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Chiang Kai-shek: Biography & Facts

Last Updated on 2022/09/13

History and biography of the controversial “generalissimo” Chiang Kai-shek

From the revolt against the Beiyang government to dictatorship in Taiwan.

Chiang Kai-shek (Jiǎng Jièshí; 蔣中正; 蔣介石) was a complex historical figure, a Chinese politician, revolutionary, and military man who led the Republic of China from 1928 until he died in 1975. In 1949, following his defeat against Mao Zedong‘s forces during the Chinese Civil War, he went on to declare himself the legitimate head of state of the Chinese government-in-exile.

Like Mao Zedong, Chiang shaped China’s recent history through his controversial actions. He was the longest-serving non-royal head of state of the 20th century having ruled for 46 years until his death. 

His supporters credit him for playing a key role in reunifying China, leading the Chinese resistance against the Japanese invader, and his anti-communist actions. His detractors on the other hand accuse him of being a fascist dictator heading an authoritarian regime that was guilty of countless crimes against citizens and political dissidents, and of being an inept leader who caused the catastrophic Henan famine during the Sino-Japanese War.

During his government, Chiang introduced many reforms to improve economic and social conditions first in China, and then in Taiwan, including improving women’s rights and land reform. Chiang has also been credited with transforming China from a semi-colony at the mercy of various imperialist powers to an independent country by amending unequal treaties signed by previous governments.

The Western progressive philosophies of individualism, liberalism and the cultural elements of Marxism were all rejected by Chiang. Chiangism is therefore typically more ideologically orthodox than Sun Yat-senism in terms of culture and society. According to Jay Taylor, Chiang Kai-shek was a “left-leaning Confucian-Jacobinist” and a revolutionary nationalist.

Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) Photograph. 1945 March. (Taken during visit to Army Air Force base.)
Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) Photograph. 1945 March. (Taken during visit to Army Air Force base.)

Life

Chiang was born on October 31, 1887, in the village of Xikou in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, into a family of Wu Chinese speaker. He was the third child of his father, Chiang Chao-Tsung, a successful salt dealer.

When Chiang was eight years old, his father passed away, and he described his mother as the “embodiment of Confucian ideals.” The knowledge that the reputation of a prestigious family relied upon him motivated the young Chiang throughout his boyhood. He was a mischievous kid. He was fascinated by battle from an early age. Chiang shocked his community by cutting off his queue, the traditional hairdo for men of the Qing period, and having it brought home from school.

Chiang was born during a period when the Manchu-dominated Qing empire was unstable and in debt as a result of military setbacks, natural disasters, famines, uprisings, unfair treaties, and civil conflicts. China owed millions of taels of silver as a result of repeated demands made by the Western powers and Japan following the Opium War. He portrays himself as having strong nationalistic views and wanting, among other things, to “expel the Manchu Qing and to restore China” during his first journey to Japan to seek a military career, which took place between April 1906 and later that year.

Chiang decided to join the military. In 1906, the same year that Japan abandoned its bimetallic monetary standard and devalued its yen, he started his military training at the Baoding Military Academy. In 1907, he departed for Tokyo Shinbu Gakko, a Chinese-only preparatory school for the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. There, he was persuaded by fellow countrymen to back the uprising against the Manchu-dominated Qing empire and the establishment of a Han-dominated Chinese republic. He made friends with Chen Qimei, and in 1908 Chen welcomed Chiang into the Tongmenghui, a significant fraternity of revolutionaries at the time. Chiang completed his military training in Tokyo Shinbu Gakko, and from 1909 to 1911 he served in the Imperial Japanese Army.

In 1911, Chiang returned to China to participate in the Wuchang revolt. As one of Chen Qimei’s top lieutenants, he served in the revolutionary army, commanding a regiment in Shanghai for his friend and mentor. An argument between Chen and Tao Chen-chang, a powerful Revolutionary Alliance member who opposed both Sun Yat-sen and Chen, developed in the early months of 1912. Tao tried to hide at a hospital to prevent the argument from getting worse, but Chiang found him there. Chen sent assassins out. Chiang might not have participated in the murder, but he would later accept responsibility to protect Chen from harm. Despite Chiang’s already infamous anger, Chen admired him because he saw bellicosity in a military leader as advantageous.

Chiang’s acquaintance with Chen Qimei hinted at a connection to the criminal underworld in Shanghai (the Green Gang headed by Du Yuesheng and Huang Jinrong). Chiang was monitored by the Shanghai International Settlement police when he was in Shanghai, and they ultimately accused him of many offenses. Chiang was never imprisoned and these accusations were never the subject of a trial.

