Mutual Protection of Southeast China
The Mutual Protection of Southeast China (Chinese: 東南互保) was an agreement made by the governors of the provinces in southern, eastern and central China during the Eight Power Expedition in 1900. The governors, including Li Hongzhang (governor-general of Guangdong, Guangxi), Xu Yingkui (governor-general of Fujian, Zhejiang), Liu Kunyi (governor-general of Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi), Zhang Zhidong (governor-general of Hubei, Hunan) and Yuan Shikai (provincial governor of Shandong), refused to carry out the imperial decree promulgated by the Qing government to declare war on 11 foreign nations, with the aim of preserving peace in their own provinces.
Some other Han provincial authorities, such as the governor-general of Sichuan and the provincial governor of Shaanxi, did not formally join the mutual protection agreement, but similarly disobeyed the imperial edict. Thus, for the first time, the vast majority of Han regional authorities refused to aid the Qing court. For much of the conflict, the main forces fighting for the Qing court (alongside the Boxers) were the Manchu Hushenying, the Manchu Peking Field Force, and three out of five divisions of the Qing court's most modernized Wuwei Corps (including its Manchu division and Muslim Gansu division), whereas Yuan Shikai commanded the other two divisions into Shandong and used them to actively suppress the Boxers in open defiance of the Qing court. In Manchuria, large groups of Chinese bandits named Honghuzi also actively fought alongside with Manchu banners, mostly as a response to the separate Russian invasion which committed widespread atrocities.
Just 5 years earlier in 1895, China lost the war against Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. China hadn't recovered by 1900. It is obvious to most that China was in no position to fight against any single foreign nation, let alone against multiple foreign nations at once.
Even before the declaration of war by the Qing court in 1900, governors of the provinces in Eastern and Southern China had discussed the ways to preserve peace in their territories, primarily against an invasion by foreign powers. Among them were Liu Kunyi (Viceroy of Liangjiang), Zhang Zhidong (Viceroy of Huguang) and Li Hongzhang (Viceroy of Liangguang). The governors had also concluded that if Peking were to fall and the status of the Emperor and the Empress Dowager were to be unknown, a presidential republic would be declared, and Li Hongzhang would be the first President of China.
On 21 June 1900, the Empress Dowager issued the Imperial Decree of declaration of war against foreign powers on behalf of the Emperor, against 11 countries simultaneously, namely Russian Empire, United States, United Kingdom, Japan, France, German Empire, Italy, Spain, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The then Minister for Telegraphy, Sheng Xuanhuai, managed to stop the imperial decree and another decree to gather the Boxer rebels from going public. Instead the decrees were only shown to the governors, together with a telegram instructing them not to follow the imperial order. Li Hongzhang, Yuan Shikai and other viceroys openly rejected the Dowager's call for staging military actions against the foreign powers. Li Hongzhang in particular issued a telegram, stating 'This is a false decree; the Provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi won't obey'  Zhang Zhidong tabled again the proposal to establish a Chinese Republic with Li Hongzhang as the President in the event that the Imperial Court fell along with Peking.
The governors asked the foreign powers to not invade their provinces no matter what happens to the North (i.e. Peking, Hebei and Shanxi); and conveyed the order to their subordinates that "Belligerent mobs should not be used; heresy and mysticism should not be trusted; armed conflicts should not be initiated."
Li Hongzhang used the Siege of the International Legations as a political weapon against his rivals in Beijing, since he controlled the Chinese telegraph service; he exaggerated and lied, claiming that Chinese forces committed atrocities and murder upon the foreigners and exterminated all of them. This information was sent to the Western world. He aimed to infuriate the Europeans against the Chinese forces in Beijing, and succeeded in spreading massive amounts of false information to the west. This false information spread by Li played a part in the massive atrocities which the foreigners later committed upon the Chinese in Beijing. For refusing to obey the Chinese government's orders and not sending his own troops to help the Chinese army at all during the Boxer Rebellion, Li Hongzhang was praised by the westerners.
Yuan Shikai and Zhang Zhidong ignored Empress Dowager Cixi's declaration of war against the foreign powers and continued to suppress the Boxers. In addition to not fighting the Eight-Nation Alliance and suppressing the Boxers in Shandong, Yuan and his army (the Right Division) also helped the Eight-Nation Alliance suppress the Boxers after the Alliance captured Beijing in August 1900. Yuan Shikai's forces massacred tens of thousands of people in their anti-Boxer campaign in Zhili Province. Yuan operated out of Baoding during the campaign, which ended in 1902.
This event marked the first time that Han officials openly refuse to obey orders from the Manchu court (Li Hongzhang, Liu Kunyi, Zhang Zhidong were all Han Chinese). From the perspective of the provinces, the event successfully prevented war and turmoil from affecting their territories. After the Eight Power Expedition, the local authorities saw the need to enhance local military strength in order to defend themselves against foreign invasions. When the Qing court collapsed and imperial officials were expelled upon the Xinhai revolution, these militarily powerful regional authorities led to the Warlord Era.
From the perspective of the Qing court, the Eight Power Expedition, together with the series of military confrontations she made with foreign powers, hurt national pride. In particular, this event showed how prominent regionalism had become as local authorities refuse to abide by the imperial order. These led to the fear of dismemberment of the state. Hence the government made attempts to recentralise power and win back support. For example, she proposed to prepare for a constitution, a royal cabinet, together with a series of reforms. But these actions were mainly seen as insincere as their chief intent was to prolong the Manchu rule, instead of strengthening China and sharing power with other races. These reforms did little to save the Qing court, and imperial rule collapsed in 1911 after the Chinese Revolution.
In the ending days of the dynasty, the Qing court made a final attempt to re-appoint Yuan Shikai, who was politically exiled in 1908-1911 due to his participating role in the mutual protection agreement. Yuan Shikai eventually agreed to take control of the modernized imperial Beiyang Army and made a few successful expeditions against the revolutionaries; however, he almost immediately entered negotiations with the revolutionaries, and eventually forced the abdication of the Qing court.
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