The shadow of Chiang Kai-shek and the struggle for Taiwanese identity

The Taiwanese are largely united in their avowal of Taiwan as a democratic, more inclusive model that China itself should aspire to. But they are far from united in their interpretation of Taiwan’s history, or how that should shape the island’s future.
taiwan
National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei. Credit: Elena Ermakova / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Chiang Kai-shek, former ruler of the Republic of China, then of Taiwan, died in April 1975. Until his death, he claimed to be the rightful ruler of China and ruled Taiwan with something of an iron fist. The island remained under martial law for 11 more years after his demise, and anyone who dared question his assertion that it was an integral part of China was liable to arrest and imprisonment, or worse. Today, Taiwan is a vibrant, multi-party democracy and the most socially liberal state in East Asia. But almost fifty years after his death, Chiang’s legacy continues to haunt it and shape the island’s relations with China — once again in the spotlight following Vladimir Putin’s assertion that Ukraine is part of Russia, and the subsequent invasion.

Since Chiang’s death, and more especially since the advent of democracy on the island in the late 1980s, opinion polls have regularly highlighted the steady rise of a distinct Taiwanese identity. Formally, Taiwan remains the Republic of China, with a national flag, anthem, and constitution all unchanged from the years when Chiang ruled China (1928-1949), for most of which Taiwan was under Japanese rule. China has threatened to invade Taiwan should it ever try to change any of these, a threat the rest of the world takes seriously.

But Chiang’s legacy endures in much more than the country’s name, flag, or constitution. It persists in the names of organisations and institutions: Taiwan’s central bank is the Central Bank of China, Beijing’s equivalent being the People’s Bank of China; the postal service is Chunghwa (China) Post; and the island’s principal airline is, confusingly, China Airlines. It also persists in street names, and there is not a town of any size that does not have roads named after Chiang Kai-shek or/and Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Kuomintang, the ruling party of republican China and still a major political force in Taiwan. And it is most immediately visible in two prominent landmarks in downtown Taipei, huge memorial halls in honour of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, both of which are graced with a military honour guard. (Sun Yat-sen is formally called ‘Father of the Nation’ even though China never controlled the island in his lifetime).

Re-naming streets, structures and institutions might lead to complaints from China but little more. That no such action has been taken is not because of fears of a Chinese reaction but due to continuing and sometimes profound differences within Taiwan itself as to its identity. The overwhelming majority of Taiwanese are united in their opposition to claims on their country by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Chinese Communist Party. They are also largely united in their avowal of Taiwan as a democratic, more inclusive model that China itself should aspire to. But they are far from united in their interpretation of Taiwan’s history, or how that should shape the island’s future.

Even tentative steps at changing names or emphasising Taiwan’s own history have therefore proved controversial. In 2008, then President Chen Shui-bian changed the name of the Chiang Kai-shek memorial to the National Democracy Memorial Hall, only for it to be switched back by the following year after a change of government. Similarly, a change in the name of the postal service in 2007 to Taiwan Post was also reversed, while attempts to change the name of China Airlines (which would help end confusion among foreign travellers between it and China’s Air China) have foundered in the face of strong domestic opposition.

Behind all this lie unresolved differences between those who consider themselves as long-term Taiwanese and the mainlanders who fled to the island with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. The differences also reflect divided views as to Chiang’s influence and legacy: just as the excesses of Stalin and Mao are played down among those in Russia and China who yearn for the certainties of times past, so too Chiang’s corruption and brutality are passed over by his backers. It is a particular challenge for the Kuomintang, currently the main opposition party. Today it may be reformed and democratic, unlike in Chiang’s day, but it still struggles to come to terms with his outsize role in its history.

Ironically, actions by China have done more to forge a common Taiwanese identity than any political consensus within Taiwan. Its response to the 2019 protests in Hong Kong virtually assured defeat for the Kuomintang’s candidate in Taiwan’s January 2020 presidential election. One lesson China might learn from Russia’s experience in Ukraine, therefore, is that further squeezing of Taiwan internationally, let alone an outright invasion, is only likely to strengthen Taiwanese unity, not weaken it.

Michael Reilly

Michael Reilly is a senior fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham and a former British representative in Taiwan.

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