After the 1911 Revolution was a success, Chiang joined the Nationalist Party (a precursor of KMT) as one of its original members. Chiang, like his KMT brethren, split his time between exile in Japan and the safe havens of the Shanghai International Settlement following Yuan Shikai‘s overthrow of the Republican government and the futile Second Revolution in 1913. Chiang developed relationships with the criminal underworld groups in Shanghai, who were led by the infamous Green Gang and Du Yuesheng. Chen Qimei was killed by Yuan Shikai assailants on May 18, 1916. At this time, Sun Yat-sen’s political career was at its lowest ebb since the majority of his former Revolutionary Alliance allies refused to join him in the Chinese Revolutionary Party, which was in exile.

Chiang relocated to Guangzhou in 1918 after Sun Yat-sen transferred his operational headquarters there in 1917. Sun was mostly ignored at this time; lacking both weapons and resources, he was quickly driven out of Guangdong and sent into exile once more in Shanghai. With the aid of mercenaries, he was returned to Guangdong in 1920. Sun, who planned to use the KMT to forcefully unite China, and Chen Jiongming, the governor of Guangdong, who wanted to build a federalist system using Guangdong as a model province, fell out after Sun returned to Guangdong.

Ye Ju, a general of Chen’s whom Sun had sought to banish, spearheaded an assault on the Presidential Palace of Guangdong on June 16, 1922. Sun Yat-sen’s wife narrowly avoided bombardment and rifle fire as she left; he had already gone to the navy yard and boarded the SS Haiqi. Chiang joined them as soon as he could after leaving Shanghai, where he was ritualistically mourning the loss of his mother, aboard the SS Yongfeng, where they first met. Chiang stayed with Sun for nearly 50 days, taking care of him and gaining his unwavering faith. On August 9, they stopped attacking Chen and boarded a British ship for Hong Kong before boarding a steamer for Shanghai.

Early in 1923, Sun retook command of Guangdong with the Comintern and Yunnan mercenaries’ assistance. He founded a revolutionary administration to unite China under the KMT through reforming the KMT. Sun despatched Chiang to Moscow the same year to spend three months there researching the Soviet political and military structure. Chiang visited Russia and met Leon Trotsky and other Soviet leaders, but he soon realized that the Russian system of governance was inappropriate for China. Later, Chiang sent Ching-kuo, his oldest son, to study in Russia.

Ching-kuo was made to remain there as a captive until 1937 following his father’s departure from the First United Front in 1927. Even refusing to arrange a prisoner swap for his son in return for the Chinese Communist Party head, Chiang wrote in his notebook, “It is not worth it to compromise the interest of the country for the sake of my son.” Chiang had no intention of ending the struggle against the Communists, and by 1937 he still maintained that “I would sooner have no offspring than surrender our nation’s interests.”

Sun Yat-sen [middle behind the table] and Chiang Kai-shek [on stage in uniform] at the founding of the Whampoa Military Academy in 1924
Sun Yat-sen [middle behind the table] and Chiang Kai-shek [on stage in uniform] at the founding of the Whampoa Military Academy in 1924

When Chiang Kai-shek eventually settled in Guangdong, Sun named him commandant of the Whampoa Military Academy in 1924. After a month, Chiang left the job over his displeasure with Sun’s very strong ties to the Comintern, but he later returned at Sun’s request. Chiang was able to develop a group of young officers who were devoted to the KMT and him during his early years in Whampoa.

Chiang also profited from belonging to the nationalist Tiandihui fraternity, to which Sun Yat-sen also belonged and which continued to be a source of support during his leadership of the Kuomintang, throughout his ascent to power.

If when I die, I am still a dictator, I will certainly go down into the oblivion of all dictators. If, on the other hand, I succeed in establishing a truly stable foundation for a democratic government, I will live forever in every home in China. Chiang Kai-shek

Rising to power

On March 12, 1925, Sun Yat-sen passed away, leaving the Kuomintang without a strong leader. Wang Jingwei, Liao Zhongkai, and Hu Hanmin then engaged in a competition. Liao was murdered in August, and Hu was detained because of his ties to the killers. Following the Canton Coup, Chiang exiled Wang Jingwei, who had succeeded Sun as chairman of the Kwangtung regime, despite his apparent ascent. The SS Yongfeng, which had been renamed the Zhongshan in Sun’s honor, had arrived off Changzhou, the seat of the Whampoa Academy, on what looked to be fabricated instructions and amid a string of odd phone calls intended to find Chiang.

