Taiwan Leader Chiang Dies; Pushed Reform

Times Staff Writer

Taiwan's President Chiang Ching-kuo, who ruled during a turbulent period in which the island suffered increasing diplomatic isolation but also emerged as one of Asia's leading economic powers, died Wednesday in Taipei of a heart attack. He was 77.

The death of Chiang, son of the late Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, brought an end to a family dynasty that had dominated the political life of Nationalist China since the 1920s.

Vice President Lee Teng-hui was sworn in to succeed Chiang, who in the last year had overridden stiff resistance from hard-liners in his government and pushed through reforms that gave the 20 million people of Taiwan a measure of political freedom and the opportunity to visit their relatives in mainland China, across the Taiwan Strait.

Lee, 65, became the seventh president of the Republic of China--the formal name of the Nationalist government on Taiwan--and the first native Taiwanese to rule the island since the Nationalists fled there in 1949, as the Chinese Communist Party took control of the mainland.

The new reforms and the growing prosperity on Taiwan had made Chiang a widely respected and often popular figure. Soon after his death was announced by Premier Yu Kuo-hua on the island's three television stations, hundreds of people went to the presidential palace in central Taipei, where they knelt and wept. State television repeatedly broadcast pictures of the Cabinet, their heads bowed in front of Chiang's portrait.

Reuters news agency reported from Taiwan that the government had ordered all theaters and other entertainment centers closed for three days and all political demonstrations banned during a month of mourning.

Shaw Yu-ming, the government's chief spokesman, said Chiang left a final statement urging his successor to promote the cause of constitutional democracy on Taiwan and to struggle to realize the dream that eluded him--reuniting China. The government in Beijing promotes the same cause but has said it can be accomplished only if the Nationalists "return to the embrace of the motherland" and recognize Beijing's sovereignty over the island.

Chiang took the reins of power in Taiwan after his father's death in 1975.

For three decades before that, he had served as Chiang Kai-shek's aide, confidant and anointed successor, first on the mainland and later, after the Communist takeover, on Taiwan.

Cool to Madame Chiang

The younger Chiang, who was often called "CCK," was Chiang Kai-shek's son by his first wife, a village woman to whom he had been betrothed by family arrangement. Throughout his life, the son maintained a cool but proper relationship with his stepmother, Soong Mei-ling, the world-famous Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who lived in New York after CCK gained power in Taiwan and returned to the island last year.

Chiang's own life was swept up in the political vicissitudes of 20th-Century China. As an impassioned teen-ager in 1925, Chiang Ching-kuo left Shanghai for Moscow and joined the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. He remained in the Soviet Union for 12 years, but spent some of this time in Soviet labor camps because he had been identified as a Trotskyite by Josef Stalin's supporters.

By the time he took the helm in Taiwan, he had become one of the world's most ardent anti-Communists. "We must remove the tyrannical rule of the Chinese Communist regime and eradicate the poison of Marxism-Leninism from Chinese soil," he said in 1983.

It was during CCK's tenure that the United States decided, in 1978, to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and to grant recognition instead to the Communist government in Beijing. That was seen as a crushing defeat for Taiwan's Nationalist government in its decades-long campaign to persuade the world that it should still be considered the legal representative of the Chinese people.

U.S. Arms Sales Continued

Yet, under Chiang's guidance, Taiwan weathered the storm of de-recognition. The United States continued to maintain active, though unofficial, ties with the island through the American Institute in Taiwan, a non-government agency staffed with State Department personnel on leave. Although the United States broke its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, it continued to sell arms to the island at the rate of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, in the process incurring the wrath of Beijing.

Meanwhile, Chiang led Taiwan to surging economic advances. By the end of 1987, the island had become the world's 11th-ranking exporter, and its per capita income was among the highest in Asia.

For most of his tenure, CCK preserved his father's tight control over all political developments on Taiwan. The Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, was the only effective channel for political action on the island until last year, and the nation's police and security apparatus kept a vigilant watch on those daring enough to voice any dissent. Anyone who dared to challenge the Nationalists' control or to call for the right of self-determination for the island's people usually ended up in jail, after a trial before a military tribunal.

Taiwan remained under a state of martial law for 38 years after the Communist victory on the mainland. Then, in the last year of his life, Chiang presided over a series of stunning political changes. Martial law was lifted last July, scores of political prisoners were released and press controls were relaxed. For the first time, the government said it would tolerate an opposition political party.

