A well-done life of the legendary but now little-studied Chinese leader.
Fenby (France on the Brink, 1999), a former editor at the South China Post, writes of Chiang Kai-shek with admiration and revulsion at turns—reactions that were common in Chiang’s day, at home and abroad. An indifferent cadet who, in the words of one military instructor, “did not reveal innate ability,” Chiang slowly gathered power on the fringes of Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang movement, which overthrew the last ruler of the Ming dynasty; by outmaneuvering his rivals, he was able to consolidate his hold even while the movement veered from left to right, at points allying with China’s Communist Party, at others suppressing any signs of opposition. Fenby opens his account with the so-called Xi’an Incident, when, in 1936, junior officers arrested Chiang and demanded that he make common cause with the Communists against Japan; a united front, Fenby reasons, “would water down Chiang’s authority” while ending a bloody civil war. Alas, it was not to be, and though FDR once held out the hope that a China led by Chiang would be “a pillar of the new world order,” Chiang lost whatever store of good will he had among the people and was eventually driven offshore to rule as “generalissimo” of Taiwan for a quarter-century. Fenby brings some intriguing news to his account: Chiang’s offer, for one, to invade the Chinese mainland in the wake of Mao Zedong’s disastrous, brutal Great Leap Forward campaign; the machinations of American advisor Joseph Stilwell and other China hands to keep Chiang from gaining control over the anti-Japanese coalition, and Chiang’s crafty resistance. Had the Xi’an Incident not taken place, Chiang might well have crushed the Communists; but, Fenby concludes, “rather than the inescapability of Communist victory, it was the weakness of the Nationalists, Chiang’s failure as a military leader, and economic disintegration that sent the one-time man of destiny fleeing to Taiwan.”
A welcome study that sheds new light on recent Chinese history.