Mao Won the Battle, Chiang Kai-shek Won the WarRoundup: Historians' Take
tags: China, Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek
Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
China is the geopolitical hinge on which war or peace in East Asia rests. And no figure has been so central to China's destiny over the past century as Mao Zedong, who unified China out of the chaos of competing warlordoms in 1949 and made it a world power. The decades of unprecedented economic growth in China that are only now starting to fade would have been impossible without the political coherence Mao provided. But Mao may not last as China's most important 20th-century figure. That title may eventually pass on to the man Mao defeated in a civil war in the 1940s, and who generations of Western journalists and intellectuals have so often disparaged: Chiang Kai-shek....
Of course, within China itself, reverence for Mao as a nationalist figure survives, long after Marxist ideology has been cast off. But this is just a phase. As Beijing currently has no choice but to pursue a whole new array of economic reforms -- eliminating more and more remnants of state control -- even as a civil society and a middle class struggle to emerge from the ruins of totalitarianism, one can imagine the historical reckoning within China itself that Mao must one day face.
Chiang, meanwhile, has been the beneficiary of much-needed historical revisionism that has gone under the radar of the Western elite. In 2003, Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the London Observer, published the revisionist biography, Chiang Kai-shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost. Fenby partially challenges the received wisdom about Chiang -- that he was a corrupt and inept ruler who dragged his heels on fighting the Japanese despite the considerable aid he got from the United States during World War II, and who lost China to Mao because he was the lesser man....