carsun chang

The Generalissimo – Chiang Kai-shek in the Eyes of His Contemporaries

Chiang Kai-shek (1887 – 1975) was one of the most important political and military figures in 20th century China. In the 1920s he became the leader of the Guomindang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, he led the Northern Expedition which unified China after the warlord era, and he established a personal dictatorship that lasted until 1949, when he was defeated by the Communists. The government of the Republic of China then retreated to Taiwan, where Chiang was the undisputed leader until his death. 

Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy as a statesman is highly controversial. On the one hand, he created the first modern central government in China after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. He defeated the warlords, restored – at least to a certain degree – China’s independence and built a functioning government. On the other hand, he stifled all democratic forces, repressed opposition, did not tolerate any challenge to his personal leadership, and he made major tactical mistakes that ultimately caused his downfall on the mainland. In Taiwan he managed to create a better government than he had done one the mainland. His regime achieved considerable successes in agriculture, industry and in the improvement of the bureaucracy. But he also ruled with an iron fist, never allowing the formation of an opposition. Until today, the role of Chiang in Taiwan’s history is a matter of heated debate.

In this post, I will show what three of Chiang’s contemporaries thought about the Generalissimo: Theodore White, Zhang Junmai, and Li Chenfu.

Chiang K’ai-shek – The People’s Choice?

Theodore White (1915 – 1986) was a US journalist and historian. He was the China correspondent for the Time during the Second World War. Based in the wartime capital Chongqing, White knew Chiang Kai-shek personally. However, it must be pointed out that his assessment of Chiang’s personality refers to the wartime period, in which Chiang’s leadership became more dictatorial than it had previously been.

Chiang’s personal discipline is one of the first clues to his complex, involved character. It has been bred of a tempestuous, storm-tossed life and, like his lust for power, his calculating ruthlessness, his monumental stubbornness, has become more than an individual characteristic –  it is a force in national politics. Chiang’s character reflects and distorts fifty of the most turbulent years in Chinese history … 

[His] dominance of the Kuomintang was never once seriously threatened. His one passion now became and remained an overriding lust for power. All his politics revolved about the concept of force. He had grown up in a time of treachery and violence. There were few standards of human decency his early war-lord contemporaries did not violate; they obeyed no law but power, and Chiang outwitted them at their own game … He … spoke of a Nationalist Revolution – but the fact that the revolution involved the will of the people escaped him. Chiang relied not on the emotion of the peasant masses but on an army and its guns.

The war against Japan made Chiang K’ai-shek almost a demigod. For a brief moment at the war’s outbreak he stood as the incarnate symbol of all China’s will to resistance and freedom. Once again, as in the days of revolution, he was China – doing China’s will, above reproach, above criticism, above all advice.

Chiang lived frugally by American standards. He breakfasted on fresh fruit, toast, and milk … He took little exercise except long walks in the country, with a covey of guards around him. He suffered from the back injury he had received during the Sian kidnapping, and his false teeth bothered him … As the leader of China at war Chiang was still harsh and ruthless, but he cloaked himself in the sanctity of a deacon; he became a devout and practicing Methodist. His utterances rang with the sincerity of a Puritan, but his ferocity was that of an Old Testament Joshua …

Chiang thought of himself as a soldier, but his true genius lay in politics; he had no equal in the ancient art of hog-trading. Ringmaster at a balancing act, he brought China together and kept it together. If his soldiers starved, that was the price of keeping the loyalty of dubious generals, who profited from their death. If he sent into battle soldiers who were doomed before they heard gunfire, that was one way of reducing the forces of a commander who might have challenged him. As a politician Chiang dealt in force rather than ideas. 

