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.