And, in the most dramatic move of all, Chiang and the rest of the Nationalist government eased a 38-year ban on travel to China. The Beijing government had long urged such contacts, as well as regular mail service, communications links and open trade between the two rival Chinese governments. Chiang would not go as far as the Communists urged, but he did sanction family visits for everyone except high military and government officials. Since then, thousands of Taiwan citizens have made pilgrimages back to their hometowns on the mainland.

The government balked, however, at growing demands from the opposition that it fully open up the island's anachronistic legislative bodies to democratic elections. The legislative bodies are still made up of septuagenarians and octogenarians elected long ago to represent provinces on the Chinese mainland--keeping alive the fiction that they represent all of China.

Until last year, Chiang's government was regarded as authoritarian, though progressive on economic issues.

Taiwan security officials, for example, freely used violence to achieve their aims. In 1984, Henry Liu, the author of a book critical of Chiang Ching-kuo, who had left Taiwan for the United States and become an American citizen, was killed outside his home in Daly City, Calif.

Three underworld figures were arrested in connection with Liu's slaying. But three months later, under pressure from U.S. officials, three Taiwan intelligence officials were arrested, including the former chief of Taiwan's Military Intelligence Bureau, Wang Hsi-ling. A court-martial convicted Wang of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

Chiang Ching-kuo was born March 18, 1910, in a small town south of Shanghai. His father, then a young soldier, was often away from home in Shanghai and in Japan, helping Sun Yat-sen in his eventually successful effort to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.

Chiang Kai-shek divorced his first wife in 1921, remarried soon afterward, and in 1927 was betrothed to his third wife, the American-educated Soong Mei-ling.

As a youth, Chiang Ching-kuo took part in political demonstrations in Shanghai against the imperial powers. He left for the Soviet Union at age 15 and graduated from Moscow's Sun Yat-sen University.

He did not return to China until 1937, when Stalin was seeking to bring about a truce in the bloody power struggle between Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government and the Chinese Communist Party. While in the Soviet Union, CCK married a Russian woman named Faina, whom he took with him to China and then to Taiwan. They had four children.

Chiang Ching-kuo soon began working as a Nationalist Party administrator under his father's patronage. In 1948, in the last stages of the civil war, the generalissimo assigned him the job of enforcing currency regulations and battling gangsters and corruption in Shanghai. CCK won renown by seeking to impose harsh punishment upon some currency and stock manipulators, including Madame Chiang Kai-shek's nephew.

In Taiwan, Chiang Ching-kuo first served under his father as head of internal security on the island, where he won a reputation for ruthlessness. In 1965, he became Taiwan's defense minister, and in 1972 his father appointed him premier, allowing him to take over day-to-day administration of the government.

After his father's death, Chiang Ching-kuo became chairman of the Kuomintang. He later assumed the role of chief of state, becoming the island's president in 1978, then winning another six-year term in 1984.

The U.S. decision in 1978 to withdraw recognition from the Nationalist government had been foreshadowed by a series of earlier American gestures toward Beijing beginning with President Richard M. Nixon's trip to China in 1972.

'Outraged' at Carter Move

Nevertheless, Taiwan reacted furiously. A U.S. delegation to Taiwan led by Warren M. Christopher, then the deputy secretary of state, was greeted by about 10,000 demonstrators throwing eggs and tomatoes. Chiang told Christopher he was "outraged" by President Jimmy Carter's action and later called it "tantamount to denying the hundreds of millions of enslaved people on the Chinese mainland their hope of an early restoration of freedom."

Chiang quickly galvanized supporters of the Nationalist government in Washington to help win passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, a strongly worded measure that kept in effect virtually all the agreements between the United States and Taiwan except for the Mutual Defense Treaty.

More recently, the Reagan Administration has promised Beijing that Washington will gradually reduce its arms sales to Taiwan, but it is widely believed that the United States would come to the defense of its old ally if there were any attack on the island.

In his later years, Chiang's health was not good. He suffered from diabetes and underwent a series of eye operations. Yet he continued to appear in public regularly and remained in active control of the government.

Lee, the new president, will serve until the expiration of Chiang's term in 1990. A former agricultural economist, Lee has little power base of his own, and it is thought that he will probably govern as part of a collective leadership that includes Lee Huan, general secretary of the Nationalist Party and an outspoken reformer; Premier Yu, and Shen Chang-huan, a conservative who is secretary general of the presidential palace.

Many of these men were groomed by Chiang, who had pledged to end his family's dynastic rule and to encourage a collegial government that would continue the reforms he set in motion.

Jim Mann, The Times' Beijing bureau chief from 1984 to 1987, frequently traveled to Taiwan and wrote about the government of Chiang Ching-kuo.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World