Sunday, February 07, 2010

History's ironies — Chiang Kai-shek and the new Chinese model

The latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement (dated January 29, 2010) has a review of a sympathetic new biography of Chiang Kai-shek, who ruled China from 1920-1949 and then Taiwan from 1949 until his death in 1975. (The book sounds interesting, though it also sounds as though it may go a little too far in the direction of favorable revisionism.) This observation by the reviewer, Jeremy Brown, caught my eye:
Chiang's popularity in mainland China has never been higher. After Mao Zedong and the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and drove Chiang and the Nationalists into exile on Taiwan, propaganda and textbooks vilified the "Chiang bandits". Under Mao, anyone with ties to the KMT [Kuomintang] suffered persecution. But in recent years, mainland politicians have recast Chiang as a Chinese patriot who resisted Japanese occupation and pushed for state-managed modernization. Chiang's vision was to transform China into a prosperous, modern world power under authoritarian tutelage, with little attention to grand ideologies aside from vague statements about restoring the glory of traditional Chinese culture. China's current political climate would have suited Chiang quite well. Nowadays, many young people in China have a more favourable impression of Chiang than they do of Mao.
I can't vouch for the accuracy of these statements, but they sound quite plausible, since they accord with other things I've been reading about contemporary China, and they make a lot of sense. The rulers of China still call themselves the Communist Party, and they and their propagandists like to describe their system as "socialism with Chinese characteristics." What this actually means, however, is a system of political authoritarianism combined with state-directed raw capitalism, buttressed ideologically by an increasingly assertive Chinese nationalism. It's certainly true that "China's current political climate would have suited Chiang quite well" (assuming he was the one in charge, of course).

--Jeff Weintraub

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