Chiang Ching-kuo — dictator or democrat?

To Chiang’s backers, he was a well-intentioned autocrat who put in place the foundations for Taiwan’s democratic transition; to his critics he was a sometimes brutal dictator who acted as he did out of necessity to ensure the survival of his party and its hold on power.

Chiang Ching-Kuo
Chiang Ching-Kuo, was President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) from May 1978 until his death in 1988. Credit: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

Born in 1910, Chiang Ching-kuo was the only biological son of Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), from 1927 and ruler of China from 1928 until defeat by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Zedong in 1949, when he fled to Taiwan, which he continued to rule as the Republic of China (RoC) until his death in 1975.

Chiang Kai-shek’s mausoleum is a prominent landmark in downtown Taipei, scarcely a town in Taiwan does not have a street named in his honour, and he has been the subject of countless studies over the years. By contrast, memorials to his son and successor are few in number and modest in scale. In part this reflects Chiang Ching-kuo’s own more modest personality, but also continuing controversy over his contribution to Taiwan. He was nearly 40 when he set foot there for the first time in 1949, and 68 when he became president of the country. He died just ten years later, but in that time had set Taiwan firmly on the path to becoming the vibrant democracy and flourishing economy that it is today.

At first, the younger Chiang was given a traditional education but at the age of just 15 he travelled to Moscow to continue his studies. He later wrote that he had been persuaded to go by diplomats in the Soviet embassy in Beijing and it is not clear how far his father approved of the idea. At first, Ching-kuo appears to have embraced life in the Soviet Union enthusiastically. Deng Xiaoping was a fellow student; his own political views were openly Trotskyite and in 1927 Chiang was selected for military training in Leningrad. The same year, his father, by now leader of the KMT, turned on the communists in China, prompting his son to write a public denunciation. When Stalin turned on the Trotskyites, however, he was quick to abandon his views, an experience that proved significant in later life. But as relations between Stalin and his father deteriorated, he became to all intents and purposes a hostage of Stalin, prevented from returning to China.

Military studies complete, Chiang was sent first to study engineering, then to work on a collective farm and subsequently in a steel works in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg) in the Urals. These experiences gave Chiang a strong egalitarian streak and empathy with the struggles of the ‘common man,’ both lacking in his father. In Sverdlovsk he met Faina Vakhreva, a Byelorussian. They were married in 1935 and their first son was born at the end of the year.

Anticipating war, Stalin was anxious to secure China’s support and finally allowed Chiang to return to China, together with his wife and son, in 1937. His previous denunciation of his father seems to have been forgiven and forgotten. All-out war between Japan and China broke out shortly after. Chiang was appointed commissioner of a prefecture in Jiangxi province, well away from the fighting. Over the next eleven years he and his wife would have three more children. In 1942 Chiang also had twins by a mistress who died soon afterwards. It was rumoured that she was murdered by KMT officials to avoid a scandal.

With the end of the war in 1945, the uneasy truce between the KMT and CCP collapsed into open civil war that would continue until the end of 1949 and the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan, which had been a Japanese colony since 1895, reverted to China in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, and to the dismay of many Taiwanese who had hoped that the end of the war would lead to self-determination. Instead, Chiang Kai-shek sent officials and troops from the mainland to assert control. The often corrupt officials were largely ignorant of Taiwan and the soldiers were poorly trained and ill-disciplined. In 1947 minor scuffles between street-traders and troops quickly degenerated into major riots which were brutally suppressed. By some estimates as many as 20,000 Taiwanese lost their lives.

This was the backdrop to the arrival on Taiwan in December 1949 of Chiang Ching-kuo and his father. More than one million Nationalist troops, officials, assorted camp followers and their families also fled, and their arrival would have a profound impact on the six million Taiwanese, who frequently regarded them as new colonial occupiers.

Martial law was imposed, the official priority was to regain control of the mainland, and all dissenting views were firmly suppressed. In furtherance of this, in 1950, Chiang Kai-shek made his son responsible for intelligence and security, a role he was to occupy for the next fifteen years. Adopting methods that he may have learned whilst in the Soviet Union, he increased the repression, which came to be known as the ‘White Terror.’ Its ostensible focus was twofold: perceived communist sympathisers amongst the mainlanders who had fled with Chiang, and advocates of independence amongst the Taiwanese. In practice, it was directed against all Chiang’s opponents, irrespective of their wider views. Many prominent Taiwanese fled to Japan during this period, not to return until the advent of democracy in the 1990s.

