Letters: Chiang's place in history

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Mon, Feb 12, 2007 - Page 8

There is no question that Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) was a dictator, as your editorial notes ("Good riddance to a tyrant," Feb 7, page 8). Nor is there any question that the 228 Incident was a crime and a tragedy. Thirty-one years after his death, the time is long past for an objective assessment of Chiang's complex role. As this process is carried out, however, one fact should be borne in mind: Chiang and his refugee Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) troops and government saved Taiwan from conquest by and incorporation into the People's Republic of China (PRC).

One can speculate about the "what ifs" during those turbulent years from 1945 to 1950. Heroic voices like those of US consul general George Kerr and Li Thian-hok (李天福) pointed out in the 1950s the need for Taiwanese to make their own future. But sadly such voices found little resonance in Washington.

Much of the elite opinion in the US was pro-communist and was eager to see the island remnant of the old regime join the new. When it came to helping Taiwan, developing its economy and its military capability and assisting it in defending itself during the Formosa Straits crises, I believe that only Chiang, by virtue of his strong connections in Washington, had the ability to deliver a clear US commitment.

The soldiers who stopped a Chinese invasion at Kuningtou on Kinmen were, mostly, refugees, as were their commanders. Had they failed, Taiwan itself would soon have been destabilized, besieged and ultimately subverted and conquered. The world would scarcely have paused to take notice. But in fact those soldiers made a contribution to the freedom of Taiwan -- and I suspect it will eventually become clear, to the freedom of China.

History is full of ironies and contradictions. Taiwanese should realize that, even as he saw himself as a visitor and oppressed them, Chiang prevented a far worse tragedy, which would have been the disappearance of the island into the maelstrom of the PRC. By doing so, he held the ring, in which, a decade or so after his death, the remarkable growth of freedom and democracy was possible.

Arthur Waldron

Lauder professor of international relations, University of Pennsylvania

Regarding the recent campaigns to remove Chiang's statues and Sun Yat-Sen's (孫中山) moniker of "father of the nation," I would advise the lawmakers to ask themselves, "What symbols are we replacing these long-standing symbols of Taiwan with?"

In effect, these people seem eager to create a historical vacuum. As an American, I will always have the US flag as my symbol. And I will have memorials to presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, both men whom history has proven to be much less than perfect.

Even if Chiang was mostly responsible for the 228 Incident, I don't believe that removing his statues in one fell swoop is the healthiest way to make amends for that. At the end of the day, Taiwanese lawmakers need to do a better job of engaging the citizens in a debate on what is or is not an appropriate symbol for the nation. Without engaging the people's will, removing such historical images and figures in the name of democracy is not, in fact, democratic at all.

Bryan Hagerla

Taipei

It is obvious that history will stand the test of time, no matter how positive or negative this history is. Chiang was no different. He was a polarizing leader and that polarization is still apparent in today's politics.

However, we must all remember that he was a leader: autocratic and dictator-like and his memorials are not dissimilar from memorials in the US devoted to its own leaders.

I am not a very experienced person when it comes to Taiwanese politics. My own family supported the KMT back in the day, which explains why my life is in Canada. However, regardless of my own political stripe, we must remember Chiang as a historical figure, not as an image to glorify or spit on.

He still was a part of Taiwan's history no matter how it is played out. Simply removing everything involving his image does not benefit nor condemn anyone. In fact, it might even have confusing effect.

The last time I visited Taipei was in 2005, when the airport was still called Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. The next time I cross the Pacific, I will arrive at the same airport, but it will bear a different name.

What does that say to visitors? Do government officials want to confuse tourists into thinking that Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is actually aimed toward memorializing "Taiwan's democracy?"

For history's sake, please, keep history history.

A reader (name provided)

Canada

While not detracting from Sun's philosophies or political accomplishments, it seems that Li Chen-ching (Letters, Feb 7, page 8), misses the point regarding Sun's "unfathomable" downgrading as far as his status as Taiwan's "Father of the Nation" is concerned.

Without getting into the historical timeline anomaly and KMT historical propaganda, Li seems to be mixing the idea of international statesman with national icon.

Sun may indeed be the "Father of China," (ironic given his status in the PRC), but his place in Taiwan cannot be determined solely by a KMT-enforced interpretation of history.

Li's assertion that Taiwan's "successes were derived from, or are compatible with, the early national reconstruction draft laid out by Sun," is clearly derived from and only compatible with a narrow KMT historical interpretation of "national."

That Sun had some laudable ideas is indisputable and their relevance to modern Taiwan is also of course important, but his personal significance as the "Father of the Nation" is, at best, precarious.

Many great leaders have had many great ideas, but, unlike Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and former South African president Nelson Mandela, who command adulation at home as well as international recognition, Sun ultimately lacks the fundamental local participation to be revered as a Taiwanese hero.

It is high time that this, and more, propaganda is exposed and Taiwanese history be taught more honestly and openly to Taiwanese students.

The people of free Taiwan must use this opportunity to re-visit their past and forge their true identity, giving due dignity, respect and honor to the real Taiwanese patriots whose commitment, sacrifices and perseverance have made the freedom of Taiwan possible.

David Kay

Taipei