Books · China

Generalissimo review mishap

The Generalissimo’s review was one of my best, and it was certainly the longest at 850+ words. I considered the book to be so important that I pitched it as a review to an international newspaper. They initially gave me approval to proceed and then do a final edit for them to publish it. Then they discovered my review for my company online and called me, accusing me of being unethical by giving them a ‘reprint.’ I was confused momentarily and I gave the editor a stunningly inept reply on the phone that I didn’t know it was wrong. What I should have said was that my reviews on the book were different, to the point that over half of my submitted review to them was fully different (my overall view was the same) from the review for my company. I recovered my wits to email them an explanation, twice, and invited them to compare my articles. I got polite replies but basically their initial denial stood.

Here is the version of The Generalissimo that I sent them and you can compare it to my company version in the post below to see if it is the same.

Over the past year, significant progress has been made in ties between China and Taiwan. Few modern historical figures may have gotten such a tarnished reputation as their former leader, the late Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang is remembered by many as an inept leader for losing China to Mao Tse-tung’s Communists after the Chinese Civil War. Even on Taiwan, Chiang suffered the posthumous ignominy of having his own memorial hall renamed.

Jay Taylor’s The Generalissimo offers an extensively-researched portrayal which is more balanced, complex and in-depth than others, and succeeds in presenting a better understanding and appreciation of Chiang. This epic volume covers the whole span of Chiang’s life from his youth to his rise to leader of China and finally, his twilight years in Taiwan.

Chiang has been accused of many things, such as deliberately not fighting the Japanese during World War II and for being an incompetent leader. He is also widely detested by many in Taiwan who perceive him as a tyrant.

In reality, many of these criticisms are unfair or unfounded. As the book makes clear, Chiang was a leader who was forced to face significant adverse political, military and economic obstacles, both internal and external, virtually though-out much of his reign on China and later, Taiwan.

Chiang had the striking misfortune of having to fight three major foes, almost consecutively over three decades from the late 1920s to 1949: Chinese warlords, the Communists, who he fought twice, and the Japanese. Chiang was unable to conduct needed land and economic reforms, maintain stability or deal with problems like corruption.

As Taylor correctly states, Chiang always held a weak hand in dealing with enemies and allies alike after 1937. Even before that, the fight against the Communists and the challenges of reuniting China after it had been a collection of fiefdoms ruled by warlords for most of the preceding two decades, prevented Chiang from ever consolidating government control.

Much criticism of Chiang has been made over his supposed refusal to fight the Japanese after they invaded, instead conserving his forces to fight Mao’s Communists. It is true that Chiang believed that the Communists were the greater threat, but Chiang lost more than three million men fighting the Japanese army. In contrast, the Communists hardly fought significant campaigns against Japan and from 1937-1944, they only lost a little over 100,000 men. Not only did Mao not fully commit to fighting the Japanese, but Mao was very intent on defeating Chiang, despite their supposed partnership.

Taylor’s detailed exchanges do well to show the inefficient support and even obstruction from the U.S. that illustrate the near hopelessness of Chiang’s position. The difficult relationship between Chiang and his American chief of staff  Joseph Stilwell is well-known. Taylor reveals the depth of mistrust, arrogance and malice that Stilwell showed towards Chiang. Referring to Chiang as “Peanut” in his journals and openly among his staff, Stilwell’s harsh and often misleading reports on Chiang to superiors such as Army chief of staff George Marshall had dire consequences on American support to China during WWII.

This inefficient support extended to the Civil War, where flawed advice and insufficient aid from the Americans influenced Chiang to make terrible military decisions against the Communists, who enjoyed strong aid from the Soviets.

Far from being ignorant about international affairs, a prescient Chiang foresaw the onset of the Cold War and the French and U.S. failures in Vietnam. Contrary to popular belief, he did not genuinely believe he could retake China, but expressing this intention was a “matter of appearances, psychology and domestic morale.”

It would be unwise to shift the blame for Chiang’s problems to external circumstances. His flaws are detailed such as stubbornness, excessive self-belief and a tolerance of corruption which he saw as a problem to be faced only after national unity was achieved.

However it is unquestioned that he faced almost insurmountable odds on a continuous basis during his entire rule in China, which no leader could be seen to have prevailed.

Whilst Chiang’s rule on Taiwan was authoritarian, it was not brutal or dysfunctional. Reforms carried out under him led to today’s Taiwan, a testament to his cherished dream of a modern, stable and vibrant Chinese society, which he was not able to realize on the mainland.

History is usually written by the victors and seems to have dealt Chiang a cruel hand.

But in the end, though Chiang lost to Mao and had to flee the country he loved, it is his (and his mentor Sun Yat-sen’s) vision which is thriving on Taiwan, whilst China is moving further and further away from Mao’s. Time will tell if China will become more like Taiwan as relations between them improve. In this case, it will be Chiang who can be seen to be the ultimate victor.