By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Chiang Kai-shek? Who's Chiang Kai-shek?

People around my age, who grew up during the height of the Cold War, will remember how Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader expelled from the Mainland after losing a long civil war to China's communists, was a powerful, divisive figure in U.S. politics of the time. He, and the Republic of China he ruled on Taiwan awaiting a return to the mainland, were idolized by conservative Republicans as anti-communist heroes, while liberal Democrats tended to regard him as a corrupt dictator who allowed communists to appear as champions of the people.

Anyone with this history in your head returning to Taiwan today will be amazed, to put it mildly. Taiwan is currently ruled by the Democratic People's Party (DPP), a left-of-center party growing out of the 80 percent of Taiwan's population who are native to Taiwan rather than coming from the Mainland, probably closest in overall ideology to U.S. Democrats. The DPP sees Chiang -– who died two decades ago -- as an authoritarian dictator who oppressed the native Taiwanese. But the DPP is pro-Taiwan independence and thus very hostile to Communist China, which wants Taiwan back. So under DPP rule Taiwan has, among other things, undergone a growing "de-Chiangification." In the year since I last visited Taiwan, the name of the Taipei airport has been changed from "Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport" to "Taoyuan International Airport" (the name of the place where the airport is located), and the name of the enormous "Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall," in the center of Taipei, has been changed to the "Democracy Memorial Hall." During this last week, the government announced that Chiang's birthday and day he died will cease to be national holidays.

But things get stranger. Chiang's old party was the Kuomintang (which, with the rudimentary Chinese I have now picked up, I now know means "National People's Party"), and it is currently the main opposition party in Taiwan – indeed, they may well win next year's presidential election. The Kuomintang has stuck to Chiang's old "one China" policy, by which Chiang meant eventual reunification under his control, and which is also advocated by mainland China, while opposed by the pro-independence DPP. And the Kuomintang also represents Taiwan's businesspeople, who are eagerly investing in China. So now the Kuomintang has become the party in Taiwan that is more sympathetic to – the communists in China! And vice versa -– the Communist Party of China has signed a friendship agreement with the Kuomintang, and even makes vaguely nice noises about Chiang Kai-shek, the communists' erstwhile arch-enemy and erstwhile hero of conservative Republicans. And in the United States the people who now like Taiwan are as likely as not to be liberal Democrats rather than conservative Republicans.

Complicated? Crazy?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 03, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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