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London Review of Books,  vol. 26, no. 6, 18 March 2004


Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost by Jonathan Fenby

Chiang Kai-shek celebrated his 50th birthday (by the Chinese way of counting) in October 1936. To mark the occasion, every schoolchild in the country - or in those parts not already occupied by the Japanese army - was instructed to contribute 15 cents, and every teacher one dollar, to help purchase fighter planes from the US. A new spirit of patriotism was stirring as Japan continued its creeping aggression in the north. Army recruits were given lectures on 'The Coming Sino-Japanese War' and 'How to Make Sacrifices'.

Not everyone shared the enthusiasm. Children at a school in Jiangsu who were too poor to buy their textbooks complained that they would have to 'sell their bodies to the pawnshop' to raise the cash. College students in Jiangxi ordered to volunteer for military service worried that they might end up 'fighting against our own people' - Mao Zedong's Communists, whom Chiang was trying to wipe out before tackling the Japanese incursion.

Chiang celebrated his birthday at a lunch with candles on two large cakes; the orchestra of the Officers' Moral Endeavour Association serenaded him. The national subscription campaign had raised enough to buy 55 planes from Germany and the US. Chiang flew off to Xi'an in north-west China to finalise plans for a new anti-Communist campaign; the planes would come in useful for bombing the remote cave dwellings at Yan'an where Mao and the Red Army had taken refuge after the Long March.

Such disjunctures, familiar to anyone who studies 20th-century China, whether Nationalist under Chiang or Communist under Mao, are characteristic of Chiang Kai-shek's entire life. Right-hand man of Sun Yat-sen, the father of the first revolution in 1911, Chiang comprehensively betrayed Sun's populist ideals. Trained in Moscow, he denounced Soviet imperialism - but only after accepting Russian aid in the fight against Japan. Asserting the Confucian virtues of benevolent government, he turned a blind eye to massive corruption and the exploitation of China's peasantry. He was the unifier of China in the 1927 Northern Expedition, then destroyed the first united front with the Communists. He held China together in the war, then plunged it into civil war. In 1945 he was a world figure on equal terms with Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin; four years later he had fled to Taiwan. He ruled China and - in the phrase of anguished Americans who backed the wrong horse - he lost China.

Jonathan Fenby starts his important new biography, the first of substance for a quarter of a century, in Xi'an in 1936 when Chiang, after his 50th birthday, was preparing to bash the Communists. Having ignored the local armed forces' evident reluctance to fight, Chiang had a nasty shock early in the morning of 12 December. Visitors to the hot springs near the town, where he was surprised by the mutinous troops under Marshal Zhang Xueliang, are still shown the rock behind which he cowered after clambering out of his bedroom, falling into a moat and scrambling up a mountain. The guides make a point of mentioning that he fled in such a hurry that he was in his nightgown and without shoes. They would no doubt add the detail, if they knew it, that he was also without his false teeth; when the formidable Madame Chiang joined him a week later, Fenby records, she brought a pistol and his spare dentures.

The Xi'an Incident should have been a grave humiliation for Chiang, puncturing the myth of his invincibility. Held prisoner by Zhang, he was obliged to negotiate with the Communists (in the person of the wily Zhou Enlai) and to agree informally to end the internal war, paving the way for a new 'united front' against the Japanese. Yet, such is the mirror world of Chinese politics, Xi'an made him popular as never before. He flew back to a huge welcome in Nanjing, while his captor became his captive (Zhang remained in detention till after Chiang himself died in 1975). On the face of Tiger Rock, behind which Chiang had cowered, was carved a patriotic inscription: 'From here our national salvation begins anew.'

The Generalissimo's diary is still one of the main sources for the Xi'an Incident, though it is self-serving and was probably redrafted. One of the difficulties of writing about him is the paucity of new material: there has been nothing comparable to the publication of Mao's secret speeches or the revelations of his doctor. Biographers have always had a difficult time with Chiang, which may explain why there have been so few of them; Madame Chiang was always much better copy, as we were reminded in her obituaries last year.

Early pictures of Chiang at Dr Sun's side, and as commander of the Whampoa military academy where he built the Kuomintang's first effective force, show a remote face gazing out somewhere beyond the photographer. Edgar Snow, author of Red Star over China, spoke of his messiah complex and noted his 'sharp eyes looking out of the same austere mask'. Robert Payne (a profound observer of wartime China, whose books are now forgotten) described Chiang's face as 'always the same: calm, detached, unemotional'. The problem has always been how to penetrate the mask.

Early contemporaries speak of Chiang's strong passions. One called him 'extremely self-willed to an almost incorrigible extent'. Fenby describes the fierce wooing of his second wife, Chen Jieru, who was then aged 15. He won her over by threatening to cut off one of his fingers if she refused, and gave her the name Jieru, which meant 'pure and unblemished'. After they married, she discovered he had infected her with gonorrhoea.

