Commentary Magazine

Letter from Formosa

There are encounters in which a fleeting gesture, a smile, or a momentary blankness of expression can suddenly assume for the observer a symbolic intensity which is far more revealing than the occasion seems to justify. Thus I cannot forget the picture of General Chiang Kai-shek at a naval maneuver some time ago in Kaohsiung. The landing exercise was a demonstration of impressive strength: gray ships out at sea belching forth their barrage of fire into the rocky slopes at our back; beneath us the landing crafts furrowing through the breakers, the troops spilling out of boats and hurrying for cover. The observation platform was erected on top of the cliffs, and hundreds of spectators peered down with binoculars and telescopic cameras. The guests invited to view this demonstration of military virtuosity were mainly “overseas” Chinese from Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, and the gold staff officers' insignia glittered among them. The frog men, their bodies smeared black, had already stormed past us. Now the troops emerged, only a few minutes after they had disappeared into the undergrowth on the beach below. The artillery still belched its fountains of smoke into the cliffs.

On the special platform where the Generalissimo and the highest dignitaries were seated, there was also a visible commotion. Madame, a beauty even in old age, conversed animatedly with the woman next to her; her eyes followed the troops who, at our backs, now made for the goal, the highest peak of the range. There was only one exception to the general excitement: Chiang Kai-shek himself sat there as if in a dream, his gaze still turned in the wrong direction, facing out to the sea. From the moment of his arrival he had appeared to me an infinitely weary man, leaning on his cane, as he climbed the stairs with effort to reach his place of honor. Only when the Chinese flag was at last unfurled on the peak, when the cliffs echoed with the triumphant shouts of the troops, did he rise, turn his eyes gratefully to the peak, raise his arms sideways above his head, the palms turned upwards, and smile.

It was a notably unmilitary posture: one sees it now and then in Latin countries as the expression of mystical surrender of devout women, sweet, lost in dreams, and not of this world. For a ruler of men it is unusual. Far from being compatible with the severe strength and presence of mind that so high an office demands, it seemed Hippocratic.

It also reminded one that the health of the Generalissimo leaves much to be desired. He has been suffering from diabetes for years, and last spring his condition was sufficiently alarming to have a world-famous specialist from the United States brought to Taipei. How long will he live? That is the question that is being discussed today with growing nervousness in the ruling circles of Formosa. It is astonishing to realize that this man who has become, like almost no other statesman in the world, the personification of failure is still today the only figure with enough prestige to carry the flag of Chinese anti-Communism. To be sure, a famous Chinese general never dies as completely as his Western counterpart: the temples of Formosa are full of statues of the great warrior heroes of the past, who continue to receive the homage of posterity. If the Christian Chiang Kai-shek cannot lay claim to inclusion among them, nevertheless a kind of deification is already at work during his lifetime. He is more than merely a general or a president: he is the successor to the Emperor, the son of Heaven. That is why, during the evacuation of Nanking, such great importance was attached to saving all the imperial art treasures and the ancient manuscripts: for thousands of years their possession has served as an expression and guarantee of legitimacy. Today these incomparable treasures repose in deep vaults. However mighty Mao may be in Peking, Chiang is, by the grace of the palace museum, the only successor to the dynasty. The East simply thinks differently than we do; myth is still much more of an actuality. Thus, if the idea of the re-conquest of a mainland realm of 600 million people from a narrow island base appears to us quixotic, if not actually nonsensical, Chinese history nevertheless knows of examples of similarly hopeless situations unexpectedly and abruptly changed by the miraculous recovery of a dynasty that had lost virtually all its power.

To be sure, the Nationalist Chinese have only themselves to blame if the world responds to their repeated proclamations of returning to the mainland with only a shrug or a smile. For this return is always depicted in heroic colors as a kind of Normandy invasion, with Marine units storming the land, along the lines of the maneuver described above. A year ago, when I interviewed the son of the President, Chiang Wei-Kuo, who had been trained as a Panzer general under Guderian in Germany, he painted a picture for me in the most glowing colors of how the mainland population only awaited such an attack as a signal to rise up in revolt, blow up bridges, slay whole cadres of troops, and receive the liberators with open arms. Such nonsense is obviously propaganda, which possibly is not even taken seriously by its originators. In Chinese history the miracle of a returning dynasty is accomplished exactly as tediously and quietly as its fall, and just as the Communist mainland victory and the fall of the Kuomintang dynasty were the consequences of decades of attrition, so any counter-offensive, to be effective, would first have to be prepared by a slow and methodical process of infiltration.

