Beijing makeover for Chiang Kai-shek

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 October, 1998, 12:00am

He used to be the number one 'enemy of the people', responsible for murdering millions of communists, a slave of the American and British imperialists, and too much of a coward to fight the Japanese.

But Chiang Kai-shek is a new man now, his ancestral home meticulously restored and seen by 1.2 million visitors a year, including 30,000 from Taiwan, as Beijing has rewritten his history.

In Taiwan, where he was absolute ruler from 1949 to his death in 1975, his reputation has declined as people speak in public about his ruthless suppression of dissent, his secret police and his wayward private life. But, as his star wanes in Taiwan, so it rises on the mainland. As Beijing watches with alarm the rise of the independence movement on the island, the more it promotes Chiang as a symbol, if flawed, of national unity.

Tomorrow, in Beijing, President Jiang Zemin is due to meet Koo Chen-fu, chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation of Taiwan, the first high-level meeting between the two sides since 1993 and part of Beijing's efforts to hold official bilateral talks.

The history of Chiang's ancestral home reflects the changing requirements of the Communist Party in its 70-year war with the Nationalist government he used to head.

For the first 35 years of communist rule, the house, one of the most comfortable in Xikou, a small town in the east of Zhejiang province, was occupied by local officials. Anyone who came expressing an interest in Chiang's history was told there was nothing to see and ran the risk of being labelled a sympathiser with the reviled Nationalists.

Chiang was a 'traitor' and 'counter-revolutionary'. Red Guards destroyed his belongings, images and photographs of him were banned. In the 1980s, the line began to change. Beijing saw how democratisation in Taiwan led to rising calls for independence, in part because of anger at Chiang's terror campaigns and the privileges enjoyed by the mainlanders he had brought with him to Taiwan.

The time had come for a softer, more persuasive line.

In Xikou, the birthplace of Chiang and his son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, Beijing had an important propaganda tool, as well as an excellent commercial opportunity. In 1986 it ordered the homes of the Chiang family restored and put the town firmly on the tourism map.

Visitors can see the house where Chiang lived as a child and which he later enlarged to 40 rooms, the homes he built for his son and fourth wife Song Mei-ling next to the river that runs through the town, the shop where his father sold salt and his mountain villa. His mother's grave, on top of another mountain, is another popular spot.

'Chiang was on balance a bad man,' said one local official. 'About 80 to 90 per cent bad and 10 to 20 per cent good. But we must recognise the good things he did. He agreed to a unified front against the Japanese and, until his dying day, he supported a single China. Such people are harder and harder to find in Taiwan.

'In the Cultural Revolution, we used to say a person was bad or good. That is too simple. We have to take the historical background into account,' he said.

The new line is reflected in the respect with which the guide refers to Chiang and his family members, calling them 'Mister' or 'Madame'.

According to the guide, the longest time Chiang spent at the villa he built for himself in 1930 was the first four months of 1949, when he took the momentous decision to flee to Taiwan from the mainland, to which he always planned to return but never did.