In later life such passions were rarely revealed. Payne observed that Chiang only showed emotion in public three times: at the time of the Xi'an Incident, when his mother died and, most significantly, on the death of his secret police chief, the sinister Tai Li. Fenby adds an intriguing fourth. Chiang's third marriage, to Soong Meiling, the notorious Madame Chiang, in 1927 may have been a political union - her sister, Ching-ling, was the widow of Dr Sun, whose mantle Chiang sought to inherit - but he was capable of great jealousy. When Wendell Willkie was sent on a world tour by President Roosevelt, Meiling found him an easy catch. After a reception one evening in the Chinese wartime capital of Chongqing (Chungking), the couple slipped out of the room while Chiang continued to receive the line of guests. Later he turned up at the house where Willkie was staying, accompanied by three armed bodyguards. 'He searched every room, peering under the beds and opening cupboards. Not finding what he was looking for, he left without saying anything.' Even this story may not be as simple as it seems. Willkie's visit paved the way for Meiling's celebrated US tour the following year, when she appealed to Congress to support the Chinese war effort and brought her own silk sheets to sleep on at the White House. Perhaps Chiang knew exactly what she was sacrificing for the common cause.

Chiang's deep affection for his mother, his only parent from his seventh year, was quite genuine, and Fenby sees her struggle to bring him up as a significant influence on his character. From her he learned 'to erect a protective wall between himself and his surroundings, and to tread warily while never admitting defeat'. The relationship was woven into the image of a ruler who, like the emperors of the past, was a model of filial piety. After his mother's death, Chiang issued a message to the nation evoking her virtues. 'Now, while the trees around her grave are tall and thick with leaves,' he lamented, 'I realise only too well how little I have accomplished and how singularly I have failed to live up to her high hopes.' Self-abnegation on the part of the mighty was also an imperial trait.

The filial factor is an important element in any comparison of Chiang with Mao Zedong. Both men came from country villages and from families who, as Fenby observes, 'rose above the rural rut'. Both had a Confucian education and studied the classic texts (Mao's classical poetry in later life was far superior to Chiang's). Both stubbornly retained the accent of their home provinces: Mao's Hunanese accent and Chiang's Zhejiang were equally incomprehensible, and in the case of the Generalissimo high officials trembled with fear that they might misunderstand him. Both were obliged to enter into arranged marriages - Chiang's produced a son, his successor Chiang Ching-kuo, while Mao claimed never to have slept with his first wife.

On the other hand, the dominant parental influence on Mao was clearly his father's, and their combative relationship, which he described to Edgar Snow, carried on into his adulthood. Mao expressed his 'right to rebel' as forcefully as Chiang ordained the duty of obedience. At the risk of pushing this psychocultural interpretation too far, it seems to underlie broader differences between their personal and political lives. Mao worked through the night to the despair of his staff and ate irregular meals with large quantities of chilli peppers. Chiang always rose at the same early hour and preferred bland dishes of bean curd, salted turnips and rice congee. Mao is usually represented striding over the hills, or delivering impassioned lectures to soldiers who squat on the earth in front of him, or smiling and sharing a cigarette with peasants in his native village. Chiang is seen standing immobile in military pose, or declaiming in full uniform to an audience far below, or sitting alone in a scholar's robe as he contemplates his birthplace. Mao liked to compare revolution to evacuating the bowels: Chiang was by that measure severely constipated.

It's hardly surprising that when the two leaders met in a futile attempt to avert civil war after the defeat of Japan in 1945, no common chord was struck. Mao was engaged in his favourite activity of 'struggle', concluding an agreement which he quickly told his supporters was just a scrap of paper. Chiang prayed to God to show Mao the way (on his terms) to national unity, and complained of Mao's inordinate appetite at both the dining and the conference table. It isn't surprising that they had an extremely low opinion of each other. Mao had told an American diplomat that Chiang was 'fundamentally . . . a gangster', with no definite character or programme except to acquire power and wealth. Long after the Communist victory, when Mao was indisputably China's ruler, Chiang would insist that he was 'a brute devoid of any sense of gratitude', a peasant rebel 'with the face of a brigand'.

Mao may have been a peasant rebel (Soviet leaders were to make the same accusation) but he knew how to express and exploit the huge misery of the 80 per cent of the Chinese population whom Chiang ignored. And while Chiang in his earlier life had spoken of his aspirations for national unity in a way which struck a popular chord, it became increasingly hard, in his final years on the mainland, to see whom he represented, except for a narrowly based power elite. As Gabriel Kolko argued in 1969 in The Politics of War, by the end of the conflict against Japan 'Chiang ceased to represent any well-rooted element of Chinese society; he degenerated from the leader of a class to the ruler of a clique.'

