BLAIR FRASER MEETS The Man Who Yearns For War

January 1 1955

BLAIR FRASER MEETS The Man Who Yearns For War

January 1 1955

GENERALISSIMO CHIANG KAI-SHEK, TAIPEI, whom Canada still nominally recognizes as President of China, is a man who lives in the hope that war will break out again soon.

No one would be happier than Chiang if the Chinese Communists were to carry out their threat to attack his island stronghold of Formosa, a hundred miles off the China coast. He knows that without such a Communist attack he has no chance of inducing the United States to finance and support him in an invasion of the Chinese mainland.

President Chiang admits these hopes and fears with surprising frankness. “We are not afraid of what our enemy might do,” he told his people in a speech on their national holiday. “On the contrary, what we are afraid of today is that the enemy might decide not to take the risk of launching an invasion from across the sea.”

In an interview a few days later I asked the Generalissimo if this meant he couldn’t move until the Communists attacked Formosa.

“It would certainly be much more difficult,” he said, “for us to launch our own attack unless the Communists strike first.”

He didn’t say why, but he didn’t need to. He was thinking, no doubt, of the warning renewed since my interview—from U. S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to the Chinese Communists that any attack on Formosa would involve hostilities with the United States.

Already the American taxpayer is footing a large bill to keep Chiang’s army in being. U. S. military aid is treated as a military secret in Taipei, but it’s believed to run between $200 millions and $300 millions a year. That’s over and above the $100 millions of U. S. economic aid each year that keeps the island’s economy going and makes it possible for the Nationalist Government to pay its own minority share of the defense budget.

This is only a fraction of what Chiang would need to wage war. To take one minor example: Maj. Gen. William Chase, head of the U. S. Military Aid Advisory Group to Formosa, recently presented to the Nationalist Chinese Navy the first landing craft to be built in Formosa. The first of a series, it had U. S. engines and was built with U. S. money, but the hull was built in local shipyards. According to Chiang’s military planners, they’ll need at least forty such landing craft for every division in the attacking force.

Air cover, presumably, would require planes fit to face the MIGs that Chinese Communists had in Korea. Chiang’s air force so far has only two squadrons of jet fighter bombers.

“We could use double the aid we’re now getting from the United States,” the Generalissimo said.

For a while last fall Chiang seemed to hope the necessary spark had been struck to set off a major conflagration in Asia. Communist batteries shelled Quemoy, a tiny strip of sand and rock which lies athwart the harbor of Amoy in Fukien Province and is separated from the Chinese mainland by only three miles of smooth water. Quemoy is one of a hundred and thirty-seven little islands, some garrisoned and some empty, that the Chinese Communists have never taken and that are still held by the Nationalist Government on Formosa.

From Chiang’s point of view the shelling could hardly have been better timed. It began just a week before John Foster Dulles, U. S. Secretary of State, was due to visit Formosa on his way home from the South-East Asia Treaty Organization conference in Manila. A whole cavalcade of other U. S. VIPs, some military and some civilian, poured into Taipei either with Dulles or shortly after his visit.

Chiang was delighted. “The President looks five years younger,” said one of his admirers. “There’s a light in his eye and a spring in his step that I haven’t seen for a long time.”

Great efforts were made to magnify the Quemoy bombardment into a major international incident. Chiang’s bombers retaliated, and continued to retaliate for weeks, with raids on the city and vicinity of Amoy. In Taipei, antiaircraft fire broke out several times, and the city was blacked out by the simple method of pulling the main switch at the power station. I didn’t find anyone who had actually seen an enemy aircraft over Taipei, but it was officially reported that several had come. No bombs were dropped but the Press was full of predictions of major assaults any day now.

The Formosan people were sufficiently scared that the bottom dropped out of real estate in the city, while prices skyrocketed in the countryside. The black market value of the Formosan dollar dropped to less than half the official rate, instead of the normal two thirds. Speculators who guessed that nothing was going to happen made a killing —it was easy to make a fortune buying land in the city and selling it in the country, or selling U. S. dollars at a temporary premium of about thirty percent.

Meanwhile on Quemoy itself, the 30,000-man garrison was kept on the alert. Work redoubled on the trenches, pillboxes and gun emplacements along its fifteen miles of inner beach. Press releases in Taipei, a hundred miles away across the Formosa Strait, painted a vivid picture of war on the island.

There were in fact nineteen people killed in the bombardment of Quemoy. Two were U. S. officers of the Military Assistance and Advisory Group, who had gone fishing on an exposed point directly across from Communist shore batteries.

With a couple of other reporters I visited Quemoy on a one-day conducted tour. General Yin Tien-chia, the political as distinct from the military commanding officer in the garrison, took us up on the roof of his headquarters and pointed in several directions where, he said, damage had been extensive although we couldn’t see it from there. Later we were taken to a village near the beach —“very dangerous, you go at your own risk.” Naked children were playing peaceably in the village square, while some soldiers carried hods of mortar for a floor they were laying and others hoed vegetables. We saw there a house which had been hit by a shell.