The younger Chiang established a prison for political detainees on Green Island, off the south east coast. The conditions were harsh – cramped and overcrowded cells in a building that absorbed the heat from the surrounding rock, insufferably hot in the summer but cold and damp in the winter, and close enough to the sea for inmates to hear the waves on the shore but blocked from view by a high wall. (Today it is a museum and memorial).

Arbitrary arrest and torture were common, nor was murder of opponents unknown. Chiang’s excesses alarmed the US government, the main backers of the KMT regime. On an October 1953 visit to Washington, US Secretary of State Dulles chided him for ‘infringing on basic human rights’ and denying due process of law. Chiang did not reply but the limits of US pressure became apparent in 1955 when he arrested General Sun Li-jen, allegedly for plotting a coup. Sun had been China’s most successful military commander in the Second World War, commander of the Nationalist army since 1950 and was highly regarded in Washington. His crime may have been to press for the recruitment of more native Taiwanese to senior positions in the armed forces, which were, like the government, still dominated by mainlanders. Any American protests were ineffective – Sun remained under house arrest until Chiang Ching-kuo’s death in 1988.

In 1965, Chiang was given a more public role as defence minister, then groomed steadily to succeed his father as president, becoming vice-premier in 1969 and premier in 1972. Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975 but following constitutional procedures, his vice-president served out the remainder of his term of office until Chiang Ching-kuo was formally elected president by the rubber stamp National Assembly in 1978.

By this time, Taiwan was industrialising rapidly, bringing growing prosperity. But internationally, support and sympathy were in rapid decline. In 1971, the RoC lost its seat in the United Nations to the PRC and the following year US President Richard Nixon visited Beijing. It was the era of ping-pong and panda diplomacy and the zeitgeist favoured China, not Chiang’s dictatorship and its by now ludicrous claims to be the legitimate government of China. Upon becoming president, Chiang Ching-kuo quickly faced a further international challenge. In December 1978, in a major psychological blow the USA, Taiwan’s principal backer and security guarantor since 1950, switched diplomatic recognition to the PRC.

Chiang also faced major domestic challenges. In December 1979, opposition politicians organised a demonstration in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second city, to mark International Human Rights Day. Although Chiang gave orders that troops were not to be used to prevent it, nor were police to retaliate if attacked, government agents provocateurs instigated violence, several policemen were injured and a major crackdown on the nascent opposition followed. But fuelled by a nascent civic activism, protests grew over the following years, not just over politics, but over issues such as industrial pollution or nuclear power.

At first Chiang responded cautiously. Recognising the need to involve more Taiwanese in running the country to bolster his legitimacy, in 1984 he picked Taiwan born Lee Teng-hui as vice-president and the following year publicly declared that his successor would not be from the Chiang family.

But opposition continued, including from unexpected quarters. In October 1986, retired military veterans staged a protest about meagre pensions and other benefits. This shocked Chiang, who felt he had a special bond with veterans, most of whom as mainlanders were also assumed to be natural supporters of the KMT. More protests followed, expanding to include pressure from mainlanders to allow return visits to their homeland. In 1986 opposition politicians felt confident enough to ignore a ban on political parties (other than the KMT) and launch the new Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The following year, a by now ailing Chiang rescinded the ban on travel to China and finally lifted martial law, in place since 1949. In January 1988, state censorship of the media ended. Two weeks later Chiang died from heart failure at the age of 77.

The process of reform gathered pace under Lee Teng-hui with parliamentary elections in 1991, then elections for mayors and provincial governors three years later and finally, in 1996, direct elections for the president, in which Lee Teng-hui ran and won.

To Chiang’s backers, he was a well-intentioned autocrat who put in place the foundations for Taiwan’s democratic transition; to his critics he was a sometimes brutal dictator who acted as he did not out of belief in democracy but, heeding the lessons he learnt in the USSR in the 1920s, out of necessity to ensure the survival of his party and its hold on power.

Taiwan’s experience makes an interesting comparison with that of two of its neighbours. In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos was forced from office by a ‘people power’ revolt against the fraudulent results of a ‘snap election’ in 1986, while popular revolt in South Korea forced its military leaders to hold a free and open presidential election in 1987.

By these yardsticks, Chiang’s policy of incremental reform was successful. In appointing a Taiwanese as his successor, Chiang sowed the seeds of the later democratic transformation of the country while avoiding major unrest. His party also survived, the KMT staying in power until 2000 and winning the presidential elections again in 2008 and 2012.  Flawed certainly, but unlike his father, realistic and astute enough to bend to the winds of change and set Taiwan on the path to democratic government.


Michael Reilly