By Pat Welsh, contributor
In previous articles, I had mentioned that the decentralization of the Qing Dynasty’s military after the Taiping Rebellion had paved the way for the emergence of local warlords throughout China. The Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命) of 1911 did put an end to the Qing Dynasty, but it also produced a power vacuum because of a weakly centralized control of China’s military. For example, one reason President Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) could not agree to Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) and the Nationalists’ request to establish his government in Nanjing 1912 was because he depended on the support of his Beiyang military (北洋軍) located in the north.
By 1913, several provincial warlords had already tried to rebel against Yuan. Yuan had made an amendment to the Constitution of 1912 designed strengthen his power and limit the power placed in the hands of the revolutionaries loyal to Sun and the other political parties. In November 1913, Yuan outlawed the Kuomintang (國民黨). Then, to strengthen his Beiyang armies, Yuan borrowed money from Japan.
In 1915, Yuan proclaimed himself emperor but the Yunnan and Guangxi provinces proclaimed their independence from Beijing and their support for the Nationalist government in Guangzhou. Yuan then retreated and backed off from his plan to found his new dynasty in March 1916. He died on June 6 leaving behind a more modernized, but hopelessly divided, military.
China found itself split up with one political faction under the “Northerners,” the Beiyang Government (北洋政府) governing from Beijing, and “the Southerners” based in Guangzhou. Foreign governments had recognized Yuan’s government in Beijing. The Northerners appeared to outsiders as being traditional, corrupt and divided among themselves, but they did have foreign government recognition. The Beiyang government was supported by a procession of warlords who succeeded one another in Beijing. A polarization between two Beiyang forces arose. On one side was the Anfu Club (安福俱樂部) based in Beijing and on the other, the Zhili Clique (直隸系軍閥) based in the surrounding Hebei Province. The Anfu Club was a loose group of northern military commanders who supported the German-trained commander Duan Qirui’s (段祺瑞) desire to reunite China forcibly. The Zhili Clique governed the area surrounding Beijing. This clique did not have a capital city as such. Its headquarters was wherever the strongest pro-Zhili commanders were present. Its leading figure was President Feng Guochang (馮國璋). The “Southerners” were viewed as revolutionaries with a well-known leader in Sun Yat-sen. Espousing socialism, they wanted to change China from the ground up. As a group they were more united, but weaker, than the Northerners and they lacked recognition from foreign governments.
Yet the reality was that most of China was controlled by neither the Northerners nor the Southerners but rather by local warlords whose loyalties were temporary and fickle. Many of the Chinese warlords initially tried local reforms that could have benefitted their populations. As a group they had an understanding of China’s problems, but their personal ambitions, their inability to see beyond their immediate situations and their greed made them unable to unite in a patriotic cause.
Frequently the warlords moved their armies along the waterways, new highways and railroads. Warfare among the warlords, however, was actually fairly limited. Being mainly military-minded, dikes and their limited infrastructures were not maintained. A number of these warlords had military training in colleges under foreign instructors. Their constituents were heavily taxed and opium use made a comeback because it could be taxed. The local economies were frequently disrupted. Sporadic inflation impoverished many families. Over time the warlords tended to become highly self-indulgent, wallowing in opium, concubines and gluttony.
After Yuan’s death in June 1916, a pliant Li Yuanhong (黎元洪), who also happened to be Yuan’s son’s father-in-law, reluctantly assumed the presidency, but the real political and military power was already in the hands of the warlord Premier Duan Qirui.
Duan had been a very talented young officer in Yuan’s modern army during the last years of the Qing Dynasty. In April 1916, Yuan appointed Duan as Premier of the Beijing government. Duan promptly transferred to Beijing a detachment of loyal troops. From this arose a great deal of mutual mistrust between Yuan and Duan.
In April 1917, a military veteran under the previous Manchu dynasty, Zhang Xu (張勳), temporarily occupied Beijing with his armies and on July 1, tried to re-enthrone the reluctant former boy emperor, Henry Puyi (Aisin Giorro Puyi 愛新覺羅溥儀). Duan, who had been dismissed in May into retirement, was resurrected with his army and routed Zhang’s forces in Beijing. Thereafter the reluctant President Li resigned and replaced by Feng Guochang. Duan resumed his old job as premier and assigned himself the role of the next unifier of China.
In 1917, Duan had wanted to centralize China’s armies. He had wanted to limit the size of the various armies, but while this move might limit the strength of the rebellious warlords in the south and southwest, it would also put Duan in conflict with his warlord friends and classmates in the north. Duan’s strongest opponents were the warlords of Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. After assuming office, Duan planned to march through Hunan with his Beiyang armies and subdue the rebellious southern provinces.
Strong outside pressures affected the Anfu and Zhili groups and their relations with each other. One was Japan, to whom Duan’s government was indebted and who also had begun its encroachment in Manchuria. Another was the northeast Christian warlord general Feng Yuxiang (馮玉祥), who had been shifting his alliances to and fro. A third force was the Zhili warlord, Zhang Zuolin (張作霖), who had been financially forced to accept Japanese support. A fourth force was the south and southwest warlord armies, which included revolutionary armies loyal to Sun. Finally there were concerns in Beijing that the Western Powers, especially Britain, that might intervene if China’s situation became too dicey for their commercial interests.
Premier Duan’s Anfu Club now felt the need to defeat the rebellious southern and southwestern warlords in Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. Recognizing that war was inevitable, the southern and southwestern warlords stepped up their contacts with Sun’s people in Guangzhou in the interests of forming an effective alliance.
The fighting erupted in Hunan but it suddenly took an unexpected direction when the Beiyang General Wang Ruxian (王儒賢) of the 8th Division proposed a cease- Wang had done this without authorization and it completely took Duan by surprise. Two of the factors causing this were 1) Wang apparently had his own ambition to become a regional warlord in Hunan and had connections with the opposing Zhili Clique and 2) Wang’s troops had no desire to be in the south and had begun to strike for rations. A large number had deserted and defected. Wang was hailed by the Hunanese because of his willingness to enforce a cease-fire. Seeing his own position in Hunan was becoming untenable, Governor-general Fu fled Changsha, Hunan’s capital city.
In November 1917, Duan once again resigned and President Guochang began looking for a replacement premier. On the day that Duan resigned, the Japanese warned President Feng that Japan could not remain indifferent to Beijing’s political instability.
President Feng nonetheless used the absence of a premier and his constitutional powers to strip Duan of his military command. Playing his hand cautiously, instead of naming himself the supreme commander of Duan’s armies, Feng placed them in the hands of Wang Shizhen (王士珍) and asked Wang to form a new cabinet. Feng also named Xu Shucheng (徐樹錚) as the Deputy Commander-in-Chief who then found himself shuttling back and forth by train reporting, investigating and implementing orders. Then President Feng moved the general staff from the premier’s office to his own, thereby completing his control of the military.
While Wang was forming his cabinet, several pro-Anfu Group commanders conferred in Tianjin and planned a two-pronged attack on Hunan involving some 200,000 men. Three Yangzi River provincial warlords reacted by declaring their frontiers closed to outside armies. President Feng and his now outnumbered Zhili Group who had been favoring a cease-fire in Hunan found themselves trapped between the warlords.
In March 1918, the feuding Northern warlords, politicians and military commanders settled their differences. Duan was once again invited to resume the premiership. President Feng was compelled to swear loyalty to his former rival Duan, and return to Duan the military command that had been taken from him. The follow-up from these events will be covered in my next offering.