Any concept of China that differed from his own was treated as much hostility as an enemy division. In both party and government, above honesty, experience, or ability, he insisted on the one qualification of complete, unconditional loyalty to himself … When inflation grew into one of the country’s biggest problems, a high official of the government quipped, “The trouble with China is that the Generalissimo doesn’t know anything about economics, and his Minister of Finance doesn’t know anything, either” …

To foreigners his outer reserve argued stability, a sweetly rational quality in a mad society. But sometimes Chiang erupted from his expressionless calm into a rage in which he threw teacups, pounded on tables, shrieked, and yelled like a top sergeant. When he dealt with a rare character who refused to scrape before him … the results were dramatic … When the Generalissimo was reminded of the horror of Chinese conscription, he summoned the general in charge of conscription and beat him unmercifully; the general was executed the next spring …

Only the Communists could afford organized disobedience … They defied him; therefore in his eyes they were disloyal to China, and he hated them … 

Of all the grotesque elements of this personal government perhaps the most incongruous was Chiang’s assessment of his own role. Chiang sincerely believed he was leading China to democracy; it enraged him to be called a dictator. Once Chou En-lai, chief Communist representative in Chungking, told him that the Communists would turn over control of their army only to a democratic government. Said Chiang, “Would you call me undemocratic?” 

(Theodore White: Thunder out of China, 1980, pp. 118-131).


Chiang Kai-shek and Kuomintang Dictatorship


Zhang Junmai (1887-1969, known in the West as Carsun Chang), was born on January 1887 in Jiangsu, China. He passed the imperial examination at seventeen with the first degree, and later entered the Nanjing Higher School. In 1906 he went to Japan to study at Waseda University on a government scholarship. There he became acquainted with the late-Qing thinker and reformer Liang Qichao, who had escaped China after the failure of the Hundred Days’ Reform movement. Zhang was deeply influenced by Liang’s thought. 
In 1913 Zhang went to Europe and studied at Berlin University until 1915. He also travelled to England and France. In 1918 he took part in the Paris Peace Conference that followed World War I, alongside with Liang Qichao and other friends. Afterwards he moved to Jena, Germany, where he studied philosophy. In 1922 he returned to China. He taught at Beijing University, Yanjing University and Sun Yat-sen University. 
Throughout his life Zhang was a supporter of parliamentary democracy, and he firmly opposed Guomindang one-party rule. In 1932 he founded the National Socialist Party (not related to the German NSDAP), which was renamed Democratic Socialist Party in 1946.
During the War of Resistance against Japan, Zhang acted as a mediator between the Communists and the Guomindang. In December 1938 he wrote a letter to Mao Zedong, urging him to place his troops under the leadership of the Guomindang. In 1941, Zhang took part in the activities of the China Democratic League, which advocated CCP-Guomindang cooperation. The League is still one of the eight legal non-Communist parties in the People’s Republic of China.
Zhang helped draft the 1946 Constitution of the Republic of China (ROC), hoping to realise his dream of a truly constitutional government in China. But disillusioned by both the Guomindang and, after 1949, the Communist government, he went to the United States in 1952 (see Chi Wen-Shun: Ideological Conflicts in Modern China – Democracy and Authoritarianism, pp. 135-138).

A good deal of controversy arose within the party on the question of political tutelage. As part of the plan made by Dr. Sun [Yat-sen] it sounded well enough, but it was difficult to put it into practice without the danger of evolving toward totalitarianism. As generally understood, the purpose of tutelage was to train the people in the practice of running a democratic government. But how was this to be done? How long should the tutelage last? … 

If the aim of the Kuomintang members was democracy, they should have had confidence in the people and ruled in accordance with the general principles of a constitutional government based upon the sovereignty of the people. After the end of the Northern Expedition, which was the end of the military stage, they should have started introducing the constitutional stage immediately, following the schedule laid down by Dr. Sun – military government, tutelage, constitutional government. 

