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On an island, with dreams of the mainland

Chiang Kai-shek China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost Jonathan Fenby Carroll & Graf: 562 pp., $30

March 28, 2004|Warren I. Cohen | Warren I. Cohen is distinguished university professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and senior scholar in the Asia Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His most recent book is "The Asian American Century."

In 1949, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, longtime leader of Nationalist China, lost the civil war he had been fighting off and on against the Chinese Communists since 1927. He fled to Taiwan, where he was reunited with the gold, silver and art treasures he had thoughtfully sent ahead. Two months earlier, on Oct. 1, 1949, Mao Zedong had proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Mao was a winner, Chiang was a loser. Mao was widely recognized as one of the great figures of the 20th century; Chiang, vilified in China, was soon forgotten elsewhere -- except in the United States, where Henry Luce and other admirers kept the flame burning.

In recent years, however, the era in which Chiang led China, the so-called Republican period, has been reexamined and reevaluated, not least by American historians using archival material in the PRC as well as on Taiwan. The efforts of Chiang and his supporters to reform China, to modernize China, have received significantly favorable reviews. Scholars today are less likely to focus on the corruption rampant in his regime or on the repressiveness of his security forces. They remind us of how little control Chiang's central government had over the country -- how much of it was still ruled by provincial warlords only nominally loyal to Chiang. They point to the civil strife that erupted frequently, as various warlords and politicians coalesced to challenge Chiang. They tend to be less critical of his determination to root out the Communist armies that controlled part of the country. And of course everyone concedes that Japanese aggression hampered efforts toward domestic reform. Most of all, as the extent of Mao's brutality toward his own people became apparent, the viciousness of Chiang's Kuomintang regime seemed relatively benign.

Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the Hong Kong South China Morning Post, appears to have read everything about Chiang's career on the mainland -- and used almost everything indiscriminately. He has written a useful account of Chiang's rise to power in the 1920s and his failures through 1949, with a little more gory detail than necessary and no bit of juicy gossip left out about Chiang or his last wife, the beautiful American-educated Soong Meiling..

Fenby describes Chiang's emergence in the early 1920s as the principal military figure in the entourage of Sun Yat-sen, erstwhile first president of the Republic of China, established in 1911. Sun had been pushed aside within a few years of the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. The country became no more than a geographic entity with a powerless central government and a host of regional warlords who were often hardly more than bandits. With support from Soviet Russia, Sun's political party, the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, was reorganized as a Leninist party, combined forces with the infant Chinese Communist Party and set out to eliminate the warlords, throw out the foreign imperialists and reunite the country. Chiang led the military effort. After Sun died suddenly in 1925, Chiang gradually outmaneuvered rivals on the right and on the left within the Kuomintang and struck against the Communists and his Soviet advisors, outmaneuvering Stalin as well. Defeating some warlords, co-opting others and gaining support from Chinese businessmen and gangsters, Chiang's forces ultimately prevailed. By 1928 the country was at least nominally reunited under a central government, with its capital in Nanking and Chiang as its leader.

Over the next few years, Chiang and his supporters, with some success, tried to create a modern government in China and to improve the lot of the Chinese people by providing a modicum of physical security and by developing the economy. The Nanking government attracted reformers, both Chinese and foreign, and a little financial support for some of its projects from the League of Nations and American organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the forerunners of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia. There were important advances in literacy and public health, even prospects for desperately needed land reform -- none of which is discussed by Fenby.

But Chiang had two overwhelming obstacles to his vision of a strong and independent China under Kuomintang rule: the Chinese Communists and the Japanese.

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