OPINION: Don’t Delete the Generalissimo, Contextualize Him

REUTERS/Richard Chung
Why you need to know

'His legacy ought to be studied and analyzed, if only to remember the horrors and agonies of the history of this island nation, and to educate ourselves on the importance of avoiding a backslide into totalitarianism.'

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In the past week, two opinion pieces have appeared in The News Lens tackling the question of what to do about the troubled legacy of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) in Taiwan.

Read more:
OPINION: Deleting the Generalissimo from Taiwan is the Right Move
OPINION: Deleting the Generalissimo from Taiwan is the Wrong Move


There is one issue which must be immediately clarified: nobody is suggesting that Chiang be completely deleted from Taiwan's history.

His legacy ought to be studied and analyzed, if only to remember the horrors and agonies of the history of this island nation, and to educate ourselves on the importance of avoiding a backslide into totalitarianism. I do not believe anyone has suggested that he be deleted from history textbooks, nor would it be wise to do so.

However, it is absolutely correct to remove Chiang's statues and his place in a "memorial hall" "(Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, in Taipei) which would be best repurposed for more appropriate uses: a vibrant, modern democracy does not need a moribund reminder of the former dictator's bloody legacy and continued cult of personality among some, in what could otherwise be a public space welcoming to all.

Chiang undoubtedly had an impact on Taiwanese history, but it is inaccurate to say that without him, Taiwan would likely be a province of the People's Republic of China. From 1945 until the outbreak of the Korean War, Chiang himself was aware of the fact that the Communists could, and likely would, attack Taiwan. He was also aware that his only recourse in this case would be aid from Western allies: aid he was not at all sure would come. Western powers, including the United States, viewed Chiang as a somewhat undesirable leader, at best a necessary evil. Many among the Republic of China's allies during this time felt that a Communist invasion was inevitable, and did not necessarily believe it was crucial to stop it.

The change in Western attitudes to Taiwan came with the outbreak of the Korean War. The U.S. decided that Taiwan was an essential bulwark against the spread of Communism (and of China's navy into the Pacific). It was this change in Taiwan's strategic importance and the subsequent mutual defense agreements signed between the United States and the Republic of China, not any action of Chiang’s, which ensured that Taiwan did not fall to the People's Republic. Not only would this have likely happened without Chiang in power, it might have happened sooner under a leader more appealing to the United States, or with Taiwan hypothetically having gained independence as a former colonial territory of Japan.

Furthermore, there is little validity to the argument that Chiang deserves to be commemorated, even in a complicated way that does not absolve him of his crimes, due to his economic development initiatives improving the quality of life in post-war Taiwan. This oft-ignored fact highlights the importance of knowing one's history: before World War II, Taiwan was one of the most prosperous territories in Asia.

World War II certainly did its part to create economic turmoil in Taiwan, but for the most part, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) inherited a prosperous and well-run economy in 1945. This is not a defense of the Japanese colonial period: colonialism is, generally, indefensible. However, Taiwan's pre-ROC era economic prosperity is simply a fact. What destroyed the Taiwanese economy so much that the KMT eventually decided to "develop" it? The KMT themselves: as Hsiao-ting Lin (林孝庭) notes in “Accidental State”, under Chiang-appointed Chen Yi (陳儀), resources were so badly mismanaged, governance so high-handed and command economy and state monopoly enterprises so unsuited to local conditions that the economy, and the living standards of the Taiwanese, plummeted. Making a difficult situation worse, Chiang's main economic interest in Taiwan in these years was to use its resources to pay for the costly civil war in China that he was slowly losing.

Chiang Kai-shek did not develop initiatives to turn Taiwan from a backwater into an Asian Tiger. He merely, and belatedly, sought to fix what he and his own party had broken to begin with. As Neil Jacoby points out in “U.S. Aid to Taiwan”, without the U.S. pushing Chiang, even the limited liberalization of the 1960s would not have occurred. Indeed, throughout the 1950s the bulk of the government budget went to the military for distribution to Chiang’s allies and subordinates. The “Taiwan Miracle” was largely a creation of Taiwanese small- and medium-sized businesses in defiance of the KMT regime’s attempt to control and suppress them.

Land reform is similarly a complicated issue: while breaking up large landholdings of an entrenched property-owning class is quite defensible, much of that land was ceded by Japanese owners leaving the former colony, and although some was redistributed, much of it was taken by the state directly, or given to KMT state-run monopolies. Make no mistake: land reform was enacted to enrich the ruling diaspora, including Chiang himself, just as much as it was meant to redistribute land to everyone else.

In short, there is no political, military or economic argument for continuing to allow Chiang statues to dot the Taiwanese landscape. Even if the economic and anti-Communist defenses were accurate, they would still not begin to contend with the pain his actions caused in Taiwan.

It is true that some venerate Chiang, and some are not as ill-disposed to him as others, but people's opinions should not be the deciding factor - facts should rule the day, and the facts are clear: Chiang was not good for Taiwan. He was a complex figure to be sure, but the complexity lies largely in attempting to capture the variegated breadth and depth of damage that he and the KMT did, and continue to do, to Taiwan.

Chiang belongs in history textbooks, properly studied and contextualized. Nobody disputes this, including the reasonable among those who promote Taiwanese identity. His statues, however, belong at the memorial park at Cihu where the trail of blood and suffering he cut across Taiwan can be properly considered at a distance and remembered with appropriate solemnity. To continue to place his likeness around the country, including in an ostentatious “memorial hall,” is to rub the memory of his unforgivable brutality the faces of his victims and their descendants.

Editor: Edward White

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