Bryan Caplan  

The Real Chiang Kaishek

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maochiang3.jpgBrad DeLong recently described Chiang Kaishek as a "twentieth-century Chinese nationalist, socialist, general, and dictator." By itself, this description is rather surprising. The legendary Chinese anti-Communist was actually a socialist? But not only is Brad right about this; you could go a lot further. If the 1920's had gone a little differently, Chiang Kaishek could easily have become the first Communist dictator of China.

The following facts - from Encyclopedia Brittanica - are well-known to historians, but rarely publicized:

In 1918 [Chiang] reentered public life by joining Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. Thus began the close association with Sun on which Chiang was to build his power...

Shortly after Sun Yat-sen had begun to reorganize the Nationalist Party along Soviet lines, Chiang visited the Soviet Union in 1923 to study Soviet institutions, especially the Red Army. Back in China after four months, he became commandant of a military academy, established on the Soviet model, at Whampoa near Canton. Soviet advisers poured into Canton, and at this time the Chinese Communists were admitted into the Nationalist Party. The Chinese Communists quickly gained strength, especially after Sun's death in 1925, and tensions developed between them and the more conservative elements among the Nationalists. Chiang, who, with the Whampoa army behind him, was the strongest of Sun's heirs, met this threat with consummate shrewdness. By alternate shows of force and of leniency, he attempted to stem the Communists' growing influence without losing Soviet support. Moscow supported him until 1927, when, in a bloody coup of his own, he finally broke with the Communists, expelling them from the Nationalist Party and suppressing the labour unions they had organized.

Didn't the violent break with the CCP prove that Chiang was just pretending to be a Communist sympathizer? Hardly. Rival factions of Communists have been killing each other for a very long time. If Moscow had showed Chiang the respect he felt was his due as an independent national leader, there is every reason to think he would have remained a loyal Soviet ally. Once he had a secure grip on power, it is more than possible than he would have forged ahead with fairly radical socialist policies, though it would have been hard to be as extreme as Mao.

If all this is in the encyclopedia, why have so few people heard? The main reason, I think, is that neither left-wingers nor right-wingers want to draw attention to these facts. Left-wing historians of course have no desire to highlight the leftist background of an anti-communist dictator they love to hate. But right-wingers also kept mum about Chiang's previous close alliance with the Communists because they didn't want to embarrass their friend and ally.

The picture of Mao and Chiang comes from Historical Images.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Dan Landau writes:

I think that, besides the ideological motives for not emphasizing Chiang’s ties to Russian communists, there is a good reason. The biggest problem with Chiang’s regime was corruption, not socialist elements. Chiang’s regime was closer to a Chinese version of “African socialism” than to Russian communism. The corruption reached its ultimate when Chiang’s generals sold their weapons to the communists, even as they were fighting them for control of China.

Russell Wardlow writes:

I think this is very wrong.

Chiang was a Sunnist, and Sun Yat Sen was not a communist. He wasn't "anti-communist" either, in as much as he thought that Marxism would probably work in the kinds of societies that it was designed for - namely advanced industrial countries. Unlike most Marxists, he understood Marxism well enough to conclude that it would never work in as backward and undeveloped a country like China, where 99.99% of the population were basically feudal peasants.

Sun's plan for development involved a lot of free market reforms, along with some confiscatory land redistribution. But the point of this was to actually provide the peasants with ownership of the land they worked, which Sun correctly concluded would cause their own self-interest to propel the country's growth. Nothing communist there.

Sun was also committed to eventual democracy, after a period of autocratic "schooling" of the people.

If you want to see a Sunnist state, look at Taiwan. They, by their own self-identificaton, fllow the precepts that Sun wanted to apply to China.

And who founded Taiwan???

Barkley Rosser writes:

Taiwan is an interesting case and can fairly reasonably be argued to be following a "Sunnist" model. Sun Yat-sen continues to be very much revered there, as he is also in the PRC, but less so than in Taiwan.

It can be argued that Chiang Kai-Shek learned from his mistakes on the mainland when he was exiled to Taiwan. The biggest one was his failure to engage in land reform in favor of peasant ownership, which gave the Communists an in to appeal to the peasants, which they did. Of course, it was much easier for Chiang to dispossess landlords on Taiwan because most of them were either Japanese or Japan-sympathizers from the period of Japanese rule, which had lasted for 50 years until ending four years before the KMT's exile to Taiwan.

