Chiang Ching-kuo: son of Chiang Kai-shek and pioneer of democracy

Chiang Ching-kuo in the late 1940s, looking almost like a Communist cadre

110 years ago, on the 27th of April 1910, Chiang Ching-kuo was born in the Chinese province of Chekiang as the eldest and only biological son of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. His younger brother Chiang Wei-kuo was later adopted. He wasn´t his father´s direct successor as President of the Republic of China (still Taiwan’s official name), but ruled the country from May 1978 until his death in January 1988. His relevance for the development of modern Taiwan should not be underestimated.

Due to the good relations between the Soviets and the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the early 1920s, in 1925 Chiang Ching-kuo left China for the Soviet Union, where he was given the Russian name Nikolai Vladimirovich Elizarov, learned the language and finished school. He even joined the Soviet Youth Corps and went on to study at the Sun Yat-sen Communist University of the Toilers of China in Moscow, where the future leader of the People’s Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping, was one of his classmates. After graduating in May 1930, Chiang first worked in an electrical plant in Moscow and then in a steel factory in the Urals, the mountain range that divides Europe and Asia. As a consequence of the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations in 1927, Chiang Ching-kuo had in fact become a hostage of the Soviet Union until 1937, when the Second Sino-Japanese War started. An apparent gesture of goodwill by Joseph Stalin made possible his return to China. After the end of World War II he supervised the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Manchuria, who had expelled the Japanese from that part of Northern China, and prevented the region from being taken over by the Chinese Communists. At least for a short time …

After the Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan in 1949 in the final stage of the Chinese Civil War, never to return to the mainland, Chiang Ching-kuo was made head of the secret police on the island. There he oversaw the first stages of a decades-long era called “White Terror”, during which many communist sympathizers, democracy activists, critics of the regime and members of the local elite were imprisoned or killed. On the other hand, in clear opposition to the “Mainlanders” who had escaped with the Chiang clan from Mao Tse-tung’s communists, and at the time still dominated the KMT, in 1978 he chose Hsieh Tung-min as the first vice president born in Taiwan. In 1988 another Taiwanese, Lee Teng-hui, took over the presidency from him, consolidating a process of democratization which culminated in the first free presidential elections in 1996.

As head of state he had to witness how Washington bent to Peking’s “One China Policy” and severed diplomatic ties with Taipei in December 1978. Although Taiwan’s international isolation became evident, the economy took off, which resulted in the country accumulating the world’s second highest foreign currency reserve, and nowadays still holding the sixth position. Chiang Ching-kuo also advanced political reforms, which in September 1986 lead to the foundation of the oppositional Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), even before in July 1987 martial law was lifted after 38 years.

When I arrived in Taiwan for the first time in August 1988, just a few months after Chiang Ching-kuo had passed away, I was told that only recently the media had started to use the term “Chinese communists” in substitution of the Cold War denomination “Communists bandits”. What that an early form of political correctness in East Asia?

I don’t recall going to Taipei’s Cafe Astoria then. Located near the main station, and founded in 1949 by Russians who had arrived in Taiwan after having first fled to China following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, it was the city’s first Western-style patisserie. Chiang Ching-kuo, who had married Faina Ipat’evna Vakhreva from Belarus in 1935 while abroad, became a regular customer together with his wife.

During my 20 years in Taiwan, I saw pictures of him taken in a couple of restaurants, even in small ones. Chiang Ching-kuo had the reputation of being a down-to-earth politician. So who wouldn’t want to have a photo taken with the president in person, even if he was a (benevolent) dictator?

P.D.: The Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank at Stanford University, announced in November 2019 that copies of Chiang Ching-kuo’s personal diaries, covering the period 1937 to 1979, would be available for scholars.


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