On March 20, 1926, he declared martial law and cracked down on Communist and Soviet influence over the NRA, the military academy, and the party. At first, he had considered leaving Kwangtung and had even reserved passage on a Japanese steamer. However, he ultimately decided to use his military connections. Stalin, desperate to keep Soviet influence in the region, had his lieutenants acquiesce to Chiang’s requests for a decreased Communist representation in the KMT leadership in exchange for certain other concessions because the right wing of the party backed him. Chiang was able to virtually remove civilian control of the military after May 15 because of the quick succession of new commanders, albeit his power was partially constrained by the army’s regional makeup and mixed loyalties.

He assumed command of the National Revolutionary Army on June 5 and ultimately began the protracted Northern Expedition on July 27 to subdue the northern warlords and unite China under the KMT. The NRA split into three groups: to the west, Wang Jingwei, who had recently returned, led a column to seize Wuhan; to the east, Bai Chongxi’s column headed to grab Shanghai; and to the center, Chiang himself, who intended to take Nanjing before moving on to conquer Beijing.

However, Wang Jingwei and his KMT communist allies seized Wuhan in January 1927 amid a massive public uprising and celebration. Wang said that the National Government had relocated to Wuhan after forming alliances with several Chinese Communists and on the advice of Soviet agent Mikhail Borodin. Chiang paused his assault after capturing Nanjing in March and planned a dramatic split with Wang’s communist factions, whom he saw as a danger to his leadership of the KMT.

More than 12,000 fatalities were recorded in Shanghai in April. The murders forced the majority of Communists into rural areas, where the KMT was weaker. Over 300,000 people perished in China in the year after April 1927 as a result of KMT-led anti-Communist repression measures. One of Chiang’s most well-known sayings at the time was that he would sooner accidentally murder 1,000 innocent people than let one Communist getaway. According to some estimates, millions of people died in China during the White Terror, most of them in rural regions. There is no verifiable specific number. After the crackdown, Chiang permitted Soviet advisor and spy Mikhail Borodin and Soviet general Vasily Blücher (Galens) to “leave” to safety.

The KMT’s National Revolutionary Army (NRA) surged across central and southern China until being stopped in Shandong, where clashes with the Japanese army turned violent. The Jinan incident of 1928 was the name given to the hostilities as a whole. Chiang’s decision to drive out the Communists and their Soviet advisors coincided with the establishment of a national government in Nanjing, and it was backed by conservative allies like Hu Hanmin. This expulsion marked the start of the Chinese Civil War. Chiang quickly overthrew Wang Jingwei’s National Government with the help of a local warlord since it had poor military capabilities (Li Zongren of Guangxi).

Chiang Kai-shek and Feng Yuxiang in 1928
Chiang Kai-shek and Feng Yuxiang in 1928

Wang and his Marxist group eventually gave up on Chiang and joined him in Nanjing. However, immediately after the purge against the communists, rifts started to appear between Chiang and Hu Hanmin’s historically right-wing KMT section, the Western Hills Group. Chiang subsequently imprisoned Hu. Even though Chiang had established the KMT’s dominance in Nanking, it was still necessary to seize Beiping (Beijing) to establish the legitimacy required for acceptance on a global scale. The warlords Feng Yuxiang and Yan Xishan allied and took control of Beijing in June 1928. After Zhang Zuolin’s passing in 1928, Yan Xishan entered the area and took Beiping.

Following a demilitarization meeting in 1929, Yan Xishan, Feng Yuxiang, Li Zongren, and Zhang Fakui severed ties with Chiang and joined forces to openly contest the legitimacy of the Nanjing administration after the Northern Expedition concluded in 1928. They suffered a loss during the Central Plains War.

Chiang put a lot of effort into becoming acknowledged as Sun Yat-legitimate sen’s heir. Chiang was married to Soong Mei-ling on December 1, 1927, the younger sister of Sun’s widow, Soong Ching-ling, in a union of considerable political significance.

Chiang, who was first rejected in the early 1920s, eventually won over Soong Mei-mother ling’s by first divorcing his wife and concubines and vowing to earnestly study Christian doctrine. Before deciding to convert to Christianity, he studied the Bible that May-ling had given him twice. Three years after getting married, he was baptized at the Soongs’ Methodist church. Although some observers believed that he converted to Christianity for political reasons, analysis of his recently declassified journals reveals that he had steadfast and true faith and believed that Christianity supported Confucian moral principles.

When Chiang arrived in Beijing, he paid his respects to Sun Yat-sen and had his body transported to Nanjing, the new capital, where he is now interred at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum.

Chiang Kai-shek was referred to as the “Red General” in both the West and the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, newsreels and Chiang Kai-shek film snippets were shown in theaters. Wall-mounted paintings of Chiang were shown in Moscow, and that year, Chiang’s photo was carried in the Soviet May Day Parades with those of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and other Communist leaders. While “Red General” Chiang’s army was taking over huge portions of the nation in the Northern Expedition, the American consulate and other Westerners in Shanghai were apprehensive about his attitude.

