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Taiwanese debate: Was Chiang savior or despot?

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2007

The tour guide was seething.

"Chiang Kai-shek was a psychopathic dictator," she shouted, glaring at the woman in the gift shop of what used to be the main memorial to Taiwan's former leader.

"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.

Gen. Chiang ruled mainland China until he and his KMT government were driven out by the communists in 1949. Since the split, Beijing has insisted that Taiwan is still part of China, and has warned Taipei that any attempt to declare full independence will result in military action.

Despite regular saber-rattling, economic ties between the two are becoming closer. Now China hopes, against the odds, that Taiwan will be encouraged by the example of Hong Kong, which just celebrated 10 years of Chinese rule, to return to the fold.

China refuses to have diplomatic relations with any nation that recognizes Taiwan. The United Nations switched its recognition in 1971 and last month Costa Rica severed its ties with Taiwan. The island is recognized by a dwindling group of 24 nations, with the Vatican as Europe's sole representative.

It is against this background that the battle over Gen. Chiang's memory is being fought. The parties would like to portray it as symbolic of the future direction of the country, but the population appears less convinced.

Andrew Nien-Dzu Yang, from the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, said Gen. Chiang was becoming less important in people's lives.

Students were taught that he was an authoritarian who damaged Taiwan, while the older generation, who remembered when the standoff with China was more intense, think he had done much to make the country the economic success it is today.

"The ruling party is overemphasizing the bad side of Chiang Kai-shek," he said. "But in an election year, the shortcut to political success is to generate emotions."