Books · China

The Generalissimo

This biography promised to look at Chiang Kai-shek from a different and more balanced perspective than many other previous works on him. The author admits his former liberal prejudiced view towards CKS but which gradually changed as he started his research into this book. It also helped temper my view of CKS because I used to believe that he was incredibly inept, arrogant and mentally short-sighted, for his losses to the Communists and Japanese and his supposedly belligerent attitude to China on Taiwan. Reading The Generalissimo gave me more insight into the difficult conditions that surrounded CKS’ rule, from the chaos of the warlord-era when he ‘united’ China after his Northern Expedition, to the constant provocations of Japan that led to all-out invasion and war, and the ineffective support provided by the United States during WWII and also during the Civil War afterwards. CKS had the tremendous misfortune of facing major foes in a sequential manner, almost non-stop, during his rule. No one could be expected to have done a good job in such circumstances.
After retreating to Taiwan, CKS continued to maintain the ROC government and claim legitimate rule over China. True to form, he still had sour relations with senior American officials and leaders such as George Marshall and Richard Nixon. All this while, he managed to obtain American financial and military support and helped lead Taiwan along its way to being a prosperous and open economic society. CKS’ forces did commit some sinister deeds such as the 228 Incident and the White Terror. There is no excuse except to say that CKS did not order the crackdown following the 228, nor did the violence ever approach anything near the toll of those happening on the mainland such as the Cultural Revolution. These actions were not out of the ordinary for an authoritarian regime and ruler, but over time as CKS and his Kuomintang increased their power, their rule improved, both in terms of economic progress and human rights. The most poignant conclusion from CKS’ rule in Taiwan, as the book says, was that China never had the conditions, beset as it was by internal instability, poverty, and external foes- Japan, necessary for CKS and the KMT to lead it to progress as a modern, vibrant Chinese society, that they enjoyed in Taiwan.

This is my CP review of The Generalissimo, which is my longest ever and was published as the only one for that week.

Few modern leaders may have gotten such a tarnished reputation as the man who was the former leader of China and the first president of the Republic of China (R.O.C.) on Taiwan. This would be the late Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who is blamed by many for ‘losing’ China after his defeat to Mao Tse-tung’s Communists in the Chinese Civil War. Even on Taiwan, Chiang suffered the posthumous ignominy of having his own memorial hall renamed. The Generalissimo presents another portrayal, one which is more balanced and in-depth than many others, and which goes some way to presenting a better understanding and appreciation of Chiang.

This epic volume covers the whole span of Chiang’s life from his youth in his native Zhejiang, to his rise in the KMT as Sun Yat-sen’s successor and leader of China, to his struggles against Japan and the Communists, and finally, to his twilight years in Taiwan.

It is a tragedy that, too often, Chiang is mainly remembered for two major things, one being his disastrous defeat by Mao and two, his authoritarian rule on Taiwan, which while laying the foundations of today’s modern and prosperous society, also limited freedoms, enforced harsh laws and caused the loss of lives.

In reality, 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, much of which he was in no position to control.

The most striking fact is that Chiang had the misfortune of having to face three major foes, in an almost consecutive sequence: Chinese warlords, the Communists, who he fought twice, and the Japanese.

After defeating or co-opting many warlords to gain control of the country by 1928, Chiang only had a few years before conflict started with the Communists. Coming close to inflicting total defeat on them, Chiang facted a provocative Japan, which led to a full invasion in 1937. After holding on through World War II and seeing Japan’s defeat, Chiang had to fight a rejuvenated Communist army, strengthened by massive Soviet aid, which he would eventually lose to. During this time, Chiang also had to deal with serious economic inflation, corruption, defections, and protests.

Somewhat disappointingly, Chiang’s campaign to unify China during the warlord era in the 1920s, the Northern Expedition, is not covered in very substantial detail. Neither are the battles against Japan during WWII, as Taylor chooses to focus on political developments, especially Chiang’s difficult relations with his American military commander, General Joseph Stilwell, who openly disrespected him and even referred to him as “Peanut.” This was to have dire consequences on the effectiveness of Chiang’s military’s effectiveness.

The latter chapters on Chiang’s rule of Taiwan seem more like a book on Cold War geopolitics rather than a biography. The onset of the Cold War and the growing menace of Mao’s regime meant that Taiwan still played a substantial role on the regional stage as a staunch anti- Communist bastion, which Chiang exploited fully in dealing with the U.S.

The book’s detailed account of Chiang’s often rocky relations with U.S. officials and presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy gives a fascinating picture of the precariousness of the R.O.C. in those times. Under threat from Mao’s China militarily and diplomatically, Chiang tried to retain U.S. support whilst struggling to keep the R.O.C. relevant in the international arena. Richard Nixon’s detente with China hit Chiang hard, who detested Nixon, though it did not surprise him.

While Taylor touches on important events of Chiang’s rule in Taiwan like land and economic reforms, political rights and martial law, the content is too sparse.

Far from being ignorant, Chiang seemed to be quite perceptive and prescient on major domestic and international politics, predicting the onset of the Cold War and the French and U.S. failures in Vietnam. His strong view of Mao’s Communists as a great threat, which some saw as unreasonable and which led one of his generals, the ‘Young Marshal,’ to kidnap him to force a truce, turned out to be tragically true.

Chiang was resilient, principled and possibly too idealistic, even earning Mao’s ridicule over his naivete in refusing to attack him in 1936 after giving his word despite favourable circumstances. This principled idealism saw him maintain the R.O.C. on Taiwan whilst steadfastly refusing to merge or unite with the Communists.

Chiang did have faults such as stubbornness, excessive self-belief and a tolerance of corruption. That Chiang was personally honest is acknowledged, but he tolerated a strong level of corruption among subordinates, which he justified as being a cost of retaining their loyalty.

Whilst Chiang’s rule was authoritarian, it was not brutal nor dysfunctional. Today’s Taiwan is a testament to his cherished dream of a modern, stable and vibrant Chinese society, which he was not able to realize on the mainland.

When one looks at the People’s Republic of China today, it is hard not to realize what Taylor says at the end is true. That, 60 years after the end of the Civil War, it is Chiang Kai-shek’s vision of China, not Mao Tse-tung’s, that has endured and is being carried out on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.


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