In addition to his previous positions, Chiang was appointed director of the State Council on October 10, 1928, which is the equivalent of the position of President of the nation. He was referred to as “Generalissimo” by the Western media, just like his predecessor Sun Yat-sen.

The Kuomintang (KMT) was supposed to reconstruct China under military authority, political tutelage, and constitutional rule, according to Sun Yat-sen’s objectives. Democracy was the KMT revolution’s ultimate objective, but it was deemed impossible given the divided situation in China. Chiang’s administration thus started a period of what his party deemed to be “political tutelage” in Sun Yat-sen’s name because the KMT had achieved the first phase of revolution through the seizure of power in 1928. Numerous aspects of a contemporary, functional Chinese state evolved and developed throughout this so-called Republican Era.

The Nanjing decade

Aspects of foreign imperialism, concessions, and privileges in China were mitigated via diplomacy from 1928 to 1937, a period known as the Nanjing decade. The government took steps to modernize the legal and penal systems, tried to stabilize prices, pay off debts, reform the banking and monetary systems, built railroads and highways, enhanced public health services, passed laws to stop drug trafficking, and increased industrial and agricultural production. To raise educational standards, Academia Sinica, the nation’s academy of sciences, was established.

The New Life Movement was started to promote Confucian moral ideals and self-discipline to unite Chinese society. In a way that was not feasible when the country had an effective central government, Guoyu (the “national language”) was promoted as the standard language and the creation of communications infrastructure was utilized to foster a feeling of Chinese nationalism. In this context, some social activists who later earned their doctorates as professors in the United States implemented the Chinese Rural Reconstruction Movement, which resulted in some real but modest improvements to the tax, infrastructure, economic, cultural, and educational apparatus and mechanisms of rural areas. Since the beginning of the 1930s, social activists have actively collaborated with the local administrations in cities and villages. 

The Second Sino-Japanese War and the Second Chinese Civil War, however, led to a proliferation of hostilities and a shortage of resources, and Chiang’s administration ultimately disregarded and abandoned this approach. Chiang, a conservative, backed modernizing initiatives including women’s rights, universal education, and scientific progress. Women’s suffrage, education, the elimination of polygamy, and foot binding were all supported by the Kuomintang and the Nationalist Government. Under Chiang’s direction, the Republic of China’s government established a women’s quota in the parliament. 

However, any gains the Nationalists did accomplish were constantly thwarted by political and military turmoil. While the KMT now dominated most of the metropolitan regions, Communists and warlords continued to exert authority over large portions of the rural areas. Chiang frequently used military force to deal with stubborn warlords, but this cost both soldiers and resources. The 1930 Central Plains War alone almost brought the Nationalist administration to ruin and cost both sides close to 250,000 lives. Chiang’s former ally Hu Hanmin expressed public alarm in 1931 that the Nationalist government’s democratic values were violated by Chiang’s dual role as premier and president. Hu was placed under house arrest by Chiang, but following widespread outrage, he was freed. Hu then departed Nanjing and backed a competing administration in Canton. The division led to a military battle between Chiang’s Nationalist government and Hu’s Kwangtung regime. Only when Zhang Xueliang, who had earlier backed Hu Hanmin, changed sides did Chiang defeat Hu in the campaign.

Chiang’s goal to completely eradicate the Communists persisted throughout his presidency. Chiang led his soldiers against the newly founded Chinese Soviet Republic after collecting his forces in Jiangxi. Chiang’s Fifth Campaign finally encircled the Chinese Red Army in 1934 with the aid of foreign military advisers like Max Bauer and Alexander von Falkenhausen. The Communists withdrew in the Long March, during which Mao Zedong rose from a lowly military official to the most important figure in the Chinese Communist Party. Chiang opposed the iconoclasm of the May Fourth Movement because he was both a nationalist and a Confucianist. He was driven by his feeling of nationalism, and he thought that the huge import of Western ideas and literature that the May Fourth Movement pushed was not good for China. He and Dr. Sun berated the May Fourth academics for allegedly tainting the morality of young people in China.

His rule has been characterized as fascist by some. The Confucian foundation of Chiang’s New Life Movement was combined with elements of nationalism, authoritarianism, and Christianity, some of which had fascist overtones. The New Life Movement, according to Frederic Wakeman, was “Confucian fascism.” The National Fascist Party’s Blackshirts and the NSDAP’s Sturmabteilung served as major inspirations for the Blue Shirts Society, which also existed under Chiang’s administration. Its guiding principles were to drive out foreign (Western and Japanese) imperialists from China and stomp out communism.

