Review by Laura Tyson Li
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China
By Jay Taylor
Belknap. 722 pp. $35
Chiang Kai-shek ranks as one of the most despised leaders of the 20th century. Famously derided as "Peanut" and "General Cash-My-Check," the leader of China's Nationalist government bedeviled the Allied war effort in World War II with his lackluster defense of his country. His corrupt and brutal regime squandered billions of dollars in American aid and drove the Chinese into the arms of the communists. He died in exile a deluded despot, relegated to a footnote in modern Chinese history. Or so the conventional story goes.
Now, however, Jay Taylor's new biography, "The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China," challenges the catechism on which generations of Americans have been weaned. Marshaling archival materials made newly available to researchers, including about four decades' worth of Chiang's daily diaries and documents from the Soviet era, it torpedoes many of that catechism's cherished tenets. This is an important, controversial book.
Taylor, who was a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution, argues that, far from being incompetent, Chiang was a farsighted, disciplined and canny strategist who repeatedly predicted major geopolitical events and made the most of the weak hand he was usually dealt by allies and enemies. His five decades of participation, at the highest levels, in world-changing events may be unsurpassed in the 20th century. For all his flaws as a political leader, Chiang laid the foundation not only for Taiwan's prosperity, but also for its transformation into the only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world, and one of the few in Asia.
"The Generalissimo" is especially timely appearing as it does during a period of flux and promise in the delicate dance between Taiwan and China. A new closeness is apparently taking hold: trade agreements are being signed, direct flights are being established and Chinese tourists are flocking to the island. There's even talk of a peace treaty. So the book naturally raises the question: Whose vision of China's future is really winning? Is it Chiang's dream of a more free-wheeling nation, or the image of a revolutionary utopia championed by his communist nemesis, Mao Zedong?
Taylor reveals intriguing details, such as Chiang's decades-long secret communications, after his 1949 defeat, with Mao's No. 2, Zhou Enlai. He describes Mao receiving instructions and trunks full of Mexican silver dollars from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin -- without which, Taylor argues, the fabled Long March probably would have been impossible. He debunks the view that Chiang's entire military record was one of abject failure and sheds fresh light on Chiang's ties to the United States during the Cold War conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Chiang strenuously warned President Lyndon B. Johnson against being drawn into the latter war. And Taylor adds depth and detail to the saga of the 1970s U.S.-China détente and Washington's eventual recognition of Beijing, describing how Chiang concealed his bitter loathing of President Richard Nixon.
Chiang emerges as a flesh-and-blood man rather than the buffoonish cardboard-cutout figure he has generally been portrayed as. China's nationalist leader is revealed as a tormented soul, as prone to bursting into tears as into angry tirades, who through force of will conquered his own demons to -- as he saw it -- lead his people out of colonial oppression and moral decay to forge a strong, unified nation.
Born the son of a village salt merchant and raised by his widowed mother, Chiang Kai-shek rose to rule the world's most populous country. After revered revolutionary Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, Chiang seized power. In 1927, he launched a bloody purge of the Chinese Communist Party, which had been cooperating with Sun's Nationalist Party, touching off decades of civil conflict. Soon after, he married Sun's sister-in-law, Mayling Soong, the youngest daughter of a wealthy and powerful Shanghai family and a formidable figure in her own right.
In the 1930s, he tried to hold Japan's armies at bay while battling the communists -- until 1937, when full-scale war erupted with Japan, and he joined forces with Mao. After Pearl Harbor -- Chiang had long predicted that Japan would target the United States -- he joined the Allies. As World War II ended, he resumed fighting the communists. After his defeat, he retreated to the island of Taiwan, then called Formosa.
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."