The late president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) has been praised for initiating Taiwan’s democratization. I find this very interesting. Chiang and his father stole from the public what belonged to them — democracy. In his later years, he returned less than half of what he stole, and for that, Taiwanese shed tears of gratitude.
What was democracy like under Chiang? Let’s think about such things as the bloody Lin family murders in 1980 when members of pro-democracy activist Lin I-hsiung’s (林義雄) family were murdered in his home; the death in Taipei of US-based Taiwanese academic Chen Wen-chen (陳文成) in 1981; or the monitoring and blacklisting of Taiwanese students overseas.
The political commentator Sun Ching-yu (孫慶餘) has said that Chiang used spies to rule Taiwan and would label anyone a communist bandit spy. He orchestrated the arrests of Sun Li-jen (孫立人), a former general, Lei Chen (雷震), a founder and publisher of the Free China journal, and the Kaohsiung Incident, and we must remember the questions surrounding the strange death of his mistress, Chang Ya-juo (章亞若).
The spies he used during his time at the Taiwan Provincial Security Command (台灣省保安司令部), the Taiwan Secrecy Bureau (台灣保密局) and the General Political Warfare Department (總政戰部) were of the same ilk as Lavrenty Beria, the former head of Soviet security and secret police. In addition, to uphold the image of democracy without letting it grow strong, he went campaigning for the KMT with deceit and violence, and stories about vote-rigging were common.
Economically speaking, figures undeniably improved. During his rule, average annual income increased from just above US$1,000 to more than US$5,000, but there are commentators who say the foundation for the export-led economy was laid in the 1960s before Chiang came to power, and the technology and capital-intensive industrial upgrade that began in the 1970s and 1980s was not actively pursued until Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) took over as president.
The Ten Major Infrastructure Projects follow the same logic as the idea that Chiang was the great initiator of democracy, and it is ample evidence of the Taiwanese public’s servility.
Infrastructure is the duty of any government that takes taxpayers’ money. Chiang only initiated the infrastructure projects that any government should, but in his case it has been called “virtuous government.” During the presidential election campaign last year, presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that he would deal with skyrocketing oil and consumer prices by emulating Chiang. However, if we look at the price indexes from Chiang’s time in power, we see that consumer prices skyrocketed during the two oil crises that occurred on his watch, 47.5 percent in 1974 and 19.01 percent in 1980. Who would have thought that a large swathe of the public would agree with Ma’s nostalgic views of the past?
There are of course also reasons to praise Chiang. He used many members of the Taiwanese elite. Although many historic studies take the view that he did so to co-opt Taiwanese, the fact that he did offered a channel for local talent to put their abilities to work. He also gradually increased the proportion of Taiwanese in the KMT’s Central Standing Committee, and in his later years, he suppressed conservative forces in the party. Such formal changes effectively paved the way for Lee’s pro-localization policies.