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China - The Fourth Revolution - 1917-1919

When the first revolution arose in 1911, it was conservative enough to favor the peaceful but advancing movement of the liberal, constitutional government of the Manchu House, and was wont to say: "The fever of revolution is hard to check. When about to cease, there comes a relapse. One revolution will lead to a second, and this to a third, and no telling when it will stop among a populous nation like China."

When in the summer of 1917, Premier Tuan Chi-jui's figure began to loom upon the political horizon of Peking, the southern politicians and generals again buried the hatchet and resumed military operations against this "common enemy," declaring that Tuan had been one of Yuan Shi-kai's lieutenants, and that he had no sincere sympathy for republican principles. And thus the "Fourth Revolution" burst in July 1917, upon a people which had continuously been plundered in the name of republicanism.

The revolution which began in July 1917, was the fourth revolution. By introducing the war question - war the other side of the globe - there came a clash between the liberal and military elements with the ascendancy of the military, the dissolution of Parliament, and the revolt and protest of the constitutional element, with headquarters in Canton. These constitutionalists were commonly spoken of as revolutionists, but the real revolutionists were the Military Governors who declared independence from the authorized government in May and June, 1917, and shattered the fabric of the Republic.

As soon as the United States declared in April, 1917, that a state of war existed with Germany, the pressure grew more intense for China to become also "one of the belligerents on the side of Right." The Chinese president was opposed to taking this step, he was still trying to hold to neutrality along with a few other nations. It was understood that the sentiment of parliament was against a declaration of war, largely because they were against the growing autocracy of the premier. The premier, to accomplish his ends, called a conference of the military governors of all the provinces and of a few other military men, most of them military autocrats in their respective provinces. They supported the war measures of the premier, who was also minister of war.

With civil war on hand, the Peking Government was helpless in securing revenue from the provinces sufficient for its own needs and also for the requirements of the loyal Military Governors. European countries and the United States, even if so disposed, were too absorbed in the war in Europe to give attention or help to China. Japan remained sole benefactor. Moreover, the Japanese are intensely patriotic, placing Japanese interests and the honour of their country first. Money to supply China's needs was loaned again and again, on most liberal terms as to control of expenditure, thus placing China in bondage, financially, to Japan. Loans were made not only to the Central Government, but to the provincial authorities, contrary to law, and even to the opposing Government in the south. By further loans to the Bank of Communications and the Bank of China, these two financial institutions of the Government came under the control of Japanese banks.

Although the Peking administration was still nominally the Central Government of China, it was amply clear to observers that by a process of successive collapses all that was left of government was simply that pertaining to the city. The writ of the capital no longer ran more than ten miles beyond the city walls. In all China's tribulations nothing similar had ever been seen. Even in 1900, after the Boxer bubble had been pricked and the Court had sought safety in flight, there was a certain dignity and majesty left. It was the last phase of political collapse with a vengeance.

The military governors of the northern provinces who had evidently been warned and organized by the Premier and his party, rose in opposition to the Kuomingtang, and what is known as the fourth revolution broke out. Foremost among them was the powerful Chang Hsun, a freebooter, who, with his private army of probably forty thousand men, ranked as an independent baron, over the important province of Anhwei, through which the railway runs from Peking to Shanghai. Chang Hsun brought his troops up by rail to Tientsin (June 7, 1917], the Treaty Port nearest the capital, and the government troops, being controlled by Tuan's party, would not oppose them.

The president, supported now by the parliament, appointed as acting premier Dr. Wu Ting-fang, who was minister of foreign affairs, and who had favored war, in order that China have a chance at the Peace Conference. He, however, disapproved methods of intimidation adopted by the former premier, General Tuan Chi-jui, to bring China into the war. Thus the military men stood arrayed against the democracy of President Li Yuan-hung, Dr. Wu Tingfang, and most of the parliament.

Then, towards the end of June, to make confusion worse confounded, the strongest of the military governors, who had absented himself from the military conference, General Chang Hsun, was invited to come to Peking to mediate between the wrangling factions. In former days he had fought for the Manchu house. He was reputed as opposed to declaration of war. He accepted the invitation, and came to Peking with a body-guard of 20,000 soldiers. His mediation consisted in forcing the president to issue a mandate to dissolve parliament. Dr. Wu Ting-fang refused to countersign the mandate. "You can take off my head," he said, "before I do an illegal act like that." Another man was chosen premier, and the mandate was issued, though contrary to the president's real wishes.

General Chang Hsun forced a few more equally democratic ideas on the president, and then, having got rid of parliament, he thought he might as well get rid of a president. He gathered a following and proclaimed the restoration of the dethroned boy emperor. It was a ten days' restoration. The former premier, General Tuan Chi-jui, turned against his military colleague, raised an army, defeated General Chang Hsun and his troops, and restored the republic. Here, indeed, was a bewildering maze.

