China's Strange Rehabilitation of Mao's Greatest Rival

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Nov. 4 2013 8:30 AM

The Strange Rehabilitation of Chiang Kai-shek

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The official Chinese take on some aspects of the country’s 20th-century history has been one of the more consistent surprises for me on this trip. The photo above was taken at Meilu Villa in Lushan, a tourist resort in the mountains of Jiangxi province that centuries ago was an important early center of Chinese Buddhism and in the 19th century was a summer respite for British missionaries. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the stunning views are a major draw for Chinese tourists, though from what I saw almost no foreigners.   

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.

Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China’s nationalist government from 1928 until he was defeated by the communists in 1948, made Meilu his summer headquarters. Later, after Chiang had fled to Taiwan, Mao Zedong stayed here during the 1959 Lushan Conference, a meeting of senior communist leaders held to address the “mistakes” made during the early days of the Great Leap Forward, which kicked off a campaign of brutal purges against senior leaders who had become too critical. (Obviously, it’s presented a bit differently at the museum.)

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Chiang and Mao were bitter rivals during their lifetimes and led opposing forces during one of the 20th century’s most brutal civil wars, not to mention the fact that Chiang was the first president of Taiwan—a political entity still not formally recognized by the Chinese government. But the exhibit at Meilu Villa presents them as if they were simply successive leaders of the Chinese state: more John Adams and Thomas Jefferson than Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

An exhibit presenting a sympathetic view of Chiang and his wife Soong May-ling would once have been unthinkable, but the general, and in particular the role his Kuomintang forces played in fighting the Japanese during World War II, has apparently undergone something of a historical re-evaluation in the People’s Republic. The changing dynamics of relations between Taipei and Bieijing may have a lot to do with it, as discussed  in a 2009 Asia Times article:

In 2005, the CCP and the KMT started high-level talks. Since then, Beijing has noticeably modified its propaganda strategy, and the KMT is no longer a rival but a trusted ally in the fight against Taiwanese pro-independence forces.
Against such a backdrop, Chiang's role in history, as well as his legacy, is being re-evaluated on the mainland. His role in leading the nation against the Japanese invaders during World War II is affirmed (previously only the CCP had been said to be the main force against the Japanese). In particular, Chiang is praised for his "iron fist" crackdown on any pro-independence activity in Taiwan to "safeguard national integrity".
A recent example of this transition is the film Jianguo Daye ("The Founding of a Republic"), a movie sponsored by the Chinese government to commemorate the 60th birthday of the People's Republic of China. In the movie, Chiang is depicted as an honorable man who tried his best for China and betrayed the CCP because of human mistakes incited by bad advisers.[…]
It is historical irony that Chiang has become a symbolic link for the two sides across the Taiwan Strait. His memorial hall, as well as some other places in Taiwan where the late KMT leaders stayed, has become a major attraction for mainland tourists…

The idea of Chiang being touted as a founder of the People's Republic he fought against is a tough one for outsiders to wrap their heads around, though obviously not as hard as the idea that China's current market-driven political system is consistent with the ideas of the man who's portrait still hangs above Tiananmen Square.

I'm currently in China on a reporting fellowship sponsored by the East-West Center and the Better Hong Kong Foundation.