Taiwan and the Lesson of Chiang Kai-shek: Hard Cuts Soft

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 1, January 2019

Taiwan president-elect Ma Ying-jeou speaks in front of a statue of late president Chiang Kai-shek in Tashi, Taoyuan county, northern Taiwan on April 5, 2008. Source: Rutger van der Maar via Flickr.

Arthur Waldron, Ph.D.

University of Pennsylvania

Taiwan is never to be taken for granted. We really have to get one thing straight, which is that without Chiang Kai-shek (CKS), his mainlander army, and even aspects of his dictatorship, the free Taiwan that we love today simply would not exist. Its natural leaders, both from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang (KMT), would either be long dead or in prison, while its young people, now among the best educated in the world, would be memorizing idiocies from the imperial thoughts of Xi Jinping.

The first prerequisite for a free Taiwan is an existing Taiwan. Then and now the only way to maintain that is by military strength. Hard cuts soft. By virtue of his personal position, and his loyal troops and officers, CKS was able to make Taiwan a bastion that, with eventual American help, repelled every attack.  That is the bottom line: no CKS, no Republic of China (ROC)/Taiwan today.

CKS and Chiang Ching-kuo (CCK) made Taiwan so strong and so organized that even an American full court press to sink her in the 1970s failed. How hollow Henry A. Kissinger’s (HAKs) laughter with Ji Chaozhu sounds today, assuring him that Taiwan will fall into China’s lap in a matter of years. Of course CKS’s policy was that Taiwan was China and he bloodily enforced it. He and his government had done their work well enough, though, that the place did not collapse when he died, and CCK was able to tell the American empty suits, who arrived like a planeload of oleaginous funeral directors at the end of 1978 eager to push him into China’s arms, where to go. He chose Lee Teng-hui as his successor because he was the only inner circle KMT member who always voted for liberalization in secret party meetings.  The torch was passed successfully.

Remember, the US tried as hard as China to sink the island, and with more confidence, but the same zero success.

Ironically, a new danger arose when some in the KMT, losing its grip on power in the island, made themselves into tools for the CCP. Preferring a lavish and entirely meaningless reception in China to loss in Taiwan, they began to weaken Taiwan’s military in silent cooperation with the US. I well remember Taiwan’s smartest general shaking his head when I asked him about Ma Ying-jeou and the Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST), where Taiwan develops her own weapons. Ma pretended not to understand that hard cuts soft. CKS, a battle hardened veteran, knew that. Ma, a greenhouse bloom, did not. Meanwhile the US seemed to think that China was benign and that the real danger was that some crazy Taiwanese like Premier Hau Pei-tsun was going to start a war. Had Hau’s defense vision, including nuclear weapons, been carried out, we would not have an article now every day about whether Taiwan could defend herself. Yet we, anesthetized by pipe dreams about China, intervened to prevent that, supplying instead weapons that no one serious about really defending the island would have taken seriously. Ma, 100 miles from an implacable enemy, immensely bigger and growing stronger as we stood on Taiwan’s oxygen hose, tried to create a volunteer force. No. Taiwan must always be militarily potent, with a citizen army. But one cannot make bricks without straw.

Finally, had we followed British policy in 1945, which maintained a legation in China and a consulate in Taiwan, come recognition we certainly could have had legations in both places, had we negotiated with more realism and strength. 

The lamentable result is that we see today, forming black on the horizon, the implacable military threat of China, that frightens even once swaggering Americans, facing a Taiwan that wanted to prepare to face such a threat but was prevented from doing so. If now China takes the island, so that the fate CKS successfully avoided comes to pass, then we will have to blame only our blindness, self deception, and hope that in fact Taiwan would join China thus making Asia neater, if also more dangerous. We would see that CKS had been right in his assessments and in his military policies and had seen the island through great peril along with his son, but that a window of danger opened up not surprisingly when the US did everything she could to enable China to succeed.

I can hear Professor Bruce Jacobs replying, remember, CKS was a dictator who oppressed the people of Taiwan. True. But the worst oppression would have been surrender to the PRC. I would like to see Professor Jacobs’ defense plans for the island then and now. Justice does not win wars, power does. 

I believe that things will be just in time—that Taiwan will survive now. But Xi is breathing a lot of what we used to call “rhetoric”, i.e. saying exactly what he is going to do. The decision of Dr. Evan Medeiros, President Obama’s adviser, not even to contest China’s attempted annexation of an area half again bigger than the Mediterranean, has taught China the powerful what one hopes is an incorrect lesson, that no matter what they do, the US will do nothing. This has the makings of a war based on faulty assessment.

Of course Taiwan must be cleared of most but not all of the relics of the CKS period—leave Matsu alone—and continue to move forward. But if it is decided to move or tear down the CKS memorial—then without CKS, there would be another memorial probably a small one, somewhere in the US West coast, to the lost people of Taiwan, enslaved in the 1950s and still sufferijng. Face history. It is often ambiguous and tragic. But if CKS or CCK were to revisit today I suspect they would be astonished at the excellence of what Sinic people had created. Indeed, I think even Xi might be a little shaken if he got out of his limousine and his immense ego.

The last forty years of China policy have been the greatest diplomatic failure in American history, though Vietnam was the most disgraceful. Today’s Taiwan is the product of everyone from CKS to Peter Huang. We must understand the threads and their interrelationships. Most fundamental is that Taiwan did not “share China’s experience” as the then youthful Professor Li Honghsi insisted to me that he should in Tokyo forty years ago. I gather he has changed his mind—but lose once and you don’t get a second chance.

Security and safety have been the prerequisite of all the subsequent success. For that one can scarcely thank the US or Kissinger or Nixon. We tried to smother the place after 1970. Credit is owed to CKS who was uniquely positioned to make the island strong and to pull in US support. Those who want to dance on his grave, exhume his body and beat it, are certainly not historians. They are infantile fantasists, prisoners of idées fixes.

Real history is much more complicated.

I hate to have to keep reminding some colleagues of these facts, but better they wake up now than, rubbing their eyes and asking “Hey, what happened?”, after the PRC has successfully attacked.

Arthur Waldron is Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (1989), The Modernization of Inner Asia (1991), From War to Nationalism: China’s Turning Point, 1924-1925 (1995), and (with Daniel Moran) The People in Arms: Military Myth and National Mobilization since the French Revolution (2003). JPR Status: Opinion.