Exiled son who saved the state

The Generalissimo's Son
March 22, 2002

Chiang Kai-shek is widely remembered in the West as China's wartime leader and as the man who "lost" China and set up an authoritarian regime in exile on Taiwan. The life of his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was also remarkable in many ways, not least for the achievement of converting Taiwan from an underdeveloped one-party state to something approaching a modern democracy, enjoying great economic prosperity. Yet Ching-kuo is hardly remembered outside Asia.

At the time of Chiang Kai-shek's death in 1975, Ching-kuo had long been his father's most trusted helper and adviser, and for nearly six years had governed in Chiang Kai-shek's name. His succession to the leadership was so widely accepted that no one took advantage of the situation to make a challenge.

Ching-kuo had not always been his father's favourite. Chiang Kai-shek disliked, ill treated and finally divorced the boy's mother, an illiterate old-fashioned woman to whom he had been married in an arranged match. Confident that he would have other children, Chiang Kai-shek allowed Ching-kuo to be registered as the son of his deceased brother, thus giving the dead man a descendant of his own. When Chiang Kai-shek realised that he had become infertile as a result of venereal disease, he began to take more interest in the boy who would be his only child.

In 1925, aged only 15, Ching-kuo went to study in Moscow. This was less strange than it sounds now. The Kuomintang party, of which Chiang Kai-shek was soon to become leader, had not yet developed its anti-Communist stance; indeed it was still in alliance with the infant Chinese Communist party. Many young Chinese who would later play a role in the history of their country, including future communist leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, were classmates of Ching-kuo. But in 19, when Chiang Kai-shek broke with the Communist party and massacred leftists in Shanghai, Ching-kuo was in a very difficult situation. He publicly disowned and denounced his father in an open letter that appeared in Izvestia.

Ching-kuo then worked in obscurity as an engineer in the Soviet Union until 1938 when, after protracted negotiations between Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek, it was agreed that he should return to China. He took with him the Russian wife he had married in 1935. She acquired fluent Chinese. Their four sons grew up as Chinese and the marriage survived, despite Ching-kuo's infidelities.

We do not know how father and son resolved what had been a very public rift. For four decades, through the war with Japan, the civil war with the communists and years of exile in Taiwan, Ching-kuo was ever ready to serve his father in any capacity. At the same time he strove to keep a good relationship with his formidable stepmother, Soong Mei-ling. He had to deploy great diplomacy, conscious always that his personal history and his marriage to a Russian made him vulnerable to accusations of communist sympathies from other factions within the Kuomintang.

Ching-kuo's achievements in the last years of his father's life and in the period of his own presidency were remarkable. He was, unlike his father, a truly modern man in his understanding of technical and economic progress. He was also a political realist. As Taiwan prospered in the 1960s and 1970s, demands for democracy grew. Ching-kuo responded by introducing a considerable degree of political and electoral reform. In the 1950s and 1960s, exiled mainlanders monopolised power in the Kuomintang and in government. After Chiang's death, despite bitter opposition from his stepmother and the Kuomintang old guard, Ching-kuo made the party and the government much more inclusive, giving senior positions to native Taiwanese. Under his rule, Taiwan survived the diplomatic reverses that followed the recognition of the People's Republic of China by the United States. Taiwan's economic strength bolstered its position. Despite the hostile tone that subsisted in communications between Beijing and Taipei, the mainland began to welcome visitors and investment from Taiwan.

Ching-kuo's presidency lasted only ten years ending with his death in 1978. In Beijing, Deng Xiaoping is said to have expressed regret for the death of a man whom he saw as a pragmatist who might have worked for reunification. Although Ching-kuo had attained his position through his relationship to his father, he disapproved of nepotism. True to his record as a liberal reformer, instead of trying to ensure the survival of the Chiang dynasty, he deliberately made it impossible for his sons to succeed him.

Jay Taylor's biography is detailed and well researched and fills many gaps in our knowledge of an extraordinary but neglected figure in modern history.

Delia Davin is professor of Chinese studies, University of Leeds.

The Generalissimo's Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan

Author - Jay Taylor
ISBN - 0 674 00287 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £28.95
Pages - 520

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