It had a hole in the roof, and one wall was knocked in. We were puzzled, though, by the fact that the hole was on the side that faced away from the beach. Since none of the officers with us spoke English, we never did find out whether the house had been hit by a Nationalist shell falling three miles short of its target, or by a Communist shell with the trajectory of a boomerang. In any case this was the only war damage actually shown to us.

By the time I talked to President Chiang, he seemed to have given up whatever hope he originally placed in the attack on the small islands. To the question whether or not an assault on these outposts would be considered an occasion for Nationalist counterattack on the mainland, the Generalissimo was noncommittal:

“It would depend on the nature of the attack, which islands were threatened or taken, and so on. But any invasion of Formosa itself would certainly call for counterattack.”

On another point though, he was extremely explicit. That was when I asked whether the Nationalists could take on Communist China alone, with only material help, or would they need a full-scale military alliance and all-out foreign aid?

“We want no foreign troops,” President Chiang said very emphatically. “We can do this ourselves, we must do it ourselves. We have to win back our manhood, win back our own country. We not only shall not need, we do not wish to have any other troops than our own.”

The Generaliasimo made it sound very convincing—it was easy to imagine the impact he would have on a U. S. Senator who was an ardent sympathizer already. Chiang is a small slight man, but the late General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell revealed his own malice when he dubbed the Generalissimo “The Peanut.” Chiang is no peanut. He’s an erect, alert figure in a plain drab uniform bearing no badge of rank and unlike the uniforms of his troops, not a U. S. model. His face is becoming rather wizened, like a russet apple in April, but for a man of sixty-seven he looks to be in spry shape physically and mentally.

Chiang speaks no English, even after all these years of being married to a Wellesley graduate but he has a well-developed technique for speaking through an interpreter. He himself speaks very fast in short takes, so that there are no long pauses; then, while his secretary-interpreter repeats in English, Chiang sits smiling and nodding like a clockwork mandarin. The visitor comes away with the feeling that this was the Generalissimo’s own voice, that the brave words actually came from the lips of the man who proposes to lead the triumphant return to the Chinese homeland.

He has a strong interest in Canada just now--Canadian reporters can arrange interviews on very short notice, while the British are kept waiting for weeks. Before the interview had lasted fifteen minutes it was Chiang who was asking the questions:

“What is the feeling among the people of Canada about our plans for return to the mainland of China?”

He kept on smiling and nodding equably when I said I thought most Canadians viewed the whole project with alarm. There was no sympathy or liking for Red China in Canada, but neither was there any desire for a war in Asia, and it seemed to us an invasion from Formosa would bring on such a war.

Chiang gravely thanked me for answering frankly and then, to my astonishment, asked: “What do you yourself think of our chances of reconquering China?”

I said I didn’t see how it could be done. He had an army of 600,000 and a nation of nine and a half millions; the Communists ruled a nation of 500 millions and they had proved in Korea that they could muster great military strength.

“We count on insurrections in our favor,” Chiang said. “We have plenty of information to make us believe the people will rise when they have an opportunity. Not only secondhand information, either; we have people coming out of China all the time to tell us this.”

After the secretary had translated this the Generalissimo spoke again:

“You Canadians are steeped in the history of Europe, and you think in terms of European reactions and behavior, so it is natural you are unable to conceive that our success is possible. But in our country, people behave differently.”

Since I was already rising to go when he made this remark, I didn’t ask him to elaborate on it. Another prominent Chinese had already made the same point, perhaps more frankly and bluntly than he would have cared to do in public:

“Who conquers China swallows dynamite. The Chinese are a very intransigent people, and they do not long endure governments they don’t like.

“When we held power over most of China at the end of the war, the Communists didn’t have much in the way of arms or supplies. They were poor and ragged; we were better armed in those days than they. And yet, somehow, they managed to beat us time after time.

“Now the shoe is on the other foot. They are the hated incumbents; we are the liberators. I know that the Communists have made themselves hated in China, and so I know we shall have the people on our side.”

Certainly there is evidence, confirmed by impartial and even hostile observers, that the Nationalist Chinese of Formosa have gained popularity at the expense of the Chinese Communists among the communities of so-called “overseas Chinese” who number about 12,000,000 in half a dozen countries of Southeast Asia.

In Hong Kong, for example, the 2,000,000 Chinese celebrated the Nationalist holiday of the “Double Tenth” —tenth day of the tenth month, and forty-third anniversary of Sun Yatsen’s revolution—with more fervor than ever before. Those 2,000,000 people bought 1,200,000 Nationalist Chinese flags and made the whole city gay with them. By contrast the Communist Chinese holiday, which happens to fall only ten days earlier, was celebrated by huge expensive displays on buildings owned by the Communist Chinese Government in Hong Kong, but by almost nobody else in town.

