Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ending ‘Imperial’ Taiwan

Chiang Ching-kuo gave up absolute power, absolutely

Demos Chiang, 34, is the founder and chairman of DEM Inc, a design firm that he established in 2003, with offices in Taipei and Shanghai. The biography on his website doesn’t even mention the fact that he is the grandson of Chiang Ching-kuo, the president of Taiwan from 1978-88, and the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek.

That is because Chiang Ching-kuo took a remarkable step in 1985, becoming one of the few leaders anywhere to voluntarily end a dynasty and a dictatorship. After Ching-kuo’s death in January 1988, Demos’ father Hsaio-yung immigrated with the family to Canada. Demos went on to study finance at the Stern School of Business, New York University, and design management at Parsons the New School for Design in New York. He is Ching-kuo’s best known grandson, thanks to his good looks and the success of his design company.

But neither he nor any of the other grandchildren plays any role in politics in Taiwan, nor do they want to.

Many Taiwanese expected Chiang Ching-kuo to continue the family dynasty into the third generation by choosing one of the three sons by his Russian wife to succeed him. He also had two sons by a mistress in mainland China in 1942 but they were not recognized by the family.

Demos grew up in this “imperial” household, he says, constantly accompanied by two bodyguards. In a book, he described the weekly lunch with his grandfather – the children waited for their parents to pick up their chopsticks first and ate but did not speak: they could not leave their hands on the table, had to finish all their food and ask for permission to leave.

But in August 1985, Ching-kuo told Time magazine: “the next leader of the Republic of China will be chosen according to the constitution. I never considered that he would be a member of the Chiang family.”

After his grandfather’s death, Demos and his family moved to Montreal. “When I was growing up, it was like a dream, as if I was holding Aladdin’s lamp,” Demos said. “Whatever I wanted would come to pass. Everywhere I went was arranged in advance. But one day, when we arrived in Montreal, the lamp went out and everything disappeared.”

They were no longer “royal” but an ordinary family. Relieved of this burden, his father became more relaxed, less strict and closer to his children.
Behind Ching-kuo’s decision were factors both political and personal. The country he governed had developed with extraordinary speed in terms of economy, education and civil society. He realized he could no longer govern it with a small elite from the mainland but had to embrace democracy.

“It is rare for a dictator to make his country democratic,” said Ye Chunlin, a teacher in Taipei. “Chiang made two enormous contributions to Taiwan. One was to lay the foundation for the ‘economic miracle’ of the 1980s and the other to create a democratic system in which the people could choose their ruler. He lifted martial law and the ban on political parties and non-official media.

“Both the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party agree on the value of this contribution – they rarely agree on anything else,” he said.
In reality, none of Chiang’s sons was a suitable candidate to lead. The oldest, Hsiao-wen, born in 1935, was an idle student who became a heavy drinker. After one drinking bout, his blood sugar fell to a dangerously low level and he lost consciousness. He suffered brain damage and thereafter was unable to concentrate for long periods.

Disappointed, Chiang put his hopes on his second son, Hsiao-wu, considered the most likely successor, sending him to work in intelligence, one of the main routes to the leadership.

But Hsiao-wu’s career was torpedoed by the assassination in California in October 1984 of Henry Liu, a Taiwan journalist who had written an unauthorized biography of Chiang Ching-kuo. The FBI discovered that Taiwan military intelligence had ordered the killing. Hsiao-wu was implicated in the scandal, which caused an uproar in Taiwan.

Coming just five years after Washington had broken official relations with Taipei, the assassination was a diplomatic disaster. Chiang had to allow FBI investigators into Taiwan to interview suspects.

To assuage public anger, Chiang had no alternative but to send Hsiao-wu to Singapore as the government’s commercial representative; his implication ruled him out as a future national leader.

By the time their father died in January 1988, the three children realized how much Taiwan had changed and that the society would not accept a third generation of the family as leader.

Before Demos and his family left, they went to see Song Mei-ling, then 90, the widow of Chiang Kai-shek, and seek her advice. “Yes, you should leave,” she said. “I completely support you. But remember two things – do not forget that you are a Chiang and do not forget that you are a Chinese.”

Despite her fame and many connections in the Kuomintang, Song herself could not prosper in the new era of democratic politics. After Ching-kuo’s death, she was out-maneuvered by new president Lee Teng-hui. She returned to her 15-hectare estate in Long Island, New York and made her last visit to Taiwan in 1995.

Ching-kuo’s three sons died young — Demos’ father in 1996 of esophageal cancer at 48 and his two uncles, in 1989 and 1991, aged 53 and 46, respectively. Some Taiwan people saw the hand of destiny – a punishment for the sins of Chiang Kai-shek and a way to prevent family succession.

In his later years, Ching-kuo strove not to live in an “imperial” way, according to The Late Years of Chiang Ching-kuo by Zhang Zuyi, which was published in 2009.

After ordering several suits during foreign trips in 1969 and 1970, Ching-kuo bought no new ones. He did not buy brand-name goods and went for a smart but simple look, Zhang said. In food, he kept to a simple diet, in part because of the diabetes he had suffered for decades.

For the last 20 years of his life, he chose to live in what had been a guest house for US officers in northern Taipei, with ordinary furniture brought from a previous house. He did not allow his staff to call it the “official mansion.”

Chiang was a model for the current president Ma Ying-jeou, who had served as his secretary and English interpreter; he also does not refer to his residence as an official mansion and once served a large delegation of Japanese visitors simple lunchboxes. Asia Sentinel

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