Close relations between China and Germany also encouraged collaboration between the Kuomintang and the Weimar Republic of Germany. Chiang, however, consistently denounced his adversaries as fascist and overly military, including the Empire of Japan. Later, as part of the Declaration of War during World War II, China declared war on nations that practiced fascism, including Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Contrary to Communist propaganda that claimed Chiang supported capitalism, he frequently attacked Shanghai’s businesspeople and seized their properties and money to utilize for the benefit of the state. Chiang destroyed pro-communist worker and peasant organizations and wealthy Shanghai capitalists at the same time. He did this as he criticized and battled against communists. Chiang carried on Sun Yat-anti-capitalist sen’s doctrine by ordering Kuomintang media to publicly criticize businesspeople and capitalism while calling for the government-controlled industry.

Mass fatalities during the Nationalist era

According to certain accounts, Chiang Kai-shek is responsible for the millions of fatalities brought on by the Nationalist Government of China’s sporadic occurrences. Rudolph Rummel, however, assigns some of the blame to the Nationalist administration as a whole rather than just to Chiang Kai-Shek. According to Rummel, between 6 and 18.5 million people were likely slaughtered by the Nationalist regime from its inception until its overthrow in 1949. The main reasons are as follows:

  • Thousands of communists and their supporters were murdered during the Shanghai massacre in 1927 and in the year that followed.
  • Chiang ordered the breaching of the Yellow River dikes in 1938 to halt the Japanese advance. An official postwar investigation calculated that up to 800,000 people may have died overall through diseases, starvation, malnutrition, or drowning.
  • Between 1.75 and 2.5 million citizens in Henan died of starvation in 1943 as a result of food being seized and sold at a profit by Nationalist government officials.
  • During the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, 4,212,000 Chinese died from sickness or starvation as a result of conscription operations.
Nationalist government of Nanking - nominally ruling over entire China, 1930
Nationalist government of Nanking – nominally ruling over entire China, 1930

The Chinese Civil War

Chiang Kai-shek, Zhang Xueliang, and General Ma Fuxiang attended a national leadership conference in Nanjing in April 1931, where Chiang and Zhang fearlessly defended China’s claim to Manchuria in the face of the Japanese invasion. Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, Chiang resigned as head of the National Government. The phrase “first internal pacification, then outward opposition” became his catchphrase when he soon after returned. However, the avoidance of a direct conflict with the Japanese was a divisive strategy. In 1932, Japan advanced on Shanghai and attacked Nanjing while Chiang sought to first crush the Communists. Although the northern Kwangtung government forces of Hu Hanmin, particularly the 19th Route Army, were mostly in charge of leading the onslaught against the Japanese during this clash, it temporarily delayed Chiang’s offensives against the Communists. The 19th Route Army, which was quickly incorporated into the Nationalist army after the fight, would have a brief career under Chiang until it was abolished for socialist inclinations.

Chiang took a plane to Xi’an in December 1936 to plan a massive assault against the Communist Republic and Red Army that had fled to Yan’an. Zhang Xueliang, a general close to Chiang whose men were utilized in the assault and whose country of Manchuria had just been occupied by the Japanese, opposed the attack on the Communists. In what is known as the Xi’an Incident, Zhang and a group of other Nationalist generals led by Yang Hucheng of Shaanxi abducted Chiang for two weeks on December 12. They coerced Chiang into forming a “Second United Front” against Japan with the Communists. Zhang was put under house imprisonment after freeing Chiang and traveling back to Nanjing with him. The generals who had aided him were also put to death.

Second Sino-Japanese War

In August of that year, Chiang deployed 600,000 of his best-trained and-equipped men to defend Shanghai after the Second Sino-Japanese War started in July. Chiang lost his Whampoa-trained officers’ top political talent along with over 200,000 other Chinese soldiers. Despite suffering a military defeat, Chiang was able to show the Western powers that China would persist in the struggle and refute Japanese assertions that it could conquer China in three months. The Nanking Massacre occurred in December when the Japanese conquered Nanjing, the country’s capital. Chiang relocated the capital inland, first to Chongqing and then to Wuhan.

Chiang withdrew into the hinterlands after losing the majority of China’s commercial and industrial hubs, straining the Japanese supply lines and slowing down their troops in the vast Chinese interior. Chiang sanctioned the deployment of scorched earth policies as part of a strategy of protracted resistance, which led to several civilian fatalities. The dams surrounding Zhengzhou were purposefully demolished by the Nationalist army during the retreat of the Nationalists, delaying the Japanese approach and resulting in a 1938 Yellow River disaster that killed 500,000 people.