The civil war, which lasted from 1946 to 1949, exposed the hollowness of Chiang's power. 'Had he wished to,' Fenby rightly argues, 'he might have done more to exploit his position as the only man who stood for China . . . [But] victory won, things went on as before. Though an expert survivor, the Generalissimo learned nothing because he could not see beyond his own limited horizons.' Nationalist carpetbaggers moved into areas liberated from the Japanese, phoney 'reconstruction' taxes were levied on business, the landlords resumed collecting exorbitant land rents in grain. Corruption was rampant and, as one US adviser among many put it, 'the broad mass of Chinese could not count on the government to run the economy in the national interest.'

Intellectuals were alienated from the regime by its witch hunts against allegedly Communist professors and students: for many, the turning point was the assassination in 1946 of the poet and moderate political leader Wen Yiduo. By 1947, hyperinflation was destroying the urban middle class and forcing honest officials to take bribes to survive, which alienated many who would have welcomed a return to good government under the Nationalists. Chiang announced a government reorganisation but most people concluded, in the popular phrase, that 'the broth had changed but not the ingredients.'

Chiang's contempt for Mao was briefly encouraged by the capture of Yan'an, the Communist capital, early in 1947, but he would have done better to read the military analyses published by the Communist press, which said that victory would come to them because of the low morale of the Nationalist army, its overextended lines of communication and Chiang's own habit of issuing 'a stream of contradictory orders'. Like the Japanese troops before them, Fenby says, Chiang's army 'preferred safety, staying put behind urban walls, and leaving the countryside to their enemy'. By the end of 1947, Chiang had lost Manchuria, and Mao made a speech outlining his plans for the coming counter-offensive based on mobile warfare and building peasant support in the countryside. As the US ambassador Leighton Stuart commented, it was 'a mark of Communist contempt' for the Nationalists that they should have 'so little hesitation in explaining their strategy'.

Fenby focuses on the point at the end of 1948 when the fall of Xuzhou, a key railway junction in the north, was followed by the Huai-hai battle which opened the road to the Yangtze and Shanghai for the Communist army. Within days, Chiang's general in Beijing had begun quietly to negotiate terms. Chiang made an ambiguous resignation speech and retired to his native village in Zhejiang, where he celebrated the lunar new year and went for walks in the countryside, 'watching the birds and relishing the peace'.

As the Communist advance continued throughout 1949, Chiang moved to a succession of outposts in the south and west, from Guangzhou to Chongqing, briefly considering and then abandoning plans to make a last stand on the mainland. By December, the only safe refuge was Taiwan, which he had inspected earlier in the year. Arriving on the island, he went with his son to a beauty spot with a famous lake, hired a boat, and caught a five-foot-long fish - this, he concluded, was a 'good omen' for the future (the word for 'fish' in Chinese is a homophone for the word meaning 'abundance'). Chiang had squandered the abundance he once enjoyed on the mainland: half of his four-million-strong army had been killed or wounded in the previous three years; the other half had surrendered, tens of thousands at a time.

Chiang's flight to Taiwan should have been both the end of his story and the time to start telling it. Instead he and his regime were saved by the Korean War, which made the survival of 'Free China' a Cold War imperative for Washington. The Kuomintang gained a new lease of life, but because it relied on the pretence that nothing had changed - it still represented China in the UN - it was closer to a living death. The people of Taiwan exchanged Japanese rule for another oppressive regime - in time they would benefit from the billions of US dollars which poured into the country and helped to create Asia's first 'economic miracle'.

As Fenby observes, the Cold War 'made an objective assessment of Chiang almost impossible, as the past was viewed through the lens of what followed'. He was either a faithful friend of the West who had been undone by 'Communist cunning and . . . treachery in the State Department', or he was a cruel and incompetent dictator, 'no better than the warlords'. (In the same way Mao was seen either as the Red Dictator or China's Saviour.)

Like the last emperor of a failing Chinese dynasty, Chiang became even more remote and inflexible, believing his own myth that 'all is in readiness for the eventual task of counter-attack and mainland recovery.' The government propaganda machine in Taipei issued a revised version of an adulatory biography by Hollington Tong, Chiang's wartime head of information: 'While the Western world was in the long trance of appeasement' of Communism, Tong wrote, 'the Generalissimo was never fooled.' Now his counsel was sought 'by the great and near-great of democratic lands everywhere'. In reality, Chiang had little to say to his rare visitors and he gave no interviews of substance. As US-China relations took a new turn following Nixon's decision to enlist Beijing's services in the Cold War, Chiang became an irrelevance.

