The tour guide was seething.
“Nonsense,” the shopkeeper snapped back. “He was a great historical figure, a great man.”
Some 32 years after his death, the man who became synonymous with the island’s split with mainland China has been thrust back into the political spotlight, as Taiwan’s two main political parties seek an issue to galvanize public opinion before presidential elections next year.
To the opposition nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party, whose original members Gen. Chiang led to Taiwan after they were driven from the mainland in 1949 by Mao Tse-tung’s communists, he remains a symbol of eventual reunification.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Chen Shui-bian, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), draws much of its support from the people on the island for the arrival of Ching and favors formal independence. The party considers Gen. Chiang a brutal dictator whose 25 years in power amounted to a reign of terror.
Both parties’ presidential candidates nominally favor closer ties with Beijing. So, in an attempt to seize the initiative, and to the fury of the nationalists, the government has hit on the idea of writing Gen. Chiang out of history as a way of energizing its political base.
Nowhere is the debate more polarized than at the blue-roofed pagoda in the center of the capital, Taipei — until a month ago the centerpiece of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park. Now the pagoda is the “National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall,” festooned in scaffolding as workers set about removing every mention of Gen. Chiang’s name.
Inside, it is packed with Chiang memorabilia, including his bulletproof limousines and a model of his office, with a mannequin of the old leader seated at his desk. But now a rival exhibition is in the main hall, featuring films of old military parades, the shackles worn by political prisoners and an array of propaganda leaflets and previously banned texts — all topped off with large banners that read, “Bye-bye, Chiang Kai-shek.”
DPP supporters in green tabards, the party’s color, hand out leaflets detailing the restrictions imposed during Gen. Chiang’s rule, from the edicts on hair length to the banning of the Taiwanese language, as well as claims about his spy network.
Last month one of the new guides, Ting Le-chin, eagerly pointed out Gen. Chiang’s well-documented human rights abuses to visitors.
“Chiang Kai-shek was not a hero; he was a killer,” she said.
But in the hall’s gift shop, Wu Shu Hui watched angrily. Since the name change, she said, business had slumped. The mainland Chinese who had flocked to the hall to learn more about Gen. Chiang — who, ironically, is regarded by some of them as a symbol of unification — had stopped coming.
“People should move forward and not drag things up,” she said. “This is a tourist spot and we shouldn’t be showing people our bad history.”
A mountainside park in the northeastern town of Tashi has even become an unlikely pilgrimage site for mainlanders. On a hillside in the park are more than 100 statues of Gen. Chiang that have been removed from schools, public parks and museums across the island as his reputation has declined.