The historical status and role of the Northern Warlords Group

It is generally believed that the Northern Warlords not only destroyed the bourgeois democracy and set up autocratic dictatorship, but also destroyed our country’s road to modernization. First, it stubbornly operated the policy of fawning on foreign powers and crazily bartered away our country’s rights and interests, thus hindering China’s development. Second, the incessant warlord melee spelt disaster for our country’s economy. Third, it levied exorbitant taxes on people and embezzled a lot of social wealth, which seriously damaged the industrial and agricultural reproduction. Fourth, with the reactionary regime, it struggled to maintain the production relations of the feudal comprador and seriously hampered the development of the social productive forces. For example, based on lots of historical facts, Wang Fangzhong exposed the direct damage to traffic and commerce caused by several important battles among warlords in the 1920s, and pointed out that the warlord melee had made the national businesses stray from the path of smooth development and go on a cranky, tortuous road.13 Many scholars also studied the Northern Warlords’ damage to the local economy. For example, Zhang Xiaohui discussed the harms caused by the warlord melee to the Guangdong economy, and Ren Nianwen et al. investigated the Northern Warlords’ scramble for and damages to Shanghai.14 However, some scholars represented by Lai Xinxia argued that we should not deny the historical status and role of the Beiyang Group simply and completely, and pointed out that the Beiyang Group was not only the backbone of the late Qing Dynasty regime in its last ten years, but also the main military force for the transfer of power during the 1911 Revolution. It had made the Chinese military system get rid of the old backward state, and its Beiyang Government had represented the Republic of China at home and abroad after the 1911 Revolution. It had also paved the way for China’s transition from unification to reunification.15 Guo Jianlin also proposed that the modern warlords had played a role in promoting China’s modernization. For a long time, the historian circles have ascribed the development of industry and mining industry in the early years of the Republic of China to the First World War. Some scholars argued that this is not the case and stressed that we must never ignore the important internal cause for the Beiyang Government’s policy orientation.16 However, some scholars also pointed out that the development of the social economy at that time was not all caused by the government’s behavior but was facilitated by various social factors at the beginning of the 20th century, including the historical achievements of the 1911 Revolution, the new changes in the international market, the Northern Warlords Government’s implementation of economic policies, the local autonomy, the patriotic movement of the masses, the migration of population, etc.17 It should be said that this view is far more comprehensive than the one ascribing the economic development during this period only to the policy orientation of the Beiyang Government. The scholars who considered that the behavior of the Beiyang Government had promoted the economic development should at least show us the influence of the government’s actions when the economic development was hindered, rather than just vaguely listing some laws and regulations; because there were laws to abide by did not always mean all laws would be obeyed.

4.1.5 The relationship between the Northern Warlords and the imperialist powers

Before the 1980s, studies on this problem always argued from the perspective of the Northern Warlords’ collusion with the imperialist powers and had the obvious stereotyped tendency, so they had drawn simple conclusions that the imperialist powers were the Northern Warlords’ patrons and backstage supporters, and the Northern Warlords were the imperialist powers’ tools and running dogs. Some scholars even held that working as the imperialist powers’ tools for their colonial domination of China should be a main feature of the Northern Warlords. In fact, the relationship between the Northern Warlords and the imperialist powers was very complicated and changeful. Sun Sibai pointed out that simply regarding the Northern Warlords as the “running dogs” and “tools” of imperialism was not in line with the actual situation and the relationship between them was often varied at different times and places. So, it was not proper to apply the fixed and unchangeable formula mechanically.18 With the deepening of research, the above-mentioned oversimplified method and one-sided conclusion have been gradually corrected. Many scholars have noticed that betraying China and fawning on foreign powers was only part of the relationship between the Northern Warlords and the imperialist powers, there also existed contradictions between them, which had been proved by the historical facts. For example, Yu Xintun’s “Japan’s Dual Diplomatic Policy on the Zhili-Fengtian War” (the 4th Issue of the Nankai Journal, 1982), analyzed the causes and consequences of the different attitudes of the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the Japanese Army

History of the Northern Warlords 111 to the Zhili-Fengtian War, and indirectly exposed the treacherous and changeable means of imperialist invasion. Lou Xiangzhe’s “On the Relationship between the Zhili Government, England and America” (the 1st issue of the Journal of Tianjin Normal University, 1986) pointed out that England and America did not support the Zhili Government clearly. Lai Xinxia’s “The Northern Warlords and Japan: Chinese Scholars’ Research at the end of the 20th Century” (the 8th issue of the Academic Monthly, 2004) further pointed out that the so-called and stereotyped Japanese support for the Anhui clique and Fengtian clique, and Britain and America’s support for the Zhili clique did not exist. These three main cliques of the Northern Warlords - the Zhili clique, the Anhui clique and the Fengtian clique - all had different forms and degrees of explicit or implicit collusion with Britain, the United States, Japan, and other big powers. To maximize their interests in China and maintain their sphere of influence, the big powers also made deals with the different cliques of the Northern Warlords in different ways such as economic aids and political intervention. Because of historical and geographical reasons, and the Western powers’ inability to attend to China during the First World War, the relations between the Northern Warlords Group and Japan were closer, and Japan’s manipulation and influence on all aspects of China’s political situation became more obvious as well.

 
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