ASIA: by Ian H. McDougall (reviewer)News Weekly
The Republic of China is reborn on Taiwan
, July 23, 2011
When Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it was not end for the Republic of China. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang administration and some two million people, constituting the intellectual elite of China, retreated to the island of Taiwan, some 120 kilometres off the southeast coast of China.
Initially, it was expected that Taiwan would fall to the communists fairly quickly. The local people, who had been ruled by the Japanese for 50 years, at first welcomed the return of Chinese rule after the end of World War II, but revolted against the heavy hand of the Kuomintang governor in a bloody uprising that killed thousands. When China fell, Chiang knew he was on his last chance. There was nowhere else to go.
Although he was the man who had famously “lostChina”, Chiang was by no means stupid. The Kuomintang armies were far superior to the those of the communists, as Stalin knew very well. While Stalin’s eventual aim was to establish communism in China, he knew the immediate strategic enemy was Japan, so he supported the Kuomintang.
The Kuomintang fought the Japanese very effectively, even though Chiang knew he was outgunned, while the communists were militarily next to useless and would not fight the Japanese even if they could, because they regarded their main enemy as being Chiang and the Kuomintang.
The communists fought only one major engagement against the Japanese, not least because they were so weakened by Mao’s insane purges that they were not an effective fighting force. As for the Maoists’ endless romanticising about guerrilla warfare, the peasants usually hated the communists more than they hated the Japanese, because the communists’ extortionate “taxation” meant they were usually on the verge of starvation.
Why then did the Kuomintang lose China? Chiang was a good general, a capable administrator, understood diplomacy and was politically adept. Despite the fact that soldiers were occasionally promoted to colonel solely because they were good at calligraphy, the Kuomintang armies were, on the whole, well led. Chiang was prepared to have people shot if they got out of hand, but they numbered in the thousands rather than the estimated 70 million Mao killed during the time he was in power.
Chiang’s problem was that he was a traditional Chinese leader. There is hardly a word in English to describe Mao’s treatment of people — it was so brutal, even towards those closest to him. He literally didn’t care whether they lived or died. When he fell out with his oldest and most loyal friends, he had them tortured to death.
Mao treated one of his wives with such extreme cruelty she went mad. If tens of millions died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward, in a program which was a total failure, he didn’t care because it was necessary to build a New China.
Chiang on the other hand was incapable of disciplining his family and associates. His wife, Sung Mei-ling, was one of three sisters, the famous “Sung Dynasty”. Her sister Ai-ling married into the Kung family, one of the richest families in China, while Chi-ling married Sun Yat-sen, founder of modern China. A popular saying about the Sung sisters is “one loved money, one loved power and one loved China”.
Corruption within Chiang’s inner circle reached the point where the Americans realised no matter what aid they sent Chiang, it would be stolen. Besides the fact that this deprived aid to the people on the ground who needed it, it made the Americans extremely angry, to the point that they denied Chiang aid, military and otherwise, when they probably shouldn’t have.
The Kuomintang was riddled with communist moles and sleepers, yet even when it was obvious that senior generals were traitors, Chiang would do no more than move them sideways.
In the end, following the defeat of the Japanese, the Russians swung their weight behind Mao and the communists won a number of key campaigns. Chiang and the Kuomintang were expelled from China.
Chiang knew what had gone wrong. When the Kuomintang arrived in Taiwan, Chiang began breaking up key influence groups so they wouldn’t have the same grip on power that they had had in China.
Through the “Land to the Tiller” reform program, land was sold to tenant farmers. It didn’t make the Kuomintang very popular with the landlords, but they were compensated with shares in state-owned industrial companies, which proved to be very good investments.
With economic development encouraged, concentrating on light industry, and entrepreneurs and bankers, especially from Shanghai, providing support,Taiwan soon began to prosper. The many scholars who had moved to Taiwan provided the base of an enviable education system where virtually every child went to school.
Chiang was a rather dour man who kept a tight grip. His son Chiang Ching-kuo began liberalising Taiwan and Lee Teng-hui completed the process. It is now entirely fair to call the Republic of China, on the island of Taiwan, by the name of Free China.