This year, the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in the Sino-Japan War, also marks 40 years since Chiang Kai-shek died in Taipei in April 1975 at the age of 87.
In a commentary carried in the Hong Kong Economic Journal in 1975, I wrote that “Chiang was the most successful autocrat in Asia as he outlived the region’s other dictators, like South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, Thailand’s Sarit Thanarat and Indonesia’s Sukarno.
“It was also because other regimes all ended in tragedy yet Chiang managed to pass on the ‘throne’ to his son Chiang Ching-kuo after he lost the mainland to Mao Zedong.”
Chiang was talented both in statesmanship and political rift, that was why he could still sustain his rule in Taiwan after his defeat in the Chinese Civil War.
His way of anointing a transitional figurehead, Yen Chia-kan, as the next president before making his son his successor also inspired Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew on the issue of succession.
Under Generalissimo Chiang, Kuomintang saved the Chinese soil from falling into enemy occupation, helping the Allied Powers gain the upper hand on the Asian theater of World War II.
One of my columns in May 2014 about Oxford University historian Rana Mitter’s new book Forgotten Ally was carried by some mainland newspapers and forums with a revised headline, “What if Chiang Kai-shek surrendered to Japan?”
Mitter, a new authority in China study after John Fairbank and Jonathan Spence, saluted Chiang as a staunch ally of the war against Fascism whose role had long been understated.
One can hardly expect a truthful, unbiased account of the war from government-approved documents. One shining example is Beijing’s monstrous lies to grab the war honors from Chiang to extol Mao. Thus, descriptions by overseas scholars with no political affiliation are more reliable.
Beijing calls itself “the mainstay in China’s resistance to Japanese invasion” in its propaganda and history textbooks, drawing bitter rebukes from critics, who noted that most of the time the “mainstay” hid in remote footholds while the Kuomintang fought a lonely battle.
Mitter noted that Chiang was the soul throughout the “heroic resistance” even after the Chinese Communist Party dodged from its pledges to form a united front, surmounting the rampant kerfuffle and infighting within the Kuomintang.
As he puts it, the significance of several key victories under Chiang’s leadership, like the Battle of Tai’erzhuang (台兒莊大捷) in northern China, could be on par with the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Mitter also compared Chiang to Mao: Chiang wanted China to rise from the ashes of the war to regain its prominence but the coldly calculating Mao exploited the Japanese invasion to his own advantage: hiding, preserving and expanding his Red Army in the northwestern rural regions while avoiding direct confrontation with Japanese invaders.
When the war was over, Mao had already annexed vast areas from the Kuomintang with over a million guerrillas.
Mitter’s book about Chiang is now published on the mainland, which can be a hint that Beijing aims to improve relations with Kuomintang veterans in Taiwan, although the gesture has boomeranged after its bid to rewrite the facts about the war.
History is written by the victors. But since China is already a major power in today’s world, then what kind of harm Beijing can’t withstand should it become more honest about history as well as Chiang and Kuomintang’s heroic deeds in defending the Chinese soil?
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 2.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
– Contact us at [email protected]