Voice for China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 October, 2003, 12:00am

The passing of Soong Mei-ling elicits a range of emotions in Taiwanese, Chinese and westerners with an interest in the legacy of someone who, for better or worse, played a major role in the shaping of 20th-century Chinese geopolitics.

It is important that we do not forget her significance, while at the same time acknowledging the unfortunate legacy of the scandals, misdeeds and cruelty meted out and participated in by her, her husband and family.

Madame Chiang gave voice - perhaps the only recognised and authoritative-sounding voice of her era - to raise awareness of the travails and issues that faced wartime China and post-war Taiwan. Her speaking tours and ambassador-at-large status brought her words and views to the Occident.

Without her efforts, America and much of the world would not have been as cognisant of what was happening on this side of the Pacific. With all the attention China and Greater China issues receive today, it is easy to forget that 50 or so years ago, few among the western masses were aware of the turmoil roiling this region.

Through her 'propaganda' campaigns (aided and abetted by Henry Luce of Time-Life), she became the best-known Chinese woman of her time and was voted 'most admired' by the women of the US.

We do not know, nor should we speculate, how Chinese history would have played out without the meddling and intervention by Madame Chiang and her clan. Modern China has clearly made astounding leaps forward in the past 50-odd years.

Taiwan itself, to which the Chiangs decamped after their post-civil war flight, has become a contemporary miracle, an Asian dragon. Of course, one should never forget the chaos and bloodshed that Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang party wrought on Taiwan and its original inhabitants.

But we should also keep in mind the contribution that he, his wife and others made to building what eventually became the world's first Chinese democracy.

Controversy and mistrust dogged Ms Chiang. However, we should not forget that even the flawed individuals among us have the capability to play important roles in shaping history and society.

JONATHAN A. GARDNER, New York Institute for Social Research (Taiwan), Taichung