A number of important books have been written about Nationalist China since the 1970s - among them Lloyd Eastman's The Nationalist Era in China (1991) and Joseph Fewsmith's Party, State and Local Elites in Republican China (1984) - but Fenby's is only the third comprehensive biography of Chiang in more than three decades (the others are by Robert Payne and Brian Crozier). He is still a formidable challenge to biographers, who must first get to grips with the warlord period from the fall of the Manchu dynasty to the Northern Expedition in 1927, and then grapple with two wars and many more political intrigues. Fenby has looked at unpublished research, visited the archives of the North China Herald, and has trekked to Chiang's home village and the scene of his Xi'an humiliation. At times, however, the sheer volume of history can get in the way. It is a pity that there is no final chapter on Chiang's twilight years: his most obvious legacy today as China abandons the last traces of Maoism - the unsolved problem of Taiwan - still festers on the edge of crisis, with provocative pro-independence talk in Taipei and new warnings from Beijing.

How then should we assess Chiang's role as unifier, defender and destroyer of Nationalist China? For all his faults, Edgar Snow wrote in Scorched Earth (1941), he was 'incomparably more able and competent . . . than his immediate predecessors in power'. Owen Lattimore, sent to Chongqing as Roosevelt's personal intermediary (and later pilloried by McCarthy), judged Chiang to have been a 'great man', the 'rallying point in the war against the Japanese'. Arguably, his earlier attempts to avoid confrontation with Japan made tactical sense, and he was already beginning to accept the 'ultimate sacrifice' of all-out war before the Xi'an Incident. Even such a fierce critic of the Kuomintang as the American radical Agnes Smedley, reporting for the Manchester Guardian from behind enemy lines in 1939-40, excluded Chiang from her attack on pro-Japanese capitulationism. Had Chiang been killed in Xi'an in 1936, Fenby points out, the appeasers in Nanjing might have allied themselves with Tokyo. 'If so, a vast Chinese army trained by imperial officers could have joined Japan in an attack on the Soviet Union from the east while Hitler moved from the west, altering the whole history of the Second World War.'

Chiang was not personally a 'gangster' as Mao claimed, but he had been in close league with the gangs during his rise to power. He was not alone in this: both revolutions, Nationalist and Communist, formed expedient alliances with secret societies and the underworld. But Chiang's use of the Shanghai Green Gang in 1927 to massacre thousands of worker activists and Communists was more than expediency: this was an enemy with whom he would never compromise. It's still unclear how much he remained in the gangsters' debt, but his choice of director for the Opium Suppression Bureau in Shanghai in 1935 offers a clue. Shanghai was to be 'cleaned up' by Du Yuesheng, boss of the Green Gang. This was the seedy reality behind the 'New Life' movement launched by Chiang, which sought to promote Confucian values - and banned slit skirts and curled hair as well as superstition and corruption. Real change would have meant opening up society and renouncing paternalism, but for the man who insisted that 'I am the government' this wasn't an option: he was, in Fenby's vivid phrase, 'a distant leader riding a white horse'.

He meddled endlessly with battlefield strategy in the war against Japan, announcing that its outcome would be 'determined by how the Leader directs the people'. His egotism proved disastrous. As the exasperated General Stilwell wrote in his diary, Chiang 'thinks he knows everything, and wobbles this way and that, changing his mind at every change in the action'. The graft tolerated by Chiang also infuriated the Americans, who sometimes had to bribe to get their own war aid into the country. By 1945 Chiang had become a mangy tiger that the Americans had mounted but could not get off. He ignored the US envoy General Marshall's advice that the Red Army was too strong to be defeated, and forecast victory within ten months. On taking up his post, Leighton Stuart cabled the State Department that he wanted Chiang to survive but also hoped for a revival of the old revolutionary aims and the installation of democracy. With Chiang's generals feuding, and his secret agents busy torturing and murdering and marching peasants to the front line (they were roped together to prevent them running away), that was a pathetic delusion.

A question is now being asked on the mainland which would once have been the ultimate thought-crime: with all his deep flaws, would Chiang have been better for China than Mao, or at least no worse? Following the route of the Long March at the end of 2002, Fenby asked his young guide what he thought of Chiang. The guide replied that if the Nationalists had not been defeated in 1949, 'China would have been spared tens of millions of deaths, and would have ended up much as it is today.' Such cynical judgments are easy to make after half a century, but Chiang was incapable of self-reform and had no agenda for the essential social and economic changes needed by a nation mired in poverty, disease and corruption. China needed a real revolution, however wildly it went off the rails later, and Chiang was incapable of delivering it. The tragedy of Mao's wilful last years was compounded by Chiang's survival with US backing on Taiwan - which only encouraged the mainland in its closed-door mentality. Chiang died in 1975, Mao a year later. It would have been better for China if they had both died a couple of decades sooner.