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Book Review: 'The Generalissimo' by Jay Taylor

Over the next quarter-century in exile, Chiang ruled despotically while playing a key role as the United States' closest Cold War ally in the Pacific. His son, Chiang Ching-kuo (whom Taylor profiled in a well-regarded earlier book), succeeded him after his death in 1975. Since the late 1980s, Taiwan has metamorphosed into a prosperous, vibrant democracy.

Chiang has been widely dismissed as a brutal, corrupt and incompetent military dictator who cared nothing for ordinary Chinese, let others fight the Japanese in order to conserve his resources for battling the communists and contributed little of value to China, Taiwan or 20th-century history. The Generalissimo evidently believed that to answer such charges would be demeaning and futile, a stance that doubtless appealed to his sense of martyrdom. In the mid-1950s, an American friend begged Madame Chiang to counter the "malicious propaganda" put out about her and her husband. Reflecting his views as well as her own, she replied that the more one protests, "the greater aid and comfort one gives to the enemy . . . . In time, truth will out."

It's unclear what time frame she had in mind, but the Chiang-Soong clan and their supporters have long been convinced that they and Chiang's government were the victims of a demonization campaign orchestrated by the international left starting in the early 1940s. By the 1970s, the American right had also largely abandoned Chiang's cause in its zeal to win China's support in the U.S. confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Taylor carefully reconsiders the received wisdom, yet his book is no polemic. Having begun with stereotyped preconceptions, he evidently grew sympathetic to his subject in the telling. But he does not shrink from detailing the worst abuses of Chiang's oppressive rule both on the mainland and on Taiwan. The book does gloss over a few things -- Chiang's tolerance of corruption and his role, in concert with his wife, in the infamous China Lobby, which helped jumpstart the notorious McCarthy witch hunts. But these, along with some overly detailed descriptions of battles and the intricacies of Chinese politics, are minor points.

Taylor's rehabilitation of Chiang's reputation mirrors a similar -- though unofficial -- phenomenon now underway in China, where the nationalist leader was long denounced as a "bandit" and a "running dog of the American imperialists." On the mainland, Chiang is now widely regarded as a Chinese patriot who made valuable contributions to the modern nation. Moreover, although they may not care to admit it, the leaders in Beijing have looked to Taiwan as a model for what a prosperous and free Chinese society might be like. And as China sheds its Maoist legacy, rendering the Chairman's rule a three-decade aberration, even mainstream Chinese scholars are suggesting that the country might have been better off had Chiang triumphed in 1949.

Perhaps Chiang has emerged victorious after all. For surely today's China resembles his vision more closely than it does Mao's.

Laura Tyson Li, Taiwan correspondent for the Financial Times from 1994-98, is the author of "Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's Eternal First Lady."

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