This task is not in the hands of the Panzer general, but of his older half-brother, Chiang Ching-kuo, who was educated in Soviet Russia (at a time when Chiang Kai-shek was drawing his political inspiration from Moscow), and who is married to a Russian woman. Chiang Ching-kuo did not pass his apprenticeship idly. A master of totalitarian techniques of control, he is the gray eminence of the regime. As chief of the secret state police and of the nationalist youth organization, he holds the reins of power in his hands, and even if, upon the death of the President, the succession should fall to the ailing Vice President, Chen Cheng, there would be no doubt as to who was the real master of Formosa. This prospect is greeted with no great joy either by the American allies or by the liberal elements among the Chinese. Chiang Ching-kuo has not made the slightest effort to create a favorable image for himself abroad. He avoids journalists and reveals his thoughts only to his closest confidants. But if one can believe what they say, the reality of his enigmatic personality is wholly at odds with the myth. They describe him as a completely different type from the vanishing old guard of the Kuomintang—that is, a reasonable pragmatist who wears no blinders, and is astonishingly open in conversation (“Perhaps,” my informant added, “because he is the only man who doesn't have to be afraid that he will be arrested because of it”). One also learns that within the inner circle of like-minded associates, disrespectful remarks are made about the old guard, which for the time being still clings to the helm. For members of Ching-kuo's circle are fully aware of the fact that the re-conquest of the mainland cannot be brought about under the banner of a restoration, but only by way of a new revolution.

Ching-kuo's guerrilla offensive on the mainland has accordingly been led in part by men who only recently have found their way from Communist China to Formosa. These guerrilla actions are of two kinds. The first—carried on in the limelight of propaganda—are the commando landings on the mainland, with reports of jubilant receptions by the population, captured Communist regiments, and all other manner of success. The other kind, the genuine guerrilla activity, is by its nature secret, and incomparably more important. Two separate and independent organizations are occupied with placing increasing numbers of guerrillas on the mainland, ranging from small groups of trained cadres to whole units of company strength. Their task consists in establishing liaison with local rebels and jointly setting up bases which can then be completely controlled by the anti-Communists.

To evaluate such ventures, we must again liberate ourselves from misleading Western conceptions. China is not the Soviet zone of Germany, where every square yard is open to inspection and under control. There are extended areas, above all in the mountainous regions, where the state power, whatever kind it was, has never been able to make itself felt more than sporadically. A province like Yünnan teems with rebels of every kind, from local independence fighters to pure bandits, and it is often hard to tell where robbery ends and politics begins. In such areas of twilight control a resolute guerrilla elite can, of course, achieve results which go far beyond its numerical potency. The official estimates in Taiwan speak of 170 consolidated guerrilla bases with a strength of 200,000 men. Even if, to be on the safe side, one divides this number by three, it remains true that 70,000 guerrillas under resolute leadership can accomplish a considerable amount. That this leadership does exist we know from the fact that one of the chiefs of the guerrilla movement, a Colonel Wu (incidentally a highly cultured man with a degree from Harvard) recently returned to Formosa from the mainland after working for two years at a guerrilla base. If these counter-revolutionaries realize their hopes, the liberation of China would be accomplished in a way similar to the strategy of the Viet Cong. The zones of insurrection would expand like spots on a blotter, and territorial and psychological boundaries and loyalties would become increasingly fluid. It is believed that Southern China to the Yangtze line could be liberated by a civil war of attrition and without fronts; and one day a regular army would be landed that could very well settle the persisting economic and organizational difficulties of the Communists on the mainland . . . and the problems of the narrow base on Formosa.


