45 years ago on this day Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the Nationalist government that had lost the Chinese Civil War against Mao Tse-tung’s communists and fled to Taiwan, died in exile in Taipei, a city which he had named provisional capital of China. Chiang couldn’t fulfill his dream of retaking any territory overtaken by the “Communist bandits”, as the press controlled by him called them officially until the late eighties.
At that time, his son Chiang Ching-Kuo, who had ended almost 40 years of martial law, had also passed away and democracy was slowly blossoming on the island under the first president born in Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui. In his younger years, still in China, while Chiang stood committed to a program of social reform, most of it remained on paper, partly because his control of the country remained precarious. Ultimately he lacked a vision for those deep social and economic changes needed to bring Chinese society into the 20th century, following an increasingly conservative path that virtually ignored the plight of China’s oppressed and impoverished peasantry, which more and more supported his sworn enemies.
After being forced to move to Taiwan with the remnants of his Nationalist forces in late 1949, and as a lesson from this grave error, a thorough land reform laid the basis for the country’s impressive economic achievements over the next four decades. The excellent infrastructure built on Formosa between 1895 and 1945 by the Japanese, which he had been so reluctant to fight on the Chinese mainland, was also essential. The chastened Chiang finally curtailed the notorious corruption in the Nationalist Party. During the Cold War, and especially after the Korean War broke out in June 1950, he benefited greatly from generous military American aid. In his last years he had to witness how Taiwan lost its seat in the United Nations to the People’s Republic and the beginning rapprochement between Washington and Peking known as “ping-pong diplomacy”.
Once his statues were omnipresent in Taiwan and important roads in all relevant places are still named after him, which has become a controversial issue due to Chiang’s involvement in the “White Terror”, an era lasting from 1949 to 1987, in which over 1000 persons were executed and over 100,000 imprisoned for various lengths of time. Those victims included communist sympathizers, democracy activists, critics of the regime, as well as members of the local elite deemed contaminated by Japanese influence during the colonial period. It will take time to heal wounds that could not be mentioned for decades, but Taiwan is slowly confronting its authoritarian past, a difficult task everywhere.
P.D.: I remember that when I was a child, our family used to buy canned pineapple, mandarins and asparagus from Taiwan while on holiday in Germany. Little did I know that one day I would consider that island my home.