Chiang was no democrat and bloodily suppressed an uprising against his rule in Taiwan by the "native" Taiwanese, mostly ethnic Han of Fujianese descent, who constitute about 85% of the population. This has not been forgotten. His son began the movement towards democracy.

Today Chiang is very unpopular. When I was there about two months ago, I visited his national memorial in Taipei, which is vaguely modeled on the Lincoln Memorial plus mall. Besides me and my friends and the guards, the grand total of people visiting there was a whopping four. OTOH, Sun Yat-sen's memorial had many visitors.

A great irony is that Chiang and Sun married sisters. After 1949, while of course Madame Chiang went to Taiwan (and just died at 106 in New York last year), Madame Sun sided with the Communists.

David Thomson writes:

“But right-wingers also kept mum about Chiang's previous close alliance with the Communists because they didn't want to embarrass their friend and ally.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Conservatives like myself never worshipped the ground Chiang Kai-Shek walked on. I merely considered him the lesser of evils. We also aligned ourselves with Stalin during WWII. The enemy of my enemy is often a temporary friend. Did somebody promise you a world with only pure options, black or white, and no gray? If so---they sure lied to you!

Timothy writes:

My grandfather served as a general (intelligence services) under Chiang from the 1930s through to his retirement in the 1970s. (btw, I've got no love for the KMT; if anything, I'm a big fan of this blog, as well as Arnold's TCS work). I agree that Chiang may have been a little better than Mao, but I cannot imagine that Chiang would have compared favorably to our Washington nor Jefferson.

The cultural DNA in which Chiang was immersed in had much more in the way of dynastic and confucian philosophy and tradition--and certainly more emphasis on the agrarian rather than industrial--than anything resembling Adam Smith or David Hume, to whom we might trace some of our political heritage. Even Sun Yat-Sen would have had challenges projecting more of individualistic and industrial enlightenment into the cultural mindset of the chinese. For instance, the Chinese may manfacture IPods cheaply; but they've not grown enough to invent its equivalent. The Chinese had it chance to lead the revolution (think about stuff like the printing press, paper currency, or even gunpowder), but her mindset was much more resistant to creative destruction than the West. Or, should I say, her emperors' mindsets.

The varying degrees to which Chiang embraced democracy, capitalism, and even christianity were really based on his pursuit of power--and staying connected to the legaces of Sun and the interests of the West. Not unlike Michael Bloomberg embracing the Republican Party, and that in New York City of all places.

Rick Gaber writes:

Rothbard makes a brief mention of Chiang here, FWIW.

DEA writes:

Interestingly, KMT supporters and their allies in Taiwan nowadays tend to be pro-PRC, while the anti-KMT DPP is very much anti-PRC. But then, China today seems less communist than Taiwan when I first visited the island in 1985. In 1985, post-1949 photographs of (mainland) China were deleted from foreign books and newspapers, and political slogans were displayed everywhere.
An interesting facet of contemporary Taiwan is that political conflicts between the DPP and KMT as well as between the DPP and PRC have no real economic content. All parties - KMT, PFP, DPP, TSU as well as China's CCP - favor a mixed economy, relatively free trade and growth. The difference is that the KMT and CCP want closer economic integration and free trade between Taiwan and the PRC, while the DPP wants to divert Taiwan's trade and investments to other origins and destinations. So in a way the ideological conflict these days is between centralized Chinese nationalism (CCP), decentralized Chinese nationalism (KMT) and Taiwanese nationalism (DPP).

Barkley Rosser writes:

DEA (Drug Enforcement Agent?)

You are correct about the current political configuration. This shows up in the ongoing dispute in Taiwan over transliteration systems from Chinese into the Latin alphabet. Formerly the system was Wade-Giles, still in use in much of Taiwan. However, the KMT supports switching to the Pinyin now used in the mainland PRC, while the more Taiwanese nationalist DPP wants to use a Taiwanese version of it, the Tonyoung Pinyin, which is more phonetically comprehensible by most English speakers.

Currently the DPP controls the federal government and is trying to impose the Tonyoung, while the KMT controls the largest state government, the one containing the capital city, Taipei, where it is trying to impose the PRC Pinyin.

All this leaves Chiang Kai-Shek with no current supporters. The DPP hates him because he suppressed the native Taiwanese. The KMT is not enthusiastic about him because they are now buddying up to the PRC, which he presumably would not have approved of. Oh well.

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