Cristian Segura: China's Rehabilitation of Chiang Kai-shek

[Cristian Segura is a European journalist based in Beijing.]

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan's capital city, doesn't look very different from monuments devoted to communist icons in mainland China. The Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) both create propaganda scenarios that mix ideological fanfare, a lack of historical rigor and the colossal architecture commonly used to worship dictators.

Maybe because they find it familiar, hundreds of tourists from the mainland gather every day at the late generalissimo's memorial with no sign of displeasure at such a demonstration of totalitarian kitsch. On the contrary, they say they are delighted to discover that Taiwan praises Chiang, who was once the mainland Communist Party's fiercest enemy.

Chiang, a lifetime rival of Mao Zedong, had long been portrayed as devil No 1 in Communist Party propaganda. And it was not long ago that the KMT was still regarded as an enemy by the CPP. But as Taiwanese pro-independence movements gain weight, the two former rivals find more things in common, the most important being the long-term process of reunification as both maintain there is only one China and that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to that China.

In 2005, the CCP and the KMT started high-level talks. Since then, Beijing has noticeably modified its propaganda strategy, and the KMT is no longer a rival but a trusted ally in the fight against Taiwanese pro-independence forces.

Against such a backdrop, Chiang's role in history, as well as his legacy, is being re-evaluated on the mainland. His role in leading the nation against the Japanese invaders during World War II is affirmed (previously only the CCP had been said to be the main force against the Japanese). In particular, Chiang is praised for his "iron fist" crackdown on any pro-independence activity in Taiwan to "safeguard national integrity".

A recent example of this transition is the film Jianguo Daye ("The Founding of a Republic"), a movie sponsored by the Chinese government to commemorate the 60th birthday of the People's Republic of China. In the movie, Chiang is depicted as an honorable man who tried his best for China and betrayed the CCP because of human mistakes incited by bad advisers.

"Whether in China or Taiwan, everybody can make mistakes," said a Taiwanese guide for a group of retired workers from a steel company in Xian, capital of Shaanxi province in northwestern China. Some of them were wearing their blue factory uniforms. They had finished the tour of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and were heading to their bus when I asked them their opinions about the generalissimo. They looked reluctant to talk to this journalist, but they nodded when a woman answered that Chiang was a good influence because he fought for the unification of China.

A trendy batch of urbanites from Chongqing was at the same time taking pictures of soldiers marching past the feet of Chiang Kai-shek's giant sculpture, a show that was banned in 2007 during the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidency. Back then, the hall was renamed "Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall" and it was devoted to the struggle for democracy under KMT martial law (1949-87). The building recovered its original name last July with the approval of the KMT legislative majority. An editorial in the English-language newspaper Taipei Times said the reason for restoring the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall’s name was "to honor a symbol of one China" now that on the mainland Chiang's role "has gradually been rehabilitated" and mainland tourists "are eager to visit the mausoleum in Taiwan".

Ms Wu, one of the senior members of the Chongqing group, asserted that Chiang was "a good politician and a good fellow of Mao". Her mainland guide declined to talk about the issue and deferred to the local guide, who concluded, "Chinese people don't want to remember the disputes that divided us in the past."

It is historical irony that Chiang has become a symbolic link for the two sides across the Taiwan Strait...

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