Coming in from the cold

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2005, 12:00am

In a beautiful 14th century building in Nanjing surrounded by well-kept trees and flowers stand wax figures from the Nationalist period, including Chiang Kai-shek, and black stone tablets with the names of 33,000 of his dead soldiers.

But there is no statue of Dai Li , one of Chiang's closest advisers as chief of his secret police and the man who, during the second world war, ran one of the world's biggest spy networks.

His grave, a five-minute walk into the woods outside, reveals a hole in the ground next to four big slabs of stone, on one of which can be faintly read the inscription written at his funeral on March 26, 1947.

'No, Dai has not been rehabilitated, although we repaired his grave,' said Liu Min, an official at the memorial building. 'He killed too many communists. All we can say is that he was an important historical figure.'

That is an understatement. From 1932 until his death, he was one of the leaders closest to Chiang and the head of the Military Bureau of Investigation and Statistics (MBIS), which one foreign intelligence operative called the 'mainstay, eyes, ears and dagger of the regime'.

The MBIS, which employed more than 40,000 full-time agents, killed thousands of communists, Japanese and those who collaborated with them, opponents of Chiang inside and outside the Nationalist Party, as well as about 2,000 of its own members who broke its strict rules. It ran prisons and concentration camps where it held those it had arrested for interrogation or execution.

In 1942, Dai became head of a Sino-US centre in Chongqing that trained more than 2,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Chinese for special operations, including sabotage, subversion and propaganda, behind Japanese lines.

It also operated outside the borders of China, sending an assassination squad in March 1939 to a private villa in the French colonial city of Hanoi being used by Wang Jingwei, a Nationalist leader who had defected to the Japanese.

An MBIS agent sprayed Wang's bed with bullets and escaped - but, at the last minute, Wang had swapped beds with his secretary and it was he who died.

A notorious womaniser, with several mistresses among his subordinates, Dai forbade his staff from gambling and, between 1940 and 1945, ordered them not to live with their partners or marry until the war was over.

Dai has benefited only marginally from the rehabilitation which the Communist government has given to its Nationalist opponents since 2000, when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took power in Taiwan and, so Beijing believes, is taking the island towards independence.

Nanjing was the Nationalist capital from 1927 until 1949, when Chiang fled with his army and government to Taiwan. The new government established its capital in Beijing.

Under Mao Zedong , Nanjing was deprived of investment as a punishment for its links with Chiang.

But all this has changed since 2000. The government has given Nanjing a new subway and giant new railway station, which both opened last month, and an Olympic Stadium, that will this month host the National Games, the most important sports event to be held in Nanjing since 1949.

It has restored many buildings used by Chiang and his wife Song Mei-ling and opened them to the public. In April, Lien Chan came to Nanjing, the first Kuomintang chairman to visit since Chiang left, and was delighted to visit sites used by his former president.

For the Dai family, the wait will be longer. Dai's family home, in Jiangshan , a mountainous area in the south of Zhejiang , was restored and opened to the public at the end of 2001. It has proved popular with mainland and Taiwan visitors, selling books, materials and postcards of the man.

'Some old comrades objected and said that Dai was not a good man,' said an official of the Jiangshan tourism bureau named Zhou. 'But he was a historically significant person who did both good and bad. The family home presents his life objectively.' He said that the inscription on Dai's tombstone was a correct summary of his life.

That inscription was written, at the request of president Chiang, by the scholar Zhang Shizhao: 'He lived for the nation, he died for the nation. His achievements and his crimes go with him into his coffin. Many praised him, many reviled him. We must leave it to posterity to decide.'

The funeral was one of the grandest of the Nationalist era, attended by Chiang himself, many of his ministers and top advisers, and Du Yuesheng, the Shanghai mafia boss and millionaire who first introduced Dai to Chiang in 1921. Rarely had Chiang's staff seen their leader so distraught and grief-stricken.

The grave is in the middle of a cemetery that the Nationalists completed in 1935 to honour their war dead, and two plum trees were planted next to it.

After the communist army captured Nanjing in 1949, they dug up the grave, destroyed the corpse and cut down the two plum trees. In compensation, Dai's former subordinates in Taiwan built a memorial hall for him on a hill outside Taipei and planted two plum trees in front of it.

Dai's younger brother and son were unable to escape to Taiwan and were captured by communist forces in late 1949 and brought back to their home town, where they were executed after a public trial.

The son left behind three sons and a girl. In 1956, an agent from Taiwan came secretly to Zhejiang and rescued two of the sons, smuggling them to Taiwan. The agent was only able to acquire three train tickets and so had to leave the other children behind. They live respectively in Jiangxi and Anhui , inland provinces beyond the reach of rescue operations.

In mainland textbooks, Dai became the personification of evil, 'an assassin who killed his victims without blinking', according to one phrase often used to describe him. Patriotic films portrayed him as a man of few words, sinister and cold-blooded, who delighted in the pain of his prisoners.

In Taiwan, Dai was presented as the unswervingly loyal servant of Chiang and the creator of a secret service which the Generalissimo took with him and used to rule the island with an iron fist.

In the 1990s, these black and white images softened to reveal a more complex picture. In the post-Chiang era, historians in Taiwan were able to publish books that showed Dai in a more realistic light.

Beijing has stopped presenting Chiang as 'the enemy of the people' and, as it tries to woo the Taiwan public and secure the victory of Kuomintang presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou at the 2008 election, is stressing Chiang's role as a unifier of the nation and anti-Japanese patriot.

It was no coincidence that the Nationalist cemetery in Nanjing was upgraded into a national monument and Dai's house opened to the public in 2001, a year after the victory of DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan.

Dai's death was as dramatic as his life. In February 1946, the future of the MBIS was up in the air. Chiang had scheduled a major meeting in Nanjing to decide the structure of his intelligence services now that the communists had replaced the Japanese as the principal enemy.

Fearful that he might lose his post, Dai flew to north China to muster support at the meeting. On the morning of March 17, he and his staff were in Qingdao . The weather was appalling, with rain and thunder, and the pilot of his plane said they could not leave.

But Dai overruled him and the pilot was forced to take off, with a dozen people on board, just before midday. Just after one o'clock, it lost radio contact and peasants in a village 20km southwest of Nanjing found the remains late in the afternoon, scattered over the side of a mountain.

So grave was the event that it took the government five days to announce Dai's death.