In the autumn of 1938, the Japanese took control of Wuhan after fierce combat, and the Nationalists fled deeper inland, to Chongqing. The Nationalist forces purposefully sparked the “fire of Changsha” on the way to Chongqing as part of the scorched earth strategy. Many parts of the city were devastated by the fire, which also claimed the lives of 20,000 citizens and made hundreds of thousands of others homeless. The fire started without giving any advance notice to the city’s population, according to the stated organizational fault. In the end, the Nationalists murdered three local leaders after accusing them of starting the fire. Newspapers all around China attributed the fire to (non-KMT) arsonists, but the fire also helped the KMT lose favor across the country.

Chiang despatched Muslim leaders Ma Fuliang and Isa Yusuf Alptekin to Egypt, Turkey, and Syria in 1939 to win support for the Chinese War against Japan and to show his sympathy for Muslims.

Wang Jingwei was designated Quisling ruler of the seized Chinese provinces around Nanjing by the Japanese, who were in charge of the puppet state of Manchukuo and a large portion of China’s eastern shore. The National Government (not the same “National Government” as Chiang’s) was headed by Wang, who proclaimed himself President of the Executive Yuan and Chairman of the National Government. Wang led a surprisingly sizable minority of anti-Chiang/anti-Communist Chinese against his former allies. Within a year following the end of World War II, he passed away in 1944.

After the Kuomintang gained control, the Hui Muslim Xidaotang sect swore loyalty to them, and in 1941, in Chongqing, Hui Muslim General Bai Chongxi met with the Xidaotang jiaozhu Ma Mingren.

Chiang visited Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, Shaanxi, and Qinghai during a trip to northwest China in 1942, when he met Muslim Generals Ma Buqing and Ma Bufang. He also had separate meetings with the Muslim generals’ Ma Hongbin and Ma Hongkui.

In 1942, a boundary dispute with Tibet arose. Ma Bufang fixed Yushu Airport on Chiang’s orders to stop Tibetan rebels from pursuing independence. Chiang also instructed Ma Bufang to notify his Muslim troops in 1942 in preparation for an invasion of Tibet. Ma Bufang consented and dispatched thousands of soldiers to the Tibet border. Chiang reportedly threatened to bombard the Tibetans from the air if they cooperated with the Japanese. The Tibetan Buddhist Tsang monastery was assaulted in 1941 by Ma Bufang. Additionally, he assaulted the Labrang Monastery nonstop.

China joined the Allied Powers following the attack on Pearl Harbor, which signaled the start of the Pacific War. The China Lobby in the United States supported Chiang and his American-educated wife Soong Mei-ling, also known as “Madame Chiang,” during and after World War II because they represented the dream of a Christian and democratic China. Chiang was even given the title of Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in the conflict zone in China. In 1942, he received the title Knight Grand Cross of the Bath.

Chiang received harsh criticism from General Joseph Stilwell, an American military advisor to Chiang during World War II, for what he saw to be their corruption and inefficiency. Operation Matterhorn, a bombing campaign against Japan’s steel industry, was launched in 1944 by the United States Army Air Corps from bases being built in mainland China. According to Stilwell, Nationalist party leaders stole at least half of the $100 million that was used to build the airbases.

Chen Cheng with Chiang Kai Chek inspecting troops, 1940s
Chen Cheng with Chiang Kai Chek inspecting troops, 1940s

During the conflict, Chiang pitted the Americans and Soviets against one another. In the beginning, he assured the Americans that they would be welcome in negotiations between the Soviet Union and China. Later, however, he discreetly informed the Soviets that the Americans would be ignored and their thoughts would not be taken into consideration. The prospect of American military action against the Soviet Union prevented the Soviets from fully exploiting the situation in China by using American military backing and power in China against Soviet Union aspirations.

When Japan capitulated in 1945, Chiang’s Chongqing administration urged the Japanese to delay their surrender until Kuomintang (KMT) authorities could come to take over since it was ill-equipped and unable to reestablish its authority across formerly Japanese-occupied China. KMT forces were rapidly strengthened by American troops and equipment, enabling them to retake cities. However, Communist rule continued to be substantially in place in the countryside.

