|The man who lost China
May 7th 2009 From The Economist print edition
History may have judged Chiang Kai-shek too severely
IN IMPERIAL China, overthrown rulers were ill-treated in the official histories written by the dynasty that succeeded them. They were blamed for all the evils that justified the transfer of the mandate of heaven. Today, not all Chinese history is written by its latest winners, the Chinese Communist Party. But its victory certainly colours views of the Republican period that preceded the revolution.
One casualty of this has been the reputation of the Republic’s leader, Chiang Kai-shek. During the second world war, he was a hero in the West, feted in Cairo in 1943 by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt as the free world’s great hope against Japan and the Communists in China. But, after the war, as the armies of his Kuomintang (KMT) government crumbled in the face of Mao Zedong’s Communists, Chiang’s standing likewise disintegrated.
The KMT was a dictatorial regime that had risen to power partly through exploiting its links with Shanghai gangsters. It was monstrously corrupt and mismanaged the economy into hyperinflation. It collapsed, largely, it seemed, under the weight of its own fecklessness and cruelty, and ended up ruling just Taiwan, from where Chiang dreamed ever more forlornly of recovering the mainland. Alliance with the dictatorship he brutally established there seemed one of those embarrassing right-wing entanglements the cold war foisted on America. Chiang himself, with his glamorous wife, Soong Mayling, his cool, austere manner and his comic-book title, “the Generalissimo”, seemed somewhere on the spectrum between joke and monster.
This enthralling book by Jay Taylor of Harvard University shows that these conventional views of both Chiang and the Chinese civil war are caricatures. It is the first biography to make full use of the Chiang family archive. This includes Chiang’s own diary, in which he wrote at least a page of classical Chinese daily from 1918 to 1972. The picture that emerges is of a far more subtle and prescient thinker than the man America’s General Joseph Stilwell used to refer to as “peanut”, and Britain’s chief of staff, Field-Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, dismissed in Cairo as “a cross between a pine marten and a ferret”.
In the 1930s Chiang soon realised that his flirtation with Italian-style fascism and a corps of Chinese “blue shirts” was a mistake, asking “how would I differ from the Communists?” He foresaw that the Japanese occupation would never be defeated until America joined the war. Personally incorruptible, Mr Taylor believes, he also understood the damage that graft did to the KMT. Indeed, he seemed to know that the better-disciplined, more fiercely motivated Communists would win one day.
Yet they need not have done. Mr Taylor recounts one of the pivotal moments in China’s civil war. This was the Xi’an incident of 1936, when Chiang was kidnapped by a warlord and pressed to form a united front with the Communists against the Japanese. Freed, Chiang had the chance of “an all-out military solution to the Communist problem”. But when an aide suggested finishing off the Communists, he “bent his head and did not answer. He had given his word.” How Mao must have laughed.
Other allies proved as fickle as Mao. In 1971, as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger prepared their opening to China, and consequent ditching of Taiwan, their plans reached Chiang not from Washington, DC, but from Zhou Enlai, China’s premier. Mr Taylor assumes he passed on a chilling exchange in which the author claims Mr Kissinger seemed to “tolerate a military takeover of the island by the Chinese”.
By then, however, Chiang had come to think that the loss of the mainland might have been “providential”. It had allowed him to achieve “true progress” in developing Taiwan, impossible on the mainland because of “subversion” and civil war. But Taiwan was also an unpleasantly repressive place. Its impressive strides towards democracy, which have seen the KMT both lose power and regain it, came long after his death in 1975. It was his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who will be remembered for ushering in political reform.
Under the elder Chiang, the KMT remained what it had become in the 1920s, when, during its first united front with the Communists, it was, like them, built with Soviet advice on Leninist lines. Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan was in effect a one-party dictatorship presiding over a capitalist economy, pursuing hell-for-leather growth. Rather like present-day China, in fact. In this sense, Mr Taylor concludes, Chiang was not such a loser after all.
The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China
By Jay Taylor
Harvard University Press; 722 pages; and £25.95
《经济学人》（The Economist ( http://www.economist.com ))