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Taiwan Leader Chiang Dies; Pushed Reform

January 14, 1988|JIM MANN | Times Staff Writer

Taiwan's President Chiang Ching-kuo, who ruled during a turbulent period in which the island suffered increasing diplomatic isolation but also emerged as one of Asia's leading economic powers, died Wednesday in Taipei of a heart attack. He was 77.

The death of Chiang, son of the late Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, brought an end to a family dynasty that had dominated the political life of Nationalist China since the 1920s.

Vice President Lee Teng-hui was sworn in to succeed Chiang, who in the last year had overridden stiff resistance from hard-liners in his government and pushed through reforms that gave the 20 million people of Taiwan a measure of political freedom and the opportunity to visit their relatives in mainland China, across the Taiwan Strait.

Lee, 65, became the seventh president of the Republic of China--the formal name of the Nationalist government on Taiwan--and the first native Taiwanese to rule the island since the Nationalists fled there in 1949, as the Chinese Communist Party took control of the mainland.

The new reforms and the growing prosperity on Taiwan had made Chiang a widely respected and often popular figure. Soon after his death was announced by Premier Yu Kuo-hua on the island's three television stations, hundreds of people went to the presidential palace in central Taipei, where they knelt and wept. State television repeatedly broadcast pictures of the Cabinet, their heads bowed in front of Chiang's portrait.

Reuters news agency reported from Taiwan that the government had ordered all theaters and other entertainment centers closed for three days and all political demonstrations banned during a month of mourning.

Shaw Yu-ming, the government's chief spokesman, said Chiang left a final statement urging his successor to promote the cause of constitutional democracy on Taiwan and to struggle to realize the dream that eluded him--reuniting China. The government in Beijing promotes the same cause but has said it can be accomplished only if the Nationalists "return to the embrace of the motherland" and recognize Beijing's sovereignty over the island.

Chiang took the reins of power in Taiwan after his father's death in 1975.

For three decades before that, he had served as Chiang Kai-shek's aide, confidant and anointed successor, first on the mainland and later, after the Communist takeover, on Taiwan.

Cool to Madame Chiang

The younger Chiang, who was often called "CCK," was Chiang Kai-shek's son by his first wife, a village woman to whom he had been betrothed by family arrangement. Throughout his life, the son maintained a cool but proper relationship with his stepmother, Soong Mei-ling, the world-famous Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who lived in New York after CCK gained power in Taiwan and returned to the island last year.

Chiang's own life was swept up in the political vicissitudes of 20th-Century China. As an impassioned teen-ager in 1925, Chiang Ching-kuo left Shanghai for Moscow and joined the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. He remained in the Soviet Union for 12 years, but spent some of this time in Soviet labor camps because he had been identified as a Trotskyite by Josef Stalin's supporters.

By the time he took the helm in Taiwan, he had become one of the world's most ardent anti-Communists. "We must remove the tyrannical rule of the Chinese Communist regime and eradicate the poison of Marxism-Leninism from Chinese soil," he said in 1983.

It was during CCK's tenure that the United States decided, in 1978, to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and to grant recognition instead to the Communist government in Beijing. That was seen as a crushing defeat for Taiwan's Nationalist government in its decades-long campaign to persuade the world that it should still be considered the legal representative of the Chinese people.

U.S. Arms Sales Continued

Yet, under Chiang's guidance, Taiwan weathered the storm of de-recognition. The United States continued to maintain active, though unofficial, ties with the island through the American Institute in Taiwan, a non-government agency staffed with State Department personnel on leave. Although the United States broke its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, it continued to sell arms to the island at the rate of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, in the process incurring the wrath of Beijing.

Meanwhile, Chiang led Taiwan to surging economic advances. By the end of 1987, the island had become the world's 11th-ranking exporter, and its per capita income was among the highest in Asia.

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