Rumors of a covert arrangement between the Japanese and Chiang, wherein the Japanese would support the Nationalists in their battle against the Communists in exchange for Chiang’s protection of Japanese people and property in China, persisted for more than a year after the Japanese surrender. Before the Nationalists returned to the mainland in the 1920s, several of the top nationalist generals, including Chiang, had studied and received their training in Japan. They also remained close personal acquaintances with senior Japanese commanders. Commander Yasuji Okamura, the Japanese general in charge of all troops in China, had personally taught the men who subsequently rose to the rank of general on Chiang’s staff. General Okamura reportedly promised Chiang leadership of the whole 1.5 million-person Japanese military and civilian support personnel before ceding command of all Japanese armed troops in Nanjing. Chiang reportedly gave this idea some thought but decided against it since he knew that the United States would undoubtedly be indignant by the gesture. Nevertheless, there were still armed Japanese forces in China far into 1947, and several of their non-commissioned officers joined the Nationalist officer corps.

Mao-Tse Tung (Máo Zédōng) and Chiang Kai-shek (Jiǎng Jièshí) in Chang-dong, Sichuan Province, China, at their last meeting (August 28, 1945)
Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek in Sichuan Province, at their last meeting (August 28, 1945)

Following the conflict, the US supported Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong’s Chongqing peace negotiations. For a significant portion of the years 1946 to 1948, while Chiang was engaged in conflict with the People’s Liberation Army commanded by Mao Zedong, the U.S. government restricted funding to Chiang out of concern over pervasive and well-documented corruption in his government throughout his tenure. The cessation of American aid may have also been influenced by claims that Chinese Communist spies had infiltrated the U.S. administration.

The Communists were reinforced by their well-liked land-reform initiatives, a rural populace that trusted them, and the Nationalists’ terrible defeat in the war. Although the Nationalists began the civil war with an advantage in soldiers and weapons, their lack of support, Communist spies infiltrating their ranks, low morale, and disarray quickly gave the Communists the upper hand.

Following the adoption of a new constitution in 1947, Chiang was chosen by the National Assembly to serve as the Republic of China’s first president on May 20, 1948. The KMT political establishment referred to this as the start of the era of “democratic constitutional governance,” but the Communists refused to accept the new Constitution and its administration as genuine. On January 21, 1949, Chiang announced his resignation as president as KMT troops suffered devastating defeats and Communist defections. Li Zongren, the ROC’s vice-president, took over as China’s interim leader after Chiang’s departure. The Communists paused their advances soon after Chiang’s resignation and started trying to negotiate the ROC’s virtual capitulation.

Li and Chiang continued to argue. Chiang refused to give up more than a small portion of the money he had delivered to Taiwan, despite having committed to do so in exchange for Li’s return. The money issued by Li and Yan soon lost value until it was almost worthless since it wasn’t backed by gold or foreign currencies. Chiang remained to command the army despite not having a formal executive role in the government, and many officers continued to follow Chiang rather than Li. Li was unable to command KMT military troops, which prompted him to implement a defensive strategy he had thought of in 1948.

Chiang Kai-shek 1943
Chiang Kai-shek. The photo was taken in September 1943, the original photo is black and white. In October 1946, when Chiang Kai-shek celebrated his 60th birthday, he specially asked Guanghua Photo Studio to recolor this photo and published it in his birthday album.

Chiang disagreed with Li’s defensive strategy because it would have given Li and Chiang’s other adversaries in the national government authority over the majority of his remaining troops. Li started removing Chiang’s loyalists from the central administration to get around his stubbornness. Yan Xishan persisted in his efforts to mediate between the two sides, giving Li’s followers the idea that he was a “stooge” of Chiang, while those who backed Chiang started to vehemently hate Yan for his readiness to cooperate with Li. Chiang refused to send Nationalist soldiers loyal to him to assist in the defense of Kwangsi and Canton due to his rivalry with Li, and as a result, Canton was taken over by Communist forces in October 1949.

After Canton fell to the Communists, Chiang transferred the administration to Chongqing, while Li essentially abandoned his authority and traveled to New York for treatment of his chronic duodenal ailment at the Hospital of Columbia University. Li met the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, and condemned Chiang as a tyrant and a usurper. Li vowed that after going back to China, he would “return to crush” Chiang. Li did not go back to Taiwan; he stayed in exile.

The Chengdu Central Military Academy was under the command of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo when Communist soldiers besieged Chengdu, the final KMT-controlled city in mainland China, in the early hours of December 10, 1949. Chiang Kai-shek, his father, and his son were evacuated to Taiwan via Guangdong aboard a plane named the May-ling, and they arrived the same day. They took off from Chengdu Fenghuangshan Airport. The mainland would never see Chiang Kai-shek again. Chiang did not retake office until the first day of March 1950. Li was removed from his post as vice-president of the National Assembly by Chiang in the “Case of Li Zongren’s Failure to Carry Out Duties Due to Illegal Conduct” in January 1952. Chiang had ordered the Control Yuan, then in Taiwan, to impeach Li.

