Re-Evaluating the Legacy of Chiang Ching-kuo

Re-Evaluating the Legacy of Chiang Ching-kuo
Photo Credit: 公有領域

What you need to know

Tomorrow marks the 107th anniversary of Chiang Ching-kuo’s birth. Jeremy Olivier questions whether the Generalissimo’s son was really the great initiator of democratic change so many politicians and academics like to say he was.

Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) is persona non grata in Taiwan these days. A 2006 research report on the 228 Incident commissioned by the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration in no uncertain terms named Chiang as the primary culprit of the brutal violence experienced by Taiwanese island-wide during that event. Statues of the late dictator have been consistently defaced each year on the anniversary of 228, and his portraits, which used to hang at the back of every public school classroom in Taiwan, have gradually disappeared.

Even former president and Kuomintang (KMT) stalwart Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) acknowledged Chiang Kai-shek’s responsibility for 228 and the subsequent era of martial law known to many as the White Terror last February, an indication of a fairly broad consensus on his controversial legacy.

His son’s, on the other hand, is a different story. Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) is a name seemingly synonymous with Taiwan’s democratization, a thoughtful and forward-looking leader, at least if you follow the majority of English-language scholarship on Taiwanese politics. Or if you watch the jostling amongst KMT leaders – those who became active during the twilight hours of the one-party authoritarian government – about who is the rightful inheritor of Chiang Ching-kuo’s legacy. Or judging by overall public opinion, most recently captured in a 2007 TVBS survey that asked which of the five presidents up until that point (Chiang Kai-shek, Yen Chia-kan (嚴家淦 ), Chiang Ching-kuo, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), and Chen Shui-bian) had contributed the most to Taiwan. Nearly half of the respondents chose Chiang Ching-kuo; 77 percent said his accomplishments outweighed his mistakes.

What is one to make of the man, knowing all this? What explains a leader who is held in such high regard, despite, after all, still having been an autocrat? Authoritarian nostalgia, the feeling amongst the citizenry in a newly democratized country that times were more stable and prosperous during the previous nondemocratic period, has been especially pervasive in East Asia. It was the driving force behind the 2013 election of now-ousted South Korean president Park Geun Hye, and likely played a part in a majority of Filipino voters choosing strongman Rodrigo Duterte to lead them last year.

What sets Taiwan apart in this phenomenon, though, is why its former authoritarian ruler continues to be revered. Whereas in places like South Korea or the Philippines, those who wistfully remember the years of Park Chung Hee or Ferdinand Marcos do so because of a wish to return to a time of rapid economic growth or political stability, Chiang Ching-kuo is lauded by Taiwanese politicians and scholars alike as being the instigator of political liberalization in Taiwan. A benevolent and humble man of the people who gave up power to set Taiwan on an irreversible course towards the vibrant democracy that Taiwan is now known internationally for.

Jay Taylor, author of the Chiang the younger’s most well-known English language biography, “The Generalissimo’s Son,” notes that his subject was, according to those around him, an empathetic man who genuinely cared for the common people, a quality he may have acquired in his years living in the Soviet Union. However, the author confesses that this side of his personality was at odds with the reign of terror he inflicted upon the Taiwanese population as head of the National Security Bureau (NSB) after the KMT reforms of the early 1950s. His seemingly gentle and pliable nature also does not negate, in the minds of many who fought for Taiwanese democracy, his role in crushing dissent, both at home and abroad, throughout the period of martial law. This is best encapsulated in the arrest of the Kaohsiung Eight in the aftermath of the Formosa Incident and the murder of dissident author Henry Liu (劉宜良 ) in California. The latter was never connected directly to Chiang, but to Vice Admiral of the ROC army Wang Hsi-ling, and, Taylor finds, possibly Chiang Hsiao-wu (蔣孝武), the second of Chiang Ching-kuo’s six sons. This international incident exposed the high level of involvement of organized crime in the security apparatus and military of Chiang Ching-kuo’s regime, which in itself should be cause for condemnation.

A large factor contributing to the historical blind spot in regards to Chiang Ching-kuo’s legacy is the utter lack of physical memorialization to him. It’s difficult not to encounter monuments bearing the likeness of Chiang Kai-shek almost anywhere one goes in Taiwan; there are, after all, an estimated 43,000 of them across the country. Yet a search for Chiang Ching-kuo statues or memorials turns up precious little, except for those scattered across a few KMT strongholds around the island. Many in Taiwan are coming to the realization that the ubiquity of the elder Chiang’s statues are doing more harm than good for those who believe he should continue to be honored. They are reminders of a violent not-so-distant past and their presence has caused otherwise law-abiding people to take vigilante action in attempting to remove them. One must wonder if Ching-kuo and those who continue to revere him took this into consideration in refraining from immortalizing him in this way.

It is increasingly clear that, despite the great advances it has made in democracy and human rights, Taiwan is a nation still struggling to shed the baggage of its authoritarian past. Many vestiges of the KMT party-state are so enduring because of how institutionalized it became after arriving in Taiwan, and how strong it was even after Taiwan democratized. And it’s not just the statues that serve to reinforce the KMT’s historiography; they are only the most salient part of what Jeremy E. Taylor terms the “built environment” of the ROC, wherein everything from universities to city streets bear the names and heritage of a government in exile. These are all aspects that are exceedingly difficult to change, it seems, as even in the historic case of the Democratic Progressive Party presidential administration and legislative majority, only middling progress has been made.

April 28 marks the 107th anniversary of Chiang Ching-kuo’s birth, and for those who take notice, it may serve as a reminder of the long road Taiwan has traveled since democratizing more than two decades ago, and of the possibly grueling road ahead.

One important means of moving forward is finally recognizing the negative impact Chiang Ching-kuo had on the lives of countless Taiwanese during his control of the KMT’s coercive apparatus and as the unelected president. It would also mean relinquishing the idea that he owned Taiwan’s democratization, as this diminishes the plight not only of democracy activists, but of liberal voices for change within his own party at the time.

As Academia Sinica sociologist Wu Nai-teh (吳乃德) asserts, Chiang Ching-kuo’s role was not what so many politicians and academics like to advance, that of the initiator of political change. In fact, he says, “the only contribution Chiang Ching-kuo made to Taiwan’s democracy is that he swiftly removed the only remaining obstacle to democracy – his dictatorship.”

Editor: Edward White