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Tea Leaves

Taiwan holds lessons for 'good' and 'bad' dictatorships

Beijing should follow Taipei's model of gradual liberalization

Exhibits of Japanese infrastructure building at the Sun Moon Lake museum. (Photo by Humphrey Hawksley)

In 1979, not long after America's Jan 1. recognition of Beijing's Communist regime as the legitimate government of China, former U.S. President Richard Nixon returned to China and was feted as a hero for his groundbreaking visit to the Chinese capital in 1972.

As a young reporter on the South China Morning Post, I covered Nixon's press conference in Hong Kong, where he suggested that the U.S. should arm China to balance Soviet expansion in Asia. With the naivety and confidence of youth, I described the former president as "driven and passionate," but noted that the new U.S. policy meant swapping a dictatorship in Taiwan for one in Beijing.

A brusque Australian news editor who loathed Nixon drew a firm black line through that paragraph. "You don't know what you're talking about, son," he said. "There are good dictators and bad dictators -- and Taiwan is a good one."

This came to mind recently when I visited Sun Moon Lake in the Taiwanese mountains. After fleeing China for Taiwan in 1949, the Chinese Kuomintang party leader and Taiwan dictator Chiang Kai-shek spent much time in these mountains.

His modest rest house there has been rebuilt as a museum. But the setting and history provoked thoughts about how Taiwan has dealt with its recent past, particularly its founding dictator and the Japanese colonization that preceded him.

Japan's invasion and annexation of Taiwan in 1895 was one of its first conquests aimed at controlling Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Central to the policy was disciplined administration and infrastructure building.

Japan built Sun Moon Lake as a reservoir in the 1930s. Photographs in the museum show its construction, but their captions do not refer to Japanese "occupation" or "colonization," using instead the more neutral term "Japanese governance period."

After Japan's defeat in 1945, Taiwan fell under the control of the Kuomintang, which then ran much of China from Beijing. When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, Chiang's government fled to Taiwan, bringing with it ancient treasures, gold, guns and 2 million people, who took over an island of just 6 million.

Chiang's party secured his authority through brute force. Tens of thousands of people disappeared, were jailed or killed over a 40-year period from 1947 until martial law was lifted in 1987. There are continuing demands in Taiwan for a full accounting of the atrocities.

Chiang Kai-shek’s statue, honored as the founder of modern Taiwan. (Photo by Humphrey Hawksley)

Like Japan, though, Chiang has been given a respected place in Taiwan's history, not as a cult figure but as its founding father. The ceremonial changing of the guard at his statue in Taipei contrasts sharply with the treatment of dictators elsewhere, whose statues have often been torn down amid revolutionary fervor.

Chiang died in 1975, and power transferred after a brief interval to his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who began to open Taiwan to civil society. In 1996 direct presidential and legislative assembly elections were held, and Taiwan is now one of three fully-fledged democracies with advanced economies in Asia, alongside Japan and South Korea.

Asia has many discredited dictators and unresolved fault lines that continue to fuel friction. Japan and South Korea, fellow democracies that should be standing shoulder to shoulder, are at loggerheads because Seoul views Japan's colonization between 1910 and 1945 as more evil than a "period of governance." The 1937 Nanjing massacre haunts Sino-Japanese relations, while Beijing uses its "Century of Humiliation" by Japan and Western powers to justify an expansionist foreign policy.

Such is the tapestry of Asia, a modern region with shining cityscapes that remains in thrall to simmering disputes left unresolved for decades. As Asia rises, history is not so much repeating itself as reemerging because so much has been buried.

Letter to Chiang Kai-shek from John F Kennedy after his 1960 election win. (Photo by Humphrey Hawksley)

The Sun Moon Lake museum also contains mementoes of visiting celebrities and American politicians, including a typewritten letter to Chiang Kai-shek from John F. Kennedy written shortly after he was elected U.S. president in 1960.

Kennedy's sentiments carry echoes of current U.S. concerns with freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific in the face of Chinese expansionism. "I can assure you that the New Government is conscious of the responsibilities it has in sustaining the hope and opportunities for the freedom of Asia," Kennedy wrote.

In 1979, Taiwan faced street protests against Kuomintang one-party rule. Although initially handled brutally, they helped to bring about democratic change. In China, similar protests are too dangerous to stage. My bad-tempered news editor all those years ago was right about the varying shades of dictatorial rule.

Humphrey Hawksley is a journalist and author. His latest book is "Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion."

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