Dictators, elections and history

Recent developments in North Africa have re-ignited public interest in the fate of dictators. Inspired by footage of Muammar Gaddafi’s death outside Sirte, BBC4’s ‘Archive on Four’, for example, recently examined the diverse ways in which modern dictators have faced demise, contrasting those who died in their beds to those who were executed, in the manner of Gaddafi, by their own people.

One dictator who tends not to have been included in such comparative discussions, however, is Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang was fortunate enough to die of natural causes in Taipei in 1975 (rather than in the throes of a violent uprising), and the rule of his son in subsequent years ensured that a state-sponsored cult of personality carried on well after his passing. Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, ordered by Chiang Ching-kuo as an act of filial mourning, is probably the most tangible example of this.

It is in a post-Chiang Ching-kuo Taiwan, however, that the fate of Chiang Kai-shek becomes slightly more complex and unusual. The gradual transformation to democratic rule which occurred under Lee Teng-hui saw the official memory of Chiang Kai-shek either suppressed, or, in the words of Stéphane Corcuff, ‘ritualised’ in Taiwan. In the 1990s, groups such as the New Party certainly clung to the heritage of Sun Yat-sen, but few acting or former KMTstalwarts went out of their way to embrace the heritage of Chiang Kai-shek. Under Lee, the beginnings of a process which has since come to be referred to as ‘de Chiang Kai-shek-ification’ (quJianghua) began – at first gradually, but eventually, under the Taipei administration of Chen Shui-bian, in a far more systematic fashion.

Despite all this – or perhaps because of it – Chiang Kai-shek never really went away in Taiwan. Indeed, come the 2008 presidential elections, he was back as a major political issue, with DPP attempts to rename and reconfigure the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall setting off a major public debate about how Chiang deserved to be remembered in a Taiwan which Chiang himself would probably not have recognised. Ironically, the opening of Taiwan to large numbers of mainland tourists since 2008 has contributed to such debates, with many Chinese visitors expressing an interest in visiting sites associated with the Generalissimo, and in seeing Chiang’s body, which still lies in state (though concealed from direct view) in Taoyuan.

It is unlikely that the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek will arouse quite as much attention at the 2012 elections. The DPP under Tsai Ing-wen has not placed quite as much weight on KMT failures of past decades, preferring instead to focus on Ma Ying-jeou and the potential problems that a number of his policies may cause for Taiwan in the future.

Yet it is significant that even today, the memory of Chiang is still being called upon in Taiwanese political debate, either to defend Nationalist rule on the island or to illustrate KMT authoritarianism of an earlier era.

Only a few days ago, the one-time KMT premier Hau Pei-tsun used the anniversary of that long-forgotten ‘holiday’ – Chiang Kai-shek’s birthday – to defend Chiang’s reign, and argued that Taiwan would have no democracy today had it not been for the actions that Chiang carried out in the name of ‘anti-communism’ in the Cold War years.

Such comments do not represent mainstream public opinion inTaiwan. And despite leading to complaints from a number of groups, they have not yet resulted in the widespread and often divisive discussions about Chiang’s legacy that were witnessed in 2008. Nevertheless, it is indicative of the unresolved debates about the merits (or demerits) of Chiang’s rule on the island that his name continues to be invoked almost four decades since his death, and especially in the run up to elections. If nothing else, Hau’s comments – made only days after the new leaders of Libya informed the world that Gaddafi’s body has been laid to rest in an unmarked grave – suggest that Chiang’s legacy, like his as yet un-buried body awaiting interment in a hypothetically unified China, remains very much ‘up in the air’ in democratic Taiwan.

Jeremy E. Taylor is Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Rethinking Transnational Chinese Cinemas: The Amoy-dialect Film Industry in Cold War Asia (London: Routledge, 2011).