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Review of “The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan” by Jay Taylor

In The Microsoft Way, historian Randall Stross argues that the market for IBM-compatible PC software in the 1980s and 1990s was contested by two competent companies, Microsoft and Inuit, and a train load of incompetent competitors. While most entrants to that market got lucky once or twice, and rode that cash cow as long as it could, Microsoft and Intuit were able to execute short-term tactics and long-term strategies. If such a view can be transplated to Chinese history, the Chinese Civil War was a multi-way battle with a large number of incompetent, violent and lucky competitors, and three factions actually capable of both winning and ruling

The Returned Students

The Whampoa Clique

The Youth Corps

In this view of history, the fight for China was not between Chiang Kaishek and Mao Zedong, two lucky competitors, but by these three interlocking factions which used allegience to Chiang or Mao as a way of deflecting charges of ambition. The first of these three factions, the Returned Students, were those who had earned a Continental education in the west, either from a study-abroad program in France or from Sun Yatsen University in Moscow. The second of these factions, the Whampoa Clique, where those who were faculty or students at the “West Point of China,” the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton City. The third of these factions, the Youth Corp, established as a cannibalizing agent, “in but not of” the KMT.

These three factions overlapped. Zhou Enlai, Mao’s second-in-command, was a Returned Student who taught at Whampoa. Chiang Chingkuo, Chiang’s second-in-command after the relocation to Taiwan, was a Returned student who was the Vice Chairman of the Youth Corps.  These factions even overlap with my own life — my wife’s grandfather studied at Whampoa.

These three factions, like Microsoft and Intuit, shared a focus on a high-quality work force. The active members of these three organizations during their youth were young men who wanted to make a difference and despised corruption. It is easy to forget that Zhou Enlai was only 30 when he met a much younger Chiang Chingkuo in Moscow, and told him to tone down his criticizing   father, because it was unbecoming of a son. It is easy to forget that Lin Biao was only 27 during the Long March. It is even easier not to know that Ching Chungkuo, as director of Taiwan’s security services, warned Zhou Enlai of an upcoming attempt on his life — and that Zhou Enlai seemingly did not inform Mao of this. While most factions in the civil war — the Kwantung Army, the Left KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Army, and others were to varying extents patriots of their cause, only these three were able to generate the high internal cohesion among young men required to revolutionary China.

My first reaction on reading The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan was that the 20th century was simply one long tragedy. So easily, so many things could have gone so much better. What if Chiang had given Zhou Enlai the freedom at Whampoa that he later gave that other Communist, Chiang Ching-kuo? What if General Stillwell, who despised Chiang and helped lead American public opinion against the KMT, and met the up-and-coming Chingkuo (who substantively agreed with him on every important issue)? What if, what if?

But to do so, I think, ignores the utter chaos that befell China twice: after the fall of the Benedict Arnold of China, and after the Japanese Invasion.While a unified front would have been better, the emergence of three competent factions (composing a total of, say 100 able individuals) was a miracle in itself. That the old men of the east were stuck in the poetic worlds of Confucius and the Water Margin, and thus their attempts to modernize China were poisoned by a lethal dose of corruption and internal violence, is perhaps not as notable as the men they had around them.

The difference between Kaishek and Zedong was not their military strategy (both were adherents of the Strategic Retreat), their cosmology (Mao famously scored Zero Points on the mathematics portion of his college entrance exam; Chiang Kaishek famously expressed astonishment that Burma had a rainy season that would interfer with military operations), their management style (“working toward the Chairman,” allowing them to capture all glory and escape all blame), or their willingness to betray their followers. Rather, the difference was this: Chiang was capable of trust, Mao was not. As they reached the age when succession planning became increasingly important: Chiang turned Taiwan over to the men of the Youth Corps.  Mao turned on the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique in a holocaust of violence.

Sun Yatsen, the (theoretically) Hawaiian-born first President of China, had this has his political motto: That a government of the people, by the people, and for the people should be established in China. Through this Youth Corps, Taiwan finally realized these Three People’s Principles through the integration of the Mainland and Taiwanese political elites, economic development, and last through democracy. A government “by the people” was established on Taiwan in stages, from the lifting of Martial Law in 1987, the legalization of a free press in 1988, the first fair elections to the Legislative Yuan in 1992, the first direct Presidential election in 1996, the first election of an opposition President in 2000, and the democratic return to power of the previously ruling party in 2008. Perhaps China, now firmly ruled by those given positions by the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique, will soon begin on this last, trickiest path.

Jay Taylor’s The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan is an excellent book, and a worthy “prequel” to Taylor’s more recent book, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China. But just as that book does not stand alone, this does not either. Taylor’s biography of Kaishek should be read with Tuchman’s biography of General Stillwell, as otherwise the public declarations of America’s general in China that, if he were a young man, he would grab a gun and fight for Mao is inexplicable. In the same way, Taylor’s biography of Chingkuo must be read with Gao’s Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary to understand that the Youth Corps’ true competitors were not the incompetent and lucky, like the Soong Dynasty and the C-C Clique, but those on the other side of the Straits — the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique.

The Microsoft-Intuit battle very nearly ended in 1995, after the leadership of the Microsoft and Intuit cliques agreed to a cash-and-stock buyout of Intuit by Microsoft. This was only averted through direct U.S. Government actions. The parallels to the possible near future are striking.