Of all the historical figures for the Chinese Communist Party to exploit, the most unlikely would be Chiang Kai-hsek, the man who led the fight against it for over nearly fifty years. However, the CCP - while being brutal, cruel, corrupt, and devious - is also the shrewdest tyrannical regime on earth. Thus, anti-Communists are in the highly unusual position of being wary over the historical rehabilitation of the CCP's most well-known enemy.
Chiang's memory is riding the latest revisionist wave of history. Jay Taylor's The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China (reviewed in the Washington Post) is leading the way on this side of the Pacific, but as John Pomfret notes, "Mainland scholars of the Nationalist period have also written essays intimating that China would probably have been better off if Chiang had stayed in charge."
On some level, this is a dramatic admission from the Communist regime, impossible at any point before 1976. However, this is 2009, meaning the newfound appreciation for the Nationalist leader is much less than meets the eye.
For starters, Chiang is almost always compared to Mao Zedong, rather than Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin. For historical purposes, this makes a lot of sense. However, when attempting to use the past to explain the present, it falls woefully short for four reasons.
First, neither Chiang nor Mao were genuine democrats in any way, shape, or form. Both men were tyrannical rulers who merely different on the nature of the tyranny. Because Chiang sided with the anti-Communists during the first Cold War, too many assume that Hu and Jiang, by hewing closer to Chiang's tyrant model, have surrendered the argument. This is far from true. Chiang's brutality, his insistence on the Nationalists dominating the state and the economy, and his tolerance for corruption would make him quite comfortable in today's CCP. In fact, Chiang himself managed to convince Joe Stalin that he was a dedicated Communist - to the point that the Soviets actually designated the Nationalists as their allies for much of the 1920s.
Secondly, Chiang and Mao shared an absolute refusal to accept Taiwanese self-determination. During their time, given the deep disagreement over who should control the mainland, that seemed a secondary issue. Today, with the Nationalist/Kuomintang Party having accepted Communist domination of the mainland, Taiwanese self-determination (which is not to say formal independence per se, but could include it) is the only protection the island democracy has left now.
Which bring us to the third reason Chiang's newfound acceptance is problematic: Taiwan (or, for those who prefer it, the Republic of China) is now a vibrant democracy, something Chiang would never accept. What has inspired mainlanders was not Chiang's rule over Formosa, but its transition away from Chiang's rule.
If Taiwan is to have any hero, it should be Lee Teng-hui, but the cadres can't stand him, so instead they encourage a Chiang boomlet. This has the added bonus of aiding the current Nationalist Party on the island, so as to block the return to popularity of Lee's anti-Communist allies, the Democratic Progressive Party.
Finally, the Chiang boomlet does nothing to alleviate concern over the CCP's continuing adventurism abroad. That Hu Jintao may be closer to the Chiang model doesn't make the military he now commands any less dangerous (The Australian and the BBC). Nor does it lighten the dark shadow the regime casts around the globe (Brisbane Times and The Malaysian Insider). It certainly doesn't mean improvement in the areas where Chiang and Mao were equally terrible, be it corruption (Agence France Presse via Yahoo and the Los Angeles Times) or cruelty to dissidents (AFP via Yahoo and Deutsche Presse-Agentur via Hispanic Business).
The CCP, contrary to what they would like us to believe, is still in serious trouble. American investors, fed up with tales of profits that never materialize (Forbes), are finally beginning to look to India as a profitable alternative (New York Times). The tainted export meme has shifted to drywall found in tens of thousands of American homes (CNN). Finally, the rural interior continues to be impoverished and plundered by the regime itself (BBC). In this context, it's easy to see why the regime would want the world (and the Chinese people) to believe the Mao-Chiang conflict was all about semantics - and for those two men, it may very well have been just that.
For the rest of us, however, it is about freedom and tyranny - and which will prevail. The more we focus on how close Mao's heirs have moved to Chiang, the less we notice that the people of the mainland and the island democracy have moved beyond both of them to demand (and in the case of the island, achieve) genuine freedom. Therein lies the danger of Chiang's rehabilitation.
Cross-posted to the right-wing liberal