TIME 100: AUGUST 23-30, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 7/8
The contest for leadership of China after Sun Yat-sen's death had
several contenders but one clear favorite: Chiang Kai-shek. He had
married Sun's sister-in-law, waged a fierce campaign in 1926 that
captured Beijing for the Kuomintang and fought the Japanese during
World War II. Surely, this stoic warrior had a greater chance of
saving his floundering nation than a poorly armed band of peasants
led by a little-known socialist poet. How could the mighty Chiang
Kai-shek lose China?
Like Mao Zedong, Chiang had dreams of national glory informed by the
harsh realities of his youth. Born in 1887 in a remote farm village
in the eastern province of Zhejiang, he began working at the age of
nine after his father died. At 18 he left China to train at Tokyo's
Military Preparatory Academy among soldiers whose discipline and
sophistication inspired him to believe that China could one day have
a modern army. He relished Japan's harsh winters and the academy's
strict regime, later boasting that they allowed him to nourish his
appetite for "eating bitterness."
With the first tremors of revolution in 1911, Chiang returned to
China and joined the Kuomintang. When he succeeded Sun at its helm
in 1926, the Manchus had been toppled, but China was plagued by
factionalism and organized crime. Chiang, sustained by the Soviet
aid Sun had arranged, built the party's first viable army and
crushed the warlords. By the time the Kuomintang marched into
Beijing in 1928, the communists had been purged from its ranks.
One of Chiang's most significant moves was to link up with the
powerful Soong family. In 1927 he married the beautiful
U.S.-educated Soong Mei-ling, daughter of a prominent Shanghai
publishing tycoon, and adopted her Christian faith. "To my mind the
reason we should believe in Jesus is that He was the leader of a
national revolution," he later said. Soong's talent was public
relations. "The only thing Oriental about me is my face," she told
rapt Western audiences while conducting U.S. tours to raise support
for the nationalists. Such efforts and a belief that the Kuomintang
was a bulwark against Japan's imperial ambitions ensured Chiang a
place among the Big Four powers during World War II. The monk-like
general, dressed in unadorned fatigues, was found in the spotlight
alongside Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Meanwhile, high-level Kuomintang officers were growing
complacent--and corrupt--with an influx of Western money and
military aid. Chiang sought to increase his party's strength with
ties to China's wealthy landlords, alienating the peasants who
represented more than 90% of the population. By the end of World War
II, the communists, with their large numbers and relatively coherent
ideology, were formidable rivals. After four years of civil war,
Chiang and the nationalists were forced to flee to the island of
Taiwan. There they established a government-in-exile and dreamed of
retaking the mainland.
Like Sun Yat-sen, Chiang left an incomplete legacy. Personally
ascetic, he allowed corruption to flourish. A darling of Western
democrats, he imposed martial law on Taiwan--though after his 1975
death his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo eventually lifted it.
Like Sun, he tried and failed to unify a divided nation. But unlike
his predecessor, Chiang Kai-shek left behind a prosperous economy
that grew into a genuine democracy.