December 11, 2019


The Great Debate: Chiang Kai-shek's Role in 21st Century Taiwan (James X. Morris, October 29, 2018, The Diplomat)

The debate over where Chiang fits into Chinese and Taiwanese history has many factions. Some believe he was the only leader capable of holding off an invasion of Mao's People's Liberation Army in the 1950s, and without martial law the island would have been infiltrated by saboteurs. Some argue Chiang was a distracted adventurist who got in over his head, which cost him China. Others believe he was a leader who was given a bad hand repeatedly and could only play the cards he was dealt. Kerr wrote how many Western governments were prepared to write Chiang off in the late 1940s, their consular offices in China anticipating a Communist takeover of the mainland and eventually Taiwan. The Korean War helped Chiang's fortunes.

Despite his wartime nickname "Cash My Check," in Washington there existed a significant Taiwan lobby, and Chiang's wife, U.S.-educated Soong Mei-ling, was his strongest diplomatic asset. The Truman Doctrine of containment demanded Chiang's Republic of China could not fall to Mao.

At the end of World War II, Taiwan came under the control of the Republic of China, headed by Chiang. Kerr writes about the initial excitement of Taiwanese to become a leading part of the new China. Prior to 1945 they had been living modernized lives as part of the Japanese Empire. At the retrocession of Taiwan to the mainland, Kerr describes Taiwan as the only place in all of the Republic of China where one could find elevators. The hopes of the Taiwanese were soon dashed as carpetbaggers from the mainland seized authority over the island's industries, self-rule was revoked in favor a special KMT-dominated Governor-General administration, and infrastructure and wealth on the island was plundered for a failing war effort. After less than two years under the Nationalists, protests led to the 228 Incident.

In 1948, the Nationalists placed all of mainland China under a general martial law. This was extended to Taiwan in 1949 in preparation for the Herculean task of evacuating some 2 million Nationalist soldiers, officials, and elites from the mainland to Taiwan. The mainland was lost, but for the 2 million mainlanders, Chiang was a hero. For the next 38 years, as the Taiwan Strait remained a flashpoint, Taiwan remained under martial law. The White Terror, a period coterminous with military rule, saw the arrest and imprisonment of more than 100,000 on the island and the executions of an estimated 3,000 to 4,000. Native Taiwanese and mainlanders were both targets. Disappearances under martial law were common, and memories of late night knocks on the door and the sounds of firing squads along riverbanks are still very real.

Not only did he preserve the conditions that allowed an easy transition to democracy but an economy that is three times China's in GDP per capita. 

Posted by at December 11, 2019 12:00 AM