Taiwan after World War II

On 1 March 1950, Chiang began his responsibilities as President of the Republic of China after moving the government to Taipei, Taiwan. Chiang was re-elected by the National Assembly to serve as President of the Republic of China (ROC) on 20 May 1954, and once again in 1960, 1966, and 1972. He continued to assert his government’s control over all of China, even the regions that the People’s Republic, his government, and other nations’ governments had previously relinquished to, such as Tuva and Outer Mongolia. The majority of Western nations acknowledged this stance during the Cold War, and up until the 1970s, the ROC represented China in the UN and other international organizations.

Chiang kept working on getting mainland China back when he was president of Taiwan. To protect Taiwan in the event of a Communist attack and to prepare for an invasion of the mainland, he created the ROC army. He also provided funding for armed organizations on the Chinese mainland, including Li Mi’s Muslim ROC Army still fighting in Yunnan. Even though the administration had already fled to Taiwan during the Islamic rebellion on the mainland to fight the Communists, he elevated the Uyghur Yulbars Khan to the position of governor. In 1962, he prepared to invade the mainland.

The “Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of Communist Rebellion” greatly increased executive powers, and the objective of retaking mainland China allowed the KMT to maintain a monopoly on power and the outlawing of opposition parties. This was the case despite the democratic constitution that Chiang established. The official government justification for these martial rule measures came from the argument that since the Communists and KMT were still at war, emergency measures were required. Chiang’s government systematically ignored and restricted local cultural expression to advance Chinese nationalism, including outlawing the use of regional tongues in broadcasts for the media or in classroom settings.

Over 30,000 Taiwanese intellectuals, activists, and persons thought to be KMT opponents were killed or disappeared as a result of Taiwan’s anti-government rebellion in 1947, also known as the February 28 incident. About 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned for their actual or perceived resistance to the Kuomintang during the first two decades after the Nationalists transferred the seat of government to the province of Taiwan. This coordinated attempt to combat Communism is known as the “White Terror.” The Kuomintang referred to the majority of people who were charged as “bandit spies”, which is code for Chinese Communist spies, and they were executed as such.

The Horrifying Inspection (恐怖的檢查), Huang Rong-can (Jun Li), 1947
The Horrifying Inspection (恐怖的檢查), Huang Rong-can (Jun Li), 1947

Limited economic freedoms, personal and intellectual property rights, and other liberties were acknowledged by the government under Chiang. Free speech was still allowed in the legislature notwithstanding these limitations. The National Assembly, Legislative Yuan, and Control Yuan members continued to serve in their positions indefinitely under the justification that new elections could not be held in Communist-occupied districts. Chiang was able to serve as president for an additional term after the Constitution’s two-term restriction thanks to the Temporary Provisions. In 1954, 1960, 1966, and 1972, the National Assembly chose him again to serve as president.

Chiang tried to eliminate corruption by expelling KMT members who were suspected of bribery because he thought that moral decay and corruption were the major causes of the KMT’s defeat in mainland China to the Communists. Chiang’s new Taiwanese state promoted economic growth, particularly in the export industry, despite being politically autocratic and to some extent controlled by state-owned enterprises. The basis for Taiwan’s economic success and its emergence as one of the Four Asian Tigers was established by a well-liked, comprehensive Land Reform Act and American foreign aid during the 1950s.

Chiang Kai-shek and Chinese music composer Hwang Yau-tai in Taipei, Taiwan
Chiang Kai-shek and Chinese music composer Hwang Yau-tai in Taipei, Taiwan

Chiang had the authority to personally examine the judgments of all military courts that, during the martial rule era, also prosecuted civilian defendants. 1950 saw the arrest of Lin Pang-chun and two other individuals on suspicion of financial crimes. They received jail terms ranging from 3 to 10 years. Chiang went over the sentences of all three and decided to have them executed. In 1954, Changhua monk Kao Chih-te and two other people were given a 12-year jail term for helping alleged communists; however, after reconsidering the case, Chiang condemned them to death. The ROC constitution was broken by this control over military tribunal decisions. Following Chiang’s passing, the subsequent president, his son Chiang Ching-kuo, and Chiang Ching-successor, kuo’s Lee Teng-hui, a native Taiwanese, would increase native Taiwanese representation in government and loosen the numerous authoritarian controls of the early era of ROC control in Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s.  

At the age of 87, Chiang passed away in Taipei in 1975, 26 years after arriving in Taiwan. He had previously experienced pneumonia and a heart attack. On April 5, he passed away from renal failure that was made worse by severe cardiac failure. The funeral for Chiang took place on April 16.

Source: Wikipedia, “Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek”,  Moscow and Chinese Communists,  President Chiang Kai-shek’s selected speeches and messages

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