On the arrival in Peking of the new president, and with General Tuan Chi-jui again premier, the war question was upper-most. The former president and the parliament were both out of the way, and the fourth revolution had begun. The American minister, as if to make amends, sent a dispatch to the Chinese foreign office, saying that his government advised China to harmonize its own differences before thinking of going to war with Germany. The entente ministers, including the Japanese, advanced various arguments in support of China's going on with the war, the main one being the alluring idea of advantages to accrue to China. In August 1917 war was declared on both of the Central Powers, without sanction of Parliament.

Japan through the fortunes of war had from August 1914, to August 1917, many chances to strengthen her position in China. When China declared war, August 14, 1917, very largely at Japan's behests, new opportunities appeared to Japan to augment her growing advantages. She was aided by the good luck of having the pro-Japan faction in power in Peking. The President, Feng Kuochang, was an opportunist and was easily managed. The Premier, head of the militarists, had already taken his orders from Japan, though presented in the form of friendly advice.

Even before China declared war, there was pretty good evidence that the two Governments were negotiating a secret Convention on military affairs and the sale of arms to China by means, strange to say, of a loan to China. This Military Convention got wrought into shape early in 1918, when Japan was called upon by the Allies to make an expedition into Siberia. Japan made use of this necessity to urge upon China co-operation in the military advance under the military leadership of Japan. When pressure was brought to bear by true patriots of China to make public the secret arrangements, this innocuous portion bearing on joint action to be taken in Siberia was duly published. Other arrangements were still kept secret.

The "Fourth Revolution," though at first considered insignificant in the political circles of Peking and even by the diplomatic corps, steadily grew in magnitude, until six out of eighteen provinces of China proper were occupied or controlled by the revolutionists. The six provinces were Kwangtung (Canton), Kwang-si, Kwei-chow, Hu-nan, Yunnan, and Sze-chuan. Engrossed in petty politics the politicians at Peking did not consider the southern situation with the seriousness which it called for, until Yo-chow, a strategical point on the Yangtse River, fell into the hands of the revolutionists in January 1918. With the fall of Yo-chow, the fate of the triplet cities of Hankow, Hang-yang, and Wuchang, the most important commercial and strategical points on the great river, became somewhat precarious. Awakened by this serious turn of events, Peking at last dispatched expeditionary forces to the Yangtse region.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen may be sincere in his advocacy of republicanism, though there was much controversial opinion about it. Yet Dr. Sun was no longer the leader of the south. Since the summer of 1917 the revolutionary faction in Canton and Kwang-si had been led by General Lu Yung-ting. Uneducated, ignorant, a freebooter in his younger days, this general knows nothing of republicanism and cares less for it. All he is concerned with is his personal profit and influence. Inspector General of the Two Kwangs, Lu has been aspiring to extend his inspectorate to Hu-nan province, which his forces have invaded. The only plausible reason for his apparent co-operation with Dr. Sun Yat-sen is that he believes it to be a convenient means to further his selfish ends.

General Tang Chi-yao, the recognized leader in Yun-nan, was credited by some with sincerity and patriotic motives. But there are many who question his solicitude for republican principles and declare that he is exploiting them for the selfish purpose of extending his influence into the province of Sze-chuen. Yun-nan, mountainous, unproductive, and isolated, is a very poor province. Whoever may be its governor is always desirous of including in his sphere of influence the province of Sze-chuen, which is rich in resources.

During the summer of 1918 a quorum of the old Parliament was obtained, and for the rest of the year China had two Parliaments - the one sitting at Peking, the other at Canton - each subscribing to the Provisional Constitution and claiming to be the sole legal legislative body of the Republic. Throughout the whole of 1918 desultory fighting had been taking place between 'North' and 'South,' the chief provinces affected being Hunan, Szechuan, Kiangsi, Fukien, and Hupeh. The inability of the Northern party to make any headway in the campaign, the financial embarrassment of both sides, and the growing dissatisfaction with a state of affairs that promised to lead nowhere, were at last responsible for an attempt to find a modus vii'endi for the two factions, and the President proclaimed an armistice when the news of the armistice in Europe reached China. Towards the end of 1918 it was agreed that a peace conference should be held. A controversy arose over the place of meeting, but eventually it was decided that the northern and southern delegates should deliberate in the native city of Shanghai in February 1919.

China had degenerated into a military despotism of the worst form. This military despotism was not centralized in the government at Peking, but was practiced by a score of military governors stationed in various provinces. These military governors were none but feudal chiefs, and were, in this enlightened age of the twentieth century, perpetuating the worst traditions of the mediaeval ages. They had no close allegiance to the central government beyond the duty of paying the annual account of salt, tobacco and liquor taxes, traffic revenue, internal customs duty, and a few other public revenues. Even this duty some of the military governors were unwilling to discharge. Since the inauguration of the "republican" regime, many governors, on one pretext or another, refused to contribute apportioned funds to the central government. Confronted by such recalcitrant governors, the government at Peking had no power to enforce order.

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