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Chiang Pin-kung, a cross-strait point man swept up by history

Born in Japan-ruled Taiwan, he served as a bridge to Beijing and Tokyo

The late Chiang Pin-kung, as a bridge between Taiwan and mainland China, played golf with local Taiwanese business leaders in China on a 2005 visit.
The late Chiang Pin-kung, as a bridge between Taiwan and mainland China, played golf with local Taiwanese business leaders in Nanjing on a March 2005 visit. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)   © Photo by Kenji Kawase

TAIPEI -- Chiang Pin-kung, a Taiwanese business and diplomatic heavyweight who died on Monday at age 85, epitomized the island's modern history often buffeted by political winds in Japan and China.

Chiang served as a top adviser to major Taiwanese financial services company CTBC Financial Holding and became chairman of Tokyo Star Bank in 2014, when the lender was purchased by CTBC Bank. While playing a key role in advancing the complex Beijing-Taipei relations, Chiang also contributed to economic exchange with Japan as part of a dwindling generation of Taiwanese raised under the Japanese colonial rule that began in 1895.

Born to a farming family in the central Taiwanese county of Nantou in 1932, Chiang attended elementary school under a Japanese name. He studied hard and became fluent in the Japanese language, realizing that studying was the only path out of poverty.

But Japan pulled out of the island after its defeat in World War II in 1945, and the Chinese Nationalist Party -- or the Kuomintang -- declared Taipei the capital of the Republic of China in 1949 after being defeated by the Chinese Communist Party.

Chiang sought a career as a public servant and in the 1960s began working at the ROC's Japanese Embassy, later transformed to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. In 1971, he earned a doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of Tokyo.

The next year, he suffered what he called a devastating setback as Japan severed diplomatic relations with the ROC while normalizing ties with China. He and others were forced out of the embassy, and he came down with acute hepatitis as a result of the shock. But Chiang soon regained his footing. By dint of hard work, he attained key economic and trade positions in Taiwan, including economic minister under the presidency of the Kuomintang's Lee Teng-hui.

Chiang acted as a bridge across the Taiwan Strait, especially during the latter part of his life. He made 200-plus visits to mainland China from 2000 to 2018, and a March 2005 trip was one of the highlights.

As a Kuomintang vice chairman, Chiang led the party's delegation to the mainland. This paved the way for the Kuomintang to hold a summit with its longtime archrival, the Chinese Communist Party, for the first time since Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong met in Chongqing in 1945. The efforts culminated in the April 29, 2005, meeting in Beijing by Kuomintang Chairman Lien Chan and Hu Jintao, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

During his stay on the mainland, Chiang made a stop at Nanjing, the former capital of the Kuomintang government. He wrote four Chinese characters meaning "the tour to break the ice" by his signature in the guest book at the former presidential palace. Chiang saw his mission as shelving political animosities and establishing a pragmatic working relationship with Beijing, with a mind to promoting and protecting the rights of the Taiwanese business community on the mainland.

Nanjing is the capital of Jiangsu Province, which by 2004 had already received more than $20 billion in direct investment from Taiwan. Before leaving for Beijing, Chiang spent some time listening to the issues and complaints of local Taiwanese businesspeople, over lunch and even a hole of golf. "What's most important is what Taiwanese businesspeople want," he told the media.

At the time, the Kuomintang had lost power to Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party, and there were likely political calculations behind the show. But his visit at least partly soothed the worries of the local Taiwanese community, after tensions escalated over the Anti-Secession Law adopted in March 2005 to give Beijing legal justification for using "non-peaceful" means to unify with Taiwan.

In 2008, the year that the Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou was elected president, Chiang was made chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation, a body designed to serve as a bridge to China. That June, Chiang met with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing in the first talks between the two organizations in nine years.

The foundation and its Chinese equivalent "signed 18 agreements to develop cross-Strait relations when Chiang served as SEF chairman," China's official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday. Chiang spearheaded the 2010 signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with Beijing, which amounted to a free trade agreement.

But the rapid thaw with Beijing stirred fears within Taiwan of being economically swallowed up by China. In 2014, anxieties over an ECFA-linked agreement on services erupted into protests known as the Sunflower Student Movement.

Chiang pleaded for understanding on the deal, saying it was forged for Taiwan's security. But concerns persisted, and in 2016 the independence-leaning DPP took back power.

Throughout his life, Chiang continued to work at relations with Japan. He led the creation in 1999 of a Japanese-Taiwanese business exchange association called the Third Wednesday Club together with CTBC founder Jeffrey Koo Sr., who died in 2012, and built personal connections throughout Japanese political and business circles. He also served as a pipeline from Japan to China and offered support to Japanese businesses seeking a foothold in the Chinese market through Taiwan.

Chiang's generation of Taiwanese raised under Japanese colonial rule is disappearing as members grow old. July 2017 saw the passing of Tsai Kun-tsan, who played a role in a well-known Taiwan travelogue by Japanese author Ryotaro Shiba, at age 95.

Nikkei Asian Review chief business news correspondent Kenji Kawase in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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