anti-Zhang movement, many supporters of the Hubei anti-Wang movement soon concluded that military force would be required to drive Wang from power. In Hubei's case, though, there was less chance of finding military support for this inside the province. Wang's greatest potential military opponent inside Hubei had been Wu Guangxin. However, in mid 1920 Wang took advantage of the outbreak of the Zhili-Anhui War to arrest Wu and disband his forces. In late 1920, Wang also finally defeated and dispersed the fragmented independent Hubei army in southwestern Hubei. Some anti-Wang activists appealed to various commanders under Wang's command in Hubei to turn their guns against him, but these efforts bore no fruit. Thus the only alternative was to seek military support from outside Hubei. Many saw Wu Peifu, by now the strongest Zhili war leader, as a likely source of support. Wu, however, bore Wang no animosity, and anti-Wang delegations that approached him at his headquarters in Henan did not get a sympathetic hearing. The main attention of the anti-Wang movement therefore turned south and west, where it finally received a favorable response from military commanders in Hunan and Sichuan.
Support for the anti-Wang movement was justified in Hunan and Sichuan as a logical extension of their own provincial self-government movements. Because of its proximity to Wuhan, Changsha became a gathering point for Hubei anti-Wang activists after Zhang Jingyao's ouster. These activists particularly hoped to gain Zhao Hengti's support, in view of his professed commitment to the principles of provincial autonomy, and they therefore besieged him with requests to use the Hunan army to install provincial self-government in Hubei. After finally gaining Zhao's acquiescence, Hubei activists met in Changsha on July 22, 1921, to establish an alternate Hubei military government. They then announced their determination to oust Wang and implement provincial self-government in Hubei based on federalist principles. Earlier in late 1920, a coalition of Sichuan military commanders operating under provincial self-government slogans had also expelled occupying Yunnan troops from their province. Thus Zhao was able to negotiate an agreement for Sichuan to join Hunan in a military campaign to "aid Hubei" in establishing its own provincial autonomy. In coming to this agreement, both Hunan and Sichuan leaders violated a basic principle of provincial autonomy that they had sworn to
uphold—the inviolability of provincial borders. Given the military vacuum that would be created if northern armies were driven from the province, there is reason to suspect that Zhao and the Sichuan commanders ultimately hoped to relocate some of their own bloated provincial armies in Hubei. The Hubei anti-Wang activists were in no position, though, to question the sincerity of these necessary allies.
On July 28, 1921, fighting broke out between advancing Hunan forces and Wang Zhanyuan's army on Hubei's southern border. This was the beginning of a civil war commonly known as the Aid-Hubei War. The weakness of Wang's military power quickly became evident when his troops fell back before the Hunan attack. Many of Wang's troops had been dispersed in the aftermath of the previous month's mutinies. The rest of his army remained demoralized by the same conditions that had caused the mutinies in the first place. Facing possible military defeat, Wang turned to the head of the Zhili faction, Cao Kun, for military assistance, but Cao saw Wang's weakness as an opportunity to extend his own influence into Hubei. Under the guise of aiding Wang, he ordered a division of troops under one of Wu Peifu's subordinates, Xiao Yaonan, to advance into Hubei. Once Xiao reached Wuhan, however, he refused Wang's request that he move his troops to the front. With his own army crumbling and his capital under the control of another army, Wang had no alternative but to resign. Under Cao's influence, Xiao then received an official appointment from Beijing to replace Wang as Hubei's military governor. At this point, other Zhili troops advanced into the province to help Xiao repel the Hunan and Sichuan assaults. The tide of battle turned immediately, and the invading forces retreated behind their own borders.
Because Xiao Yaonan was a Hubei native, his selection by Cao to replace Wang was at least superficially a nod to demands for provincial self-government in Hubei. In reality, one Beiyang warlord regime had simply replaced another. Hubei's self-government activists promptly protested Xiao's appointment on this basis. However, there was never any question but that Zhili military power outweighed Hubei public opinion. With this backing, Xiao maintained his control over Hubei's government until his death in 1926. As a Hubei native, Xiao arguably ruled more benevolently than his predecessor. Nonetheless, in terms of the goals of civilian provincialism, provincial self-government under Xiao was even more of a sham than Zhao Hengti's rule in Hunan.