For if the giant on the mainland may be believed to have feet of clay, the stability of the dwarf on the island also leaves much to be desired. Up to now, the two million Chinese who erected their new temporary capital in Taipei, have succeeded only to a negligible extent in bridging the abyss that separates them from nine million Taiwanese. Three hundred years ago, as settlers from Fukien and Southern China, the Taiwanese brought with them Chinese traditions, but they have developed into a different people in the course of time. Their racial character has been altered through inbreeding with the native Polynesian-Melanesian inhabitants, who now inhabit the mountains and eke out a living as a tourist attraction. The social character of the Taiwanese was transformed during the fifty years (1895-1945) of Japanese rule when the island was transformed into an agricultural paradise and provided with schools and industries. The period of “liberation” by plundering Chinese soldiers and rapacious Kuomintang officials led to the famous uprising of 1947, which culminated in the massacre, according to varying estimates, of ten thou-sand to forty thousand Taiwanese, including most of the ruling elite. Chiang's regime has never been able to wipe away this stain. On the other hand, most of the grievances from the past have been eliminated. Today corrupt officials are severely punished; land reforms have transferred large estates to the peasants (a move which cleverly dissolved the power of the Taiwanese landed gentry), and these reforms have brought with them sufficient prosperity to remove the economic reasons for revolt. But victims of colonialism no longer live by rice alone. The struggles for. liberation in Africa and Asia demonstrate that as standards of living rise, the demand for equal status and political independence become all the stronger. The situation in Formosa also differs from that in the former European colonies insofar as the ruling class shows little interest in prosperity. Living in perpetual expectation of the return to the mainland, it has largely neglected the problem of establishing its people materially and culturally in this involuntary homeland. The mainlanders' contempt for the Taiwanese continues, but its basis becomes more and more illusory with the changing character of both populations. For example, at the universities today, the Taiwanese students are in the majority.

High political and military positions are still almost totally barred to the Taiwanese, but these restrictions cannot be permanently maintained. Provincial rule and local authority are left to the Taiwanese, while all major policy decisions are made by the central government and the national parliament. (Because elections on the mainland have not been possible since 1948, the parliament of Free China automatically perpetuates itself, even though with the steady demise of its members, it has slowly been withering away.) Thus the Taiwanese were unable to protest when, in the summer of 1962, further heavy taxes were imposed for military expenditures, which normally devour more than half of the total government budget. For one year the Taiwanese were also forced to pay 30 per cent higher rates for electricity and other essential public services to finance the return to a mainland that has long since become a hated place to them.

It is a serious error, then, to take the appearance of prosperity as proof that the Kuomintang government is firmer in the saddle than the rulers of Peking. Last November, the journalist Lei Chen, who has been a symbol of political oppression on Taiwan since 1960 when he was sentenced to prison for twelve years, attempted to draw the world's attention to political conditions there by means of a hunger strike. As is well known, Lei Chen had attempted, together with a group of Taiwanese politicians, to create a democratic party of opposition; his conviction by a military court on very dubious charges quickly put an end to any such immediate possibility, for the remaining critics of the regime voluntarily silenced themselves. Lei Chen, by the way, is not badly off. He is treated as a privileged prisoner and is at present engaged in writing a book. To be sure, his ties to the outside world have been reduced to a minimum. The government of Free China is a dictatorship, but it is a benevolent one. The colleagues of Lei Chen are permitted to write without censorshop except on two matters: the relationship of the Taiwanese to mainlanders, and the return to the mainland. These prohibitions are rather like forbidding the German press to discuss reunification and atomic armament, but martyrs in the name of free expression are rare anywhere. In prosperous Formosa it is not the peace of the cemetery that reigns, but rather that of the hothouse—a stifling, wearisome, boring peace, guaranteed only by walls of glass.

The consciousness of danger does erupt, though, whenever issues such as the Japanese, French (or less openly, the German) economic courtship of Peking serve to remind the leaders of Free China about the realities of time and tide. A recent incident in Tokyo over the repatriation of a turncoat Communist journalist almost led to a break in diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Taipei. Such reactions remind one of the nervousness of an aging mistress, who, fearing total abandonment, chooses suicide (a break with Tokyo would equal this) rather than the recognition of reality. Even the presumed heirs of the Kuomintang, the circle of pragmatists around Chiang Ching-kuo, remain victims of the final and fundamental illusion that the existence of Formosa is justified only as a base for the re-conquest of the mainland. What will happen if this campaign does not succeed, if the Communist regime survives its crisis? Won't the “two China” solution then be the only alternative? A European who posed this question to a guerrilla chief received an unexpected answer. “Two Chinas, never. If we are unable to drive the Communists out of Peking then . . . we must submit to Peking.”

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