BEIJING, JAN. 13 -- Chiang Ching-kuo, 77, undisputed leader of Taiwan for more than a decade who brought rapid economic growth and one of the highest living standards in Asia to the staunchly anticommunist island off the coast of China, died today at Veterans General Hospital in Taipei, Taiwan, after a heart attack. He had diabetes.

He moved the authoritarian regime established by his father, Chiang Kai-shek, in the direction of a more democratic system. He permitted an opposition party to contest elections even though it was technically illegal.

During his years in power, Chiang guided Taiwan safely through major shocks to its economy and self-esteem. In the mid-1970s, the island managed to expand its economy and exports despite the world energy crisis.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter decided to establish diplomatic relations with the mainland, abrogate the U.S.-Taiwan defense treaty and break off official relations with Taiwan.

Under Chiang's firm leadership, the island absorbed that shock and its people went on to gain greater confidence in themselves than many expected they would.

Chiang had promised that no relative would succeed him.

In July, Chiang decreed an end to the martial law that his father imposed nearly four decades ago. Trials of civilians by military courts came to an end, and dozens of prisoners were released.

Although he remained anticommunist until the end, Chiang took a major step late last year when he agreed to lift a ban on travel to the mainland. He described it as a strictly humanitarian move designed to allow Chinese on Taiwan to visit their old homes and relatives on the mainland.

Chiang was the eldest son of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled with 2 million of his followers to Taiwan from the mainland in 1949 after defeat by the communists at the end of more than 20 years of armed struggle.

Chiang dropped the idea that the mainland could be retaken by force, as his father once thought it could, but he became convinced that the mainland could be transformed by the power of Taiwan's example and ideals.

He attempted to broaden the base of support for the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, by expanding the political role of native Taiwanese, who make up more than 80 percent of Taiwan's 19.5 million people.

Western analysts credit Chiang with helping to develop Taiwan's economic infrastructure and starting training programs for a new class of professional managers and engineers.

Under Chiang, Taiwan, an island only 240 miles long, became a major exporter and the fifth largest trading partner of the United States. Its foreign exchange reserves swelled to the third largest in the world.

Chiang started his career in Taiwan in the 1950s as the shadowy overseer of secret police operations, but he developed a more benign image, and gained considerable popularity as the island prospered and he became a top leader.

Over nearly four decades, Chiang held several ministerial posts, including that of minister of defense. He assumed the presidency in March 1978. In his rise to the presidency, Chiang acquired power, partly thanks to his father's influence but also as a result of his own shrewdness in neutralizing rivals within the ruling party and placing supporters in key positions.

"He was a much better politician than his father ever was," said Harvey Feldman, a former State Department official with lengthy experience in Taiwan. "He was far more effective on a personal level."

A veteran Taiwan journalist said Chiang learned two things from his experience during the destructive civil war on the mainland -- first that the Kuomintang was too weak and divided and had to be united, and, second, that the ruling party had lost prestige through widespread corruption among its officials and military men.

In recent years, Chiang learned much about the art of compromise.

He brought increasing numbers of Taiwanese into highly visible leadership positions in the government, such as the man who has succeeded him as president, Lee Teng-hui. But few Taiwanese exerted high-level political influence.

Little was known of Chiang's personal life. A short, chunky man, he made few public appearances and delegated many tasks to subordinates, who often took the blame when things went wrong.

He presided over a secretive political party, designed in many ways along Soviet lines and reflecting the influence of Soviet advisers during the earlier days of the Chinese republic.

Chiang was born in China's coast province of Zhejiang, the son of an arranged marriage between his father and a village girl. His father rarely saw him during his earliest years and entrusted his education to his paternal grandmother, a staunch Buddhist.

Chiang was influenced by the revolutionary ideas of the time. As a middle school student in Shanghai, he was arrested after participating in demonstrations against foreign influence in Chinese affairs.

In 1925, he journeyed to the Soviet Union, where he enrolled at Moscow's Sun Yat-sen University and joined the Communist Youth League. He spent nearly 12 years in the Soviet Union.

When Chiang split with the communists, he was sent into forced labor on a collective farm near Moscow. The Soviets allowed him to return to China in 1936 after the Chinese communists and the Kuomintang formed a united front against the Japanese. But his experiences in the Soviet Union left him with anticommunist convictions that would last a lifetime.

While he was in the Soviet Union, he met and married an orphaned Russian woman named Faina. They had three sons and one daughter.

ETHELYN AYRES COX,

79, a longtime Washington area resident and a former board member of the Historical Alexandria Foundation, died Jan. 10 at Goodwin House, a retirement facility in Alexandria. She had Parkinson's disease.

Mrs. Cox was born in Central City, Neb., and graduated from the University of Nebraska. She moved to the Washington area in 1935.

She was the author of the book "Historic Alexandria, Va., Street By Street," a description of historic landmarks in Old Town Alexandria.

Her husband, Hugh B. Cox, died in 1973.

She leaves no immediate survivors.

ALICE C. MEYER,

71, a resident of the Washington area since 1946 and a member of St. Luke's Catholic Church in McLean, died of cardiac arrest Jan. 11 at Fairfax Hospital.

Mrs. Meyer, who lived in McLean, was born in Cleveland. She grew up in Paso Robles, Calif.

Survivors include her husband of 40 years, George F. Meyer Jr. of McLean; one son, James F. Meyer of Lothian, Md.; one daughter, Ann E. Meyer of McLean; one brother, Bob Cousins, and one sister, Betty Cousins, both of Paso Robles, and six grandchildren.