J.V. “Jay” Vinyard, an 89-year-old former member of the “Flying Tigers,” and Nell Calloway, granddaughter of General Claire Chennault, who led the legendary air squadrons during World War II, are both laughing away. Sitting next to them on the sofa is an unlikely figure: The military-attired man, who is looking with amusement at a photograph, is General Liang Guanglie (梁光烈), minister of national defense for the People’s Republic of China.
Why Liang, along with the other officers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who accompanied him at the meeting in Arlington, Virginia, earlier this month, does not belong there, and why Chennault would likely have bristled at their presence during the meet-up, is that they are representatives of a government that he fought to the end. For when he died in July 1958, Claire Chennault was anti-communist to the absolute core.
During the meeting, Liang said Chinese and Americans shared a long history of friendly ties, citing the battles fought by the Flying Tigers alongside the Chinese against the Japanese during World War II — feats, he said, that the Chinese would never forget.
Chennault did fight alongside Chinese, but those Chinese were Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), not the heirs of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) who run China today. Chennault’s China ceased to exist when Chiang’s army was defeated by the communists and scrambled, saving what it could of itself, across the Taiwan Strait. From that point on, Chennault would regard Taiwan and China along the Manichean lines that prevailed at the time, as a bastion of the free world against the evils of communism. Were he still alive today, there is no doubt that he would be one of Taiwan’s most ardent defenders, doing everything in his power to ensure that it had the means to defend itself against an increasingly powerful and well-armed China.
Ironically, such ideology is exactly what some Chinese and US officials are trying to undo, not only though meetings between Liang and the heirs of the Flying Tigers, but also with their role in a museum named after the controversial aviator.
Chennault would have found it absurd that one day, the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum in Louisiana, whose director, his granddaughter Calloway, would receive a check for US$50,000 on behalf of Huawei Technologies — a Chinese firm with suspected ties to the PLA — for its expansion. Or that the same company would underwrite a banquet last year for the museum’s expansion, complete with a lottery for a seven-day trip for two to China.
Little by little, the prestige of Chennault — the friend of “free China”— is being appropriated by the other China, one whose existence was anathema to him. By agreeing to go along with this, the museum and those who survive Chennault, family and brothers in arms alike, are unwittingly allowing Beijing to hijack his legacy and make a mockery of his support for Taiwan, something he would have found inexcusable. (Interestingly, later this month a film crew associated with CTiTV, which is owned by the pro-Beijing Want Want China Times Group, will be in Louisiana shooting a documentary on Chennault.)
For her part, Calloway seems genuine in her belief that her grandfather would have approved, and she agreed to be interviewed for this article.
“I am only interested in trying to help people in this country understand and appreciate the Chinese people,” she said in an e-mail exchange on Wednesday.
“My grandfather went to China in 1937. China was not a communist country at that time. He only saw the oppression and suffering of the Chinese people. That is why he stayed. Most people in this country do not know what the Japanese were doing to the Chinese,” she said. “I tell people that the Japanese killed between 25 and 50 million Chinese people and they are always surprised.”
The Sino-Japanese war is known as the forgotten war, Calloway said, adding that she was working very hard to help people remember the sacrifices of not only the Americans, but also the Chinese.
“General Chennault’s support was for the Chinese people. He even started an orphanage for children who had lost their parents during the war,” she wrote.
As to her meeting with Liang, Calloway underscored its importance as a catalyst for communication.
“The meeting last week was important to me because I think if we can open communications from both countries about how to better our relationships between the people of the countries, we will make a better world,” she said, adding that she had been invited to China on several occasions, including a trip in 2010 to unveil a statue of her grandfather at the Flying Tiger Memorial Museum in Zhejiang Province with former US president Jimmy Carter.
“The Chinese seem to have a great appreciation for what the Flying Tigers did for their country. There is a statue of General Chennault in Beijing that my mother had her picture taken with. We have partnered with a museum in Guilin called the Flying Tiger Heritage Park. It is where a cave of operations that General Chennault used during the war is located,” she said.
Turning to Taiwan, Calloway said she had never visited but had always wanted to.
“It would be an honor for me to receive an invitation to meet with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九),” she said. “I know that my grandfather and one of my uncles owned a home there after the war. I also understand that there is a statue of General Chennault that I would like to see.”
“I am not a political person. I do not have to agree with other people’s politics nor they mine to have an appreciation of history,” Calloway said.
However, other people involved in this story are political and could do far more damage. There was another guest of honor at the gala alongside Huawei USA president Charles Ding on Aug. 19 last year. That man was retired US admiral William Owens, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who, since 2006, has been a managing director at AEA Investors in Hong Kong. And AEA is a business partner of — you guessed it, Huawei (Calloway denies the company is linked to the PLA).
Under the Sanya Initiative, an exercise in Track II diplomacy between the US and China launched in recent years, Owens has been a strong proponent of ceasing US arms sales to Taiwan. Members on the US side include retired general Ronald Fogleman, former chief of staff of the US Air Force; retired general John Keane, former vice chief of staff of the US Army; and retired general Charles Wilhelm, former commander of US Southern Command.
In an op-ed in the Financial Times in November 2009, Owens referred to the Taiwan Relations Act, under which the US is committed to ensuring that Taiwan has the means to defend itself against China, as antiquated and deleterious to better relations between Beijing and Washington. Among other things, the Sanya talks have focused on phasing out US arms sales to Taiwan in line with eventual reductions in the number of missiles that the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps aims at Taiwan, a proposition that some defense experts have called dangerously naive.
Chennault is not the only historical anti-communist figure to have undergone rehabilitation in China in recent years. One of his old allies during World War II, for decades reviled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a murderous tyrant and the man who led his defeated troops to Taiwan in 1949, is being recast as a misguided leader who, flawed as he was, did both good and bad. Chiang, Mao’s nemesis, is now being reshaped to fit a historical narrative whose ultimate aim is to reinforce the concept of “one China.”
One by one, the giants who lent credibility to the concept of “two Chinas,” or “one China, one Taiwan,” are falling victim to the swift pen of “united front” revisionism. The sad part is, people who should know better are falling for Beijing’s ruse, which not only fails to serve history correctly, but also risks further eroding Taiwan’s continued existence as a free, democratic society whose distinctness from China should be cherished rather than regarded as an impediment to the strengthening of ties between the US and China.
Meanwhile, another statue of Chennault makes its home at a museum dedicated to his memory at an air force base in Hualien. One of the Taiwanese officials who unveiled it at a ceremony in August 2006 is now posted in Washington where he is endeavoring to procure for Taiwan the combat aircraft it needs to defend itself. Chennault would have approved of that.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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