Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
The most interesting thing about The Lord of the Rings is that its chief hero, more than the great Gandalf, more than the dashing one-and-future-king Aragorn, is the diminutive hobbit Frodo, because he can hold the ring of power without being corrupted by it.
At the time of my birth, the country of my birth was a dictatorship. Martial law was in effect. Opposition political parties were illegal. And the sitting president had had the position handed to him by his generalissimo father.
So imagine how I felt hearing the news that this year’s Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report adjudged Taiwan to be freer than the United States. Taiwan, officially still the Republic of China and barely recognized by anyone internationally, scored 91/100 according to Freedom House’s methodology, while the U.S. scored 89.
We owe it in large part to one man.
And I still distinctly remember the day when that man died. I was in first grade. It was a gray and drizzly winter morning, and I had just gotten to school. The teacher came in, and even we six-year-olds could see that she was distraught. An announcement came through the school’s PA system: the president had passed away. All pupils and teachers were to stand to observe a minute of silence.
I was too young to understand the complicated nature of the mourning that took place then. On the one hand, Chiang Ching-kuo, or Jiang Jingguo as his named would be romanized today, was the head of an authoritarian government, so that to some extent the citizenry was obligated to show grief. On the other hand, he had set the gears in motion to transform the regime he inherited from his father into the vibrant democracy that it is today, so the grief was genuine.
Chiang’s father was Chiang Kai-shek, the man who led Republican China through WWII, who sat down with FDR and Churchill, only to lose the civil war and all of mainland China to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces. The elder Chiang was a bitter enemy of Communism, but his son studied in Moscow and was initially an enthusiastic student of Marx. He even adopted a Russian name: Nikolai Vladimirovich Elizarov. Deng Xiaoping, later his antagonist and leader of Communist China, was a classmate. When Soviet-China relations collapsed, Stalin held the younger Chiang for 12 years as a hostage. When he eventually came home, he brought with him a Belarusian wife.
You could say that the younger Chiang had a complicated upbringing and a no less complicated relationship with his father.
In 1975, Chiang Kai-shek died. His vice president succeeded to the presidency for the balance of his official term in what everyone described as a “seat-warmer” role. In 1978, the National Assembly, consisting mostly of party men never subject to reelection, made the younger Chiang the new president.
Once in office Chiang pushed forward development projects that catapulted the economy of the then strictly developing nation. By 2016, at purchasing power parity, Taiwan’s per capita GDP was $47,790, not far behind the United States at $57,294.
But more impressively, he began loosening the shackles that his father’s government had put in place. Political commentary critical of his administration became allowed. The government ceased persecuting opposition parties. Indeed, Chiang handpicked a vice president who was, in his sympathies, essentially a member of the opposition. In 1985, Chiang announced that the next presidential election would be conducted freely and fairly, and that he would permit no one from his own family to run. In 1987, Chiang finally ended martial law. Within 20 years after his death in 1988, Taiwan had become a full-fledged liberal democracy.
Chiang’s name is not widely remembered around the world. But he ought to be. The saying goes that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But once in a generation, there is perhaps one Frodo-esque leader with the strength of character to assume absolute power only to give it away. George Washington showed that he had that strength when he surrendered his sword before the Continental Congress. Chiang had it, too; he inherited an authoritarian regime little different from those of any of the Middle Eastern or Central Asian strongmen of today, and he went about dismantling it.
That is what we call legacy. I don’t mean to suggest that Chiang was without flaws; he wasn’t. But the character it takes to possess absolute power only to relinquish it is so rare and so sublime that it ought to be celebrated in spite of the blemishes.
America is having its moment with its own Mao. But perhaps, if we’re lucky, Americans may yet find their own Chiang.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."