Mao Won the Battle, Chiang Kai-shek Won the War

History will prove the defeated Generalissimo had a greater impact on modern China than its most famous father.

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Mao’s personage began to diminish internationally following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1990, which came with the realization of just how many people the communists had killed. Among intellectuals in the post-Cold War era, communism has now come to signify an evil as great as fascism. Concomitantly, it turns out that the tens of millions who owe their untimely deaths to Mao’s policies — mostly from the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s — may well outnumber those murdered by Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

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.

Then, in 2009, Jay Taylor, former China desk officer at the U.S. State Department and later research associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, followed up with an even stronger revisionist biography of Chiang, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, which took apart many of the preconceptions about the founder of Taiwan. Both authors blame the unduly negative image of Chiang on the journalists and State Department foreign service officers who covered China during World War II. The pivotal character in this story was the wartime U.S. military commander in China, Army Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell. Stilwell quite simply hated Chiang, whom he considered corrupt and ineffectual; he, called him "Peanut" behind his back, and passed on his criticisms to the journalists and foreign service officers, who, courted by Stilwell, simply took the American general’s side.

Another factor behind Chiang’s negative image was the glowing reports that journalists were filing about Mao and his comrades. Time magazine’s Theodore H. White wrote in his 1978 memoir In Search of History: A Personal Adventure the "wine of friendship flowed" between Mao and the charismatic future Premier Zhou Enlai, whereas of Chiang, he wrote of a "rigid morality … animal treachery, warlord cruelty and an ineffable ignorance of what a modern state requires." But as Taylor documents in his biography, Chiang from early-on — as a result of his studies — was consciously Confucianist, a world view which emphasized political order, respect for family and hierarchy, and conservative stability. It is this belief system, which Chiang embodies, that has ultimately triumphed throughout much of East Asia and in China itself, accounting for the region’s prosperity over recent decades, even as the communism of Mao and Zhou celebrated by some Western journalists of the era has been utterly discredited.

Chiang has often been accused of tolerating corruption, but the alternative in the warlord age in which he operated was to become an extremist ideologue, like Mao. Chiang was far from perfect; but neither was he as deeply flawed as his journalistic and State Department detractors, applying the standards of the West to a chaotic early- and mid-20th century China, made him out to be.

Under Chiang, the power and authority of the central government was greater in the 1930s than at any point since the mid-19th century. As Fenby writes, Chiang’s Nationalist ascendancy in parts of the country "was a time of modernization such as China had not seen before … there was a flowering of thought, literature, art and the cinema," even as the repression used by the Nationalists paled in comparison to what the Communists would later unleash.

While American journalists and officials, influenced by Stilwell, believed Chiang wanted to avoid fighting the Japanese in order to store arms to fight the communists later on, during the 1941-1942 Burma campaign Chiang’s troops suffered 80,000 killed and wounded. By the end of 14 years of war with Japan, China would sustain three million military casualties, 90 percent of them Chiang’s troops. Meanwhile, Mao’s communists were pursuing the very strategy Chiang was accused of: avoiding major military entanglements with the Japanese in order to hoard their strength to later fight the Nationalists.

Upon his retreat to Taiwan in 1949, Chiang reorganized his party to stress enlightened authoritarianism: dictatorship plus good, responsive governance. He promulgated a wide-ranging land reform program, emphasizing a sharp reduction in rural rents. Chiang’s land reform contrasted with Mao’s revolutionary land confiscations that led to over a million deaths in the early 1950s alone. This period really demonstrated the vast gulf between Mao’s utopian Marxist-Leninist precepts and Chiang’s Confucianist ones: rarely was the chasm wider between one form of dictatorship and another.

Taiwan’s path from that point forward was toward prosperity and eventual democracy. Meanwhile, China today becomes increasingly less autocratic (albeit in fits and starts) and increasingly less centralized, having long ago discarded Mao’s Marxist-Leninism in all but name. If China continues in this direction, even as it forges closer economic and cultural ties with Taiwan, Chiang will turn out to be a more important historical figure than Mao. While the regime in Beijing may dial up nationalism — with a nod to Mao — as a response to increasing economic disarray, the larger narrative is one of Chinese civilization devolving into informal geographical regions, with Taiwan providing the superior working model.

History is a battle of ideas. Confucianism has triumphed over communism. Democracy and enlightened authoritarianism has triumphed over totalitarianism. And Chiang’s humanity, however imperfect, will triumph in Chinese minds over Mao’s epic cruelty.

Robert D. Kaplan holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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