Chiang and Modern China

Jingshun Road, Bridge on the River Wenyu
Give a man a car, he thinks he’s Michael Schumacher
1426 hrs.

Whether in writing or over an adult beverage, at some point or another each of us who live in, study, or frequently deal with China find ourselves in a conversation that focuses on China’s faults. I have heard these conversations take tones that range from the respectful to the patronizing, and from people who have motives ranging from a genuine desire to build a better China to those who seem to have made a hobby of gratuitious panda-slugging.

The common thread running through each of these conversations is a focus on things as they are, and usually how they compare to some other place. They are rarely infused with a perspective on China’s own history and conditions.

In the passion of such moments remarkable things are said, but one thing I hear with numbing regularity from people who have never lived in Asia is the suggestion that perhaps China would have been better off under the Guomindang, or KMT. The sole support offered to this argument is usually someone saying “after all, look at Taiwan.”

The Last Warlord

Regardless of where one might fall in one’s leanings on that issue, such an assertion begs for some context, and I usually recommend Theodore “Teddy” White and Annalee Jacoby’s seminal 1946 book Thunder Out of China. Not only did White and Jacoby write without the benefit of the hindsight we have, they did so before the Red Scare and the McCarthy hearings forever changed the nature of the debate over communism and its alternatives.

White and Jacoby did, however, write with the benefit of years in China dealing with and around the Nanjing (later Chongqing) government. They had the kind of access granted to reporters working for a publisher – Henry Luce – who was among Chiang Kai-Shek’s most vocal and dedicated overseas supporters. The pair’s insights are biting.

While they must have been tempted to use the power of the pen to vilify Chiang, White and Jacoby strive (and occasionally struggle) to retain a journalists objectivity. Their descriptions make clear that while Chiang had clearly cobbled together a polity of sorts, China even before World War II was not so much a nation as a loosely unified confederation of local warlords and special interests. Herding such a band of cats could not have been simple. Chiang’s first mistake, from the perspective of White and Jacoby, was that he saw himself and the tentative order he imposed as the only viable solution for China.

If history – both Western and Eastern – has proven anything, it is that hubris bordering on a messiah complex is not a formula for successful leadership, and the authors show Chiang a man blinded by his indomitable self-confidence.

The Generalissimo believed he knew China better than the Americans. Granting that most Americans in China offered little, those that offered genuine insight – the Army’s General Joseph Stillwell and the State Department’s Jack Service among them – were systematically ignored, then banished.

Worse, the authors suggest that Chiang believed that he knew China better than any other person in China. As events bore out, in this he was patently – and fatally – wrong.

Caught in a Landslide

What pervades White and Jacoby’s descriptions of Chiang and his government is a view of a man whose ability to govern had been overtaken by events – not just the war, but the pace of change inside of China.

Indeed, through the narrative we see a Chiang who was so overwhelmed by the speed and scale of China’s own internal developments that he had no idea that the political ideas and social programs formed in the crucible of the 1911 revolution were, a mere thirty years later, obsolete. The authors subtly remind us that in the course of two decades Chaing himself had migrated the breadth of China’s political spectrum, starting as a leftist revolutionary and ending as a conservative on China’s far right, as clear an indicator as any that he had not only lost political initiative, he had also lost touch with the country.

Nobody living in China today – or even visiting periodically – can help but sympathize with Chiang’s plight. Keeping ahead of the pace of change in China is a brutal race for any government, party, agency, bureaucrat – or merchant. But to govern at all demands a means of governing that is attuned to change, and White paints a picture of a government in pre-revolutionary China that had ossified some years before.

Chiang lost, to use a phrase from von Clausewitz, his fingerspitzengefuhl, his finger-tip feel for the actual situation on the ground, and as a result presided over a bureaucratic apparatus that was incapable of either caring for the welfare of the Chinese people, holding his coalition together, or fighting the Japanese, much less all three at once.

A Picture in Time

Regardless of where you stand on the matter of the Chinese Revolution, you will probably agree that among the great tragedies of the millennial changes that began in 1911 was the long line of missed opportunities for a more harmonious ending than the national bifurcation that is still called “the Wound of History.”

More vocally than any other foreigners of their era, Teddy White and Annalee Jacoby yearned for a unified China that took care of its people. Armed with a belief in that future, they wrote Thunder Out of China as witnesses to the events that set China on its current course, and their words deliver insights into the national soul of China that after 62 years have lost none of their edge.