Facebook Twitter



When Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, his body was entombed in a black-granite sarcophagus in the sitting room of his villa.

It was always thought to be a temporary resting place until his remains were returned to China after reunification. Until then, he would lie in these wooded hills, awaiting the end of exile.Twenty-one years after his death, Chiang Kai-shek is still waiting.

Bad enough that his dream is deferred. Far worse, his reputation is under attack and his party is in decline. Once hailed as a soldier, revolutionary and statesman, the general who fought Mao and stood with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt is now a much-diminished figure.

To be sure, his name still adorns stadiums, airports and parks, his face still decorates stamps and coins and his portraits are still carried in parades on National Day. But today he's as much an object of derision as adulation.

In the new, democratic Taiwan, politicians remove Chiang Kai-shek's name from street signs and public buildings. Historians accuse him of incompetence, corruption and cronyism. Voters abandon the Kuomintang (KMT), his old political organization. And Taiwan's reunification with the mainland, Chiang's raison d'tre, is an ebbing vision.

Chiang always believed that the KMT was the sole, legitimate government of China which would rule the country again as it had between 1928 and 1949. Convinced that reunification was inevitable, he would lie in Tzuhu until his reburial in the former KMT capital at Nanjing. Meanwhile, his tomb would sustain his memory.

To more than one generation of Taiwanese, Chiang would be the man who fought the Japanese, opposed the Communists and led his defeated army of Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949. As long as Taiwan remained under his rule, that truth would remain unchallenged.

Since martial law was lifted in 1987, however, he has become less dominant in the public consciousness.

Falling attendance at his tomb reflects the dimming of Chiang Kai-shek's star, and that of his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who succeeded him as president in 1975 and governed until his death in 1988. The Chiang family ruled Taiwan for almost 40 years but now is in disrepute. Sensing that, a disaffected Madam Chiang, 97, decamped for the United States years ago.

The assault is being led by Chen Shui-bian, the mayor of Taipei. A member of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Chen was scarcely in power two weeks as the capital's first popularly elected mayor when he ordered offices and schools to remove portraits of Chiang. He declared "the cult of personality" inappropriate in the democratic Taiwan.

Not only does the mayor want the family to return land in Taipei that he said was acquired illegally, but he covets the grounds occupied by the Chiang-Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

The memorial, which fills 2.7 million square feet in central Taipei, is the country's greatest monument to Chiang. It was opened five years after his death and reflects the reverence in which he was then held.

Like the mayor, Daisy Chen, a member of Taipei City Council.she has no use for Chiang. "For us, he represents martial law, terror and dictatorship," she said. "We have only a bad feeling."

Chen's view is gaining currency. It was once illegal to publish unflattering accounts of Chiang, but now they proliferate.

One of the more recent is "Chiang Kai-shek: A Critical Biography" by Lee Ao, the author of many satirical books. Like so many of Chiang's critics, Lee's antipathy is deeply personal; he was imprisoned for seven years in the 1970s for running a pro-democracy magazine. He called Chiang immoral, opportunistic and incompetent.

He notes, for example, that Chiang's order to breach a dyke on the Yellow River in 1938 to stop the Japanese invaders drowned one million people and led to drought years later that starved another five million in Henan Province.

He gives Chiang no credit for making Taiwan an economic powerhouse, arguing that the Japanese (who ruled the island from 1885 to 1945) left a good infrastructure and the Americans gave generous economic aid.

Lee's view is shared in part by Bo Yang, another popular writer. He gave credit to Chiang for giving Taiwan "40 years of peace" and protecting it from Chinese aggression. But that's as far as his praise goes.

"He called himself a Christian, but he knew nothing about Christianity," he said. "He called himself a democrat, but he knew nothing about democracy."

There are now free elections in Taiwan, and support for the Kuomintang is eroding. Szu-Yin Ho, who teaches political science at National Chengchi University in Taipei, noted that the KMT's popular vote has fallen with each election.

Ho said the KMT has virtually no support among young people, who associate it and Chiang with corruption and defeat.

Predictably, that view is not universally shared. Justice Minister Ying-Jeou Ma, who is making a national reputation for himself by prosecuting corrupt officials within the KMT, argued that Chiang fostered prosperity and ensured the security of Taiwan.

"There was good and there was bad about Chiang Kai-shek," he allowed. "He had the first local elections in Taiwan when the Korean War broke out. He led the war against the Japanese. He wanted us to keep our dignity with the Americans.

"Everything wasn't terrific, but he did some good. You have to put him in perspective. We owe him due respect."