Chiang Kai-shek. Photo public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Over the last sixty years, one of the constants of life in mainland China has been the demonization of Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China from 1926 to when the Communists took power in 1949. He was portrayed as an imperialist and an enemy of the people both for his leadership of China during that time and for his leading of Nationalist forces against the Communists during the Chinese civil war.
After Chiang was expelled from the mainland, he ruled what was then known as the Republic of China (what we know as Taiwan) until his death in 1975. During most of his time as President of the Republic, the Taiwanese government was recognized as the official Chinese government by the U.S. After Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, the tension between mainland China and Taiwan began to ease, but Chiang was still seen both officially and in popular Chinese culture as an enemy of the state.
However, over the last few years, he’s slowly but surely becoming part of mainstream culture in China. His image is used to sell various goods, and restaurants are named after him. For its part, the Chinese government has softened the official view of Chiang and the KMT (Nationalists) by painting them as misguided patriots instead of enemies of the state. But, why the change? Politics, of course.
Since the Chinese first started becoming the economic powerhouse it is today, relations with Taiwan have become even warmer. And, during this time, China’s relations with Japan have grown much colder. In the Chinese media of today, Chiang and his KMT troops are painted as patriots bravely fighting the evil Japanese invaders instead of as corrupt and greedy officials living off the labor of the hardworking Chinese people.
Ironically enough (or maybe not), Chiang’s legacy’s seen differently in Taiwan by some. Chiang ruled Taiwan with an iron fist, and imposed martial law that lasted for nearly forty years – twelve years after Chiang’s death. Student protesters in Taiwan see the thawing of the relationship with China as possibly leading to the return of the repressive government that the country had under Chiang.
Recently, students from seven Taiwanese high schools united to commemorate the anniversary of the ending of martial law, and demanded that the statues of Chiang that festoon school campuses on the island be removed. Tung Lee-wei, 16, a first-year student at Cheng Kung Senior High School in Taipei and one of the campaign’s organizers, said; “Just because students are used to seeing his statues doesn’t mean they think the statues are right.”
By watching how the Chinese view Chiang, we can tell how the Chinese government feels in respect to Japan and Taiwan. But, by watching the students in Taiwan and their rejection of the memoralizing of Chiang and other policies of the Taiwanese government, we have to wonder what the thawing of relations between China and Taiwan will lead to,