But Chiang [Kai-shek] is a soldier; his view was that the intermediate stage should be prolonged as much as possible. The other Kuomintang leaders saw the situation differently; men like Wang Ching-wei and Hu Han-min had their own interpretation of Dr. Sun’s plan. They had been just as close to Dr. Sun as Chiang Kai-shek, if not closer … 

The Kuomintang in the first ten years of its existence under the direction of Chiang Kai-shek, never allowed or legalised the existence of opposition parties. For my part, I do not see how an opposition party can get its necessary training except under a constitutional government which granted it equal rights with the party in power … The result was that the Kuomintang, still under the name of tutelage, kept the political power for itself alone … But because there was no parliament, no official media of publicity, no check and no accountability on the part of the ministers, nothing could be done to stop the abuses. If someone had the courage to write an article in the newspapers about … cases of corruption, he was regarded as one who wilfully tried to undermine public confidence in the government, and he courted with great personal danger … 

Chiang is not a man who abides by law or believes in the rule of law … He does not believe in the inviolability of a constitution decided on and promulgated by the people. He does not understand why there should be so much fuss made over the constitution. To him all government is personal government: constitutions are luxuries which at most serve the purposes of the one who is in power … 

Chiang’s government has been guided entirely by his whims and arbitrary decisions made on the spur of the moment. He sees no need for any system or organization. Under such a regime, the art of government becomes, for all practical purposes, the art of studying the infinite variety of his moods; it produces two kinds of government officials, those who have won his favor and those who have not … 

The government of Chiang Kai-shek was built on quicksand and clay. How can it stand? Is it any wonder that it fell like a house of cards when it had to face the Communist crisis? (Carsun Chang: Chiang Kai-shek and Kuomintang Dictatorship. In: Pichon P. Y. Loh [edit.]: The Kuomintang Debacle of 1949 – Conquest or Collapse?, 1965, pp. 35-40).


Chiang Kai-shek: A Great Leader?


Chen Lifu (陳立夫, 1900 – 2001) was a major political figure in the Republic of

China. He was born in Zhejiang and received a master’s degree in mining engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. In 1925 he joined the Guomindang in San Francisco. Upon his return to China he was asked by Chiang Kai-shek to become his confidential secretary. Despite having various conflicts with Chiang Kai-shek over the years, Chen remained throughout his life a supporter of Chiang and maintained friendly relations with him.


I consider Chiang a great Chinese patriot and a disciple of Sun Yat-sen’s who strove to enhance the honor and integrity of the republic that Sun had founded. I also consider Chiang a product of his era, a military-political leader of modern China. His talents were more military than political. Chiang possessed considerable intelligence and courage. Self-educated and highly disciplined, he did not smoke or drink … I never doubted his sincerity and unselfishness in serving the country. He did not manifest the “I am always right” attitude, and he was not the despot that the Chinese Communists portrayed him as being. To my recollection, Chiang really never severely punished his subordinates, whether military or civilian. 

To be sure, some of his tactics might have been wrong. He greatly emphasized political maneuvering, and he skillfully used checks and balances to maintain his power. This method of his created mistrust, fear, and suspicion; therefore unity among his subordinates was always in doubt. His firm, strong, anticommunist beliefs, however, made him the natural leader of our national revolution. During his lifelong career, the Chinese Communists were not his only enemy. 

The forces of opposition and destruction also came from remnants of the Ch’ing court, the warlords who worked on behalf of foreign powers, the Japanese imperialists, and our allies of World War II including Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The problem was that none of the above elements truly wanted to see China become a united country. To some extent, Chiang never had the wholehearted support of the general public. His power only reached a few provinces. Yet Chiang was a symbol of resistance. He had a chance to make himself the greatest leader in he history of China since Emperor Chien-lung [=Qianlong]. Although that did not happen, the success of the national revolution was due to his leadership. 

Opposition to Chiang from within was even stronger than from without: that opposition included the senior members of the Kuomintang from Kwangtung and Kwangsi provinces such as Wang Ching-wei, Hu Han-min, Sun Fo, later Pai Ch’ung-hsi, and Li Tsung-jen. Each of those I have just mentioned believed he could lead China to unity with the ideological guidance of Sun Yat-sen better than Chiang … 

Within a twenty-five-year period, Chiang tasted the sweetness of quick victory and the bitterness of defeat. Everything came too quickly, too soon, and too unexpected. Regretfully, he did not live to see the fall of Soviet communism. Nor did he see the recent emphasis on economic growth rather than Marxist doctrine in mainland China … 

(The Storm Clouds Clear Over China: The Memoir of Ch’en Li-fu, 1994, pp. 234-237).  

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