A quiet revolution

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 12:00am

A 30-minute helicopter ride from Taipei, there is a small mountain village where Chiang Kai-shek built a villa with a landing pad. He would sit in the garden overlooking a steep river valley and savour a landscape almost identical to that of Xikou in Zhejiang province, his home town.

In his chair, the Kuomintang leader would lapse into bitterness and melancholy as he pondered how he had lost the mainland to the communists, and planned how to take it back. So he gave a new name to the village - Fu Hsing, meaning rejuvenation.

Chiang never made the attack on the mainland he planned for so long, and he died in 1975. If he returned to Shanghai today, he would not believe his eyes.

The city is home to about 300,000 of his citizens - not his soldiers with tanks and machine-guns, but businessmen with briefcases, svelte tai tais scouring estate agents for bargains and young people selling noodles and wholemeal bread.

The city hosts 4,500 Taiwanese companies which have invested US$7.2 billion, making them one of the largest groups of 'foreign' investors there, and many of Chiang's citizens have sold their homes and businesses and moved there permanently.

Is this the recovery of the mainland that Chiang dreamed of for 36 years and was repeated in classrooms, newspaper headlines and street posters all over Taiwan throughout his years in power?

Chiang would find many other surprises as he walked through Shanghai's streets. They are plastered with billboards for global brands, from North America, Japan and Europe, and every week the newspapers announce a new contract signed by one of these multinationals to open an office or factory in Shanghai and its hinterland.

Many are the same companies that supported Chiang when he was in power on the mainland and that had their assets confiscated when the communists took power.

Chiang would also see the Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus vehicles of the new rich speeding to meetings and dinners in five-star hotels managed by international chains and offering the same level of global luxury that was available in the 1920s and 1930s to the class of wealthy Chinese, most of whom also supported Chiang.

He would discover that the government today is following the same pro-business policies that he pursued in Taiwan and would have on the mainland if he had won the civil war - encouraging foreign investment and the private sector, favouring the company and the property developer over the employee and the tenant, and putting economic development ahead of social justice. Preferential tax and investment policies are attracting foreign companies, despite the inequity to domestic competitors.

Reading the newspapers, Chiang would find the heroes of today are businessmen and women who have amassed a fortune in a short time, through stock trading or pioneering a new product, and returnees who have qualifications from the United States and Europe and have taken high-paying jobs at home.

He would find little mention of the poor but honest farmers and factory workers who were the heroes of the early communist period.

In this transformation, Chiang's citizens have played an important role - the energy and innovation of Taiwan's restless private sector, the courtesy and efficiency of its service companies and the wealth they have invested in businesses and property.

It is not the political unification Chiang dreamed of in his garden chair, but an economic unification that makes his citizens in Shanghai similar to their neighbours.

Both want a large apartment, a new car, a university education and a stable future for their children - and they care little about the ideology of the government, as long as it can deliver these things.

Perhaps this is the meaning of rejuvenation.