This is one of the reasons often advanced for the U. S. policy of supporting Chiang Kai-shek. “We must give the overseas Chinese a choice.” It is by no means a trivial point, for the Chinese are a large and wealthy community in many a touch-and-go nation —Malaya, Indo-China, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia. Conceivably, their political influence in these countries could be decisive, if they were to decide flatly and finally that the Chinese Communists had won and that they’d better get on the band wagon. So far, that crucial decision does not seem to have been taken.

Against that political asset are two major political liabilities. One is the fear aroused by Chiang’s desire for war, and the seeming willingness of the United States to help him prepare for it.

“We’re grateful for economic aid from the U. S.,” one Formosan native said, “but not for the military aid. Our reaction to that is sheer panic.”

The other liability is the Chiang Government’s own record in China, a record it has not lived down. Also, in spite of the fact that Chiang’s men have mended their ways since 1949, not all the old faults have been corrected.

Corruption, for instance, has been reduced—even critics of the regime admit that. But last August the Minister of Economic Affairs, K. Y. Yin, publicly blasted industrialists on Formosa both for gross inefficiency and for corrupt practices:

“Some industrialists even go so far as to discard production entirely, but reap profits by reselling allocated raw materials on the black market.”

They can do this with enormous profit, Yin went on to explain, because Nationalist Chinese currency is grossly overvalued. At the official rate it is worth a little more than six cents. On the black market, which operates quite openly in Taipei and is patronized by almost everybody, the Formosan dollar is worth no more than four cents and often as little as three.

Importers, however, can get U. S. dollars for only sixteen Chinese dollars each, with the result that the cost of imported goods becomes ridiculously low. But since imports are restricted because of the shortage of U. S. dollars, the market price of the same goods in Formosa is very high.

For the lucky few who have import licenses and can thus buy foreign currency at the official rate, the profit margins are enormous. Here’s how the Minister of Economic Affairs described the result:

“The profiteers, in the name of factories they have founded with negligible capital and symbolic or make-believe equipment, scramble for the privilege of obtaining foreign currency allocations or imports quotas. They behave just like the importers in Formosa—there are today more than two thousand firms engaged in this business because of fat profits derived from the unrealistic exchange rate, though forty to fifty firms would be sufficient to handle Formosa’s exports and imports efficiently.”

K. Y. Yin did not say how the “profiteers” were able to get the currency allocations or imports quotas for which they “scramble.” It’s a fair inference, though, that somebody is being paid to hand them out. The inference is strengthened by the fact that official salaries in Formosa are incredibly low—most rank-and-file civil servants make less than a laborer’s wage, and laborers don’t earn much in Formosa.

Economic conditions too are worse in Formosa than officials would have us believe.

Officially, reporters are told that there is no unemployment in Formosa —“only under-employment., among the white-collared class. We have more people wanting to be clerks than we have jobs for them to fill, but these are people who don’t want to be laborers. There is no shortage of jobs for laborers.”

It’s certainly true about the underemployment of office workers. Every office seems to be crammed with desks, and more people sitting around than you can shake a stick at. A friend of mine recently brought an item through Customs in Formosa; he had to take it to thirty-two different officials, each one of whom stamped his import declaration.

It isn’t true at all that laboring jobs are plentiful. Recently a U. S. group completed a two-year study of the Formosan economy. It estimated that twenty percent of all adult males in cities and towns “live by marginal self-employment, such as keeping small shops, peddling, operating pedicabs (the tricycle taxi which is the ricksha of Formosa), itinerant mending of all types, and the like.” But in addition to the one in five men living by “marginal self-employment,” another five percent of the able-bodied males in cities and industrial areas were wholly unemployed. How they live at all is a mystery, for the Chinese government has no system of unemployment relief.

Then there is the vexed question of the Chiang Government itself. Just how free is “Free China”?

It’s not the Fascist dictatorship that its enemies depict. There is a provincial assembly in Formosa; of its fifty-seven members, fifty-six are native Formosans and the other is a mainland Chinese woman married to a Formosan. The present mayor of Taipei is a non-member of Chiang’s Kuomintang party, who defeated a Kuomintang man in the election. The Press, though cautious, is sometimes critical of the government .

The Ugly Irony of “Free China”

On the other hand, Formosa is a long way from being a free democracy. The national parliament was “elected” after a fashion in 1947, when Chiang still controlled much of the mainland; since it’s supposed to represent all China, it now has a self-perpetuating membership. Chiang’s Cabinet is more or less responsible to this “elected” body. The actual government of Formosa, though, is mainly in the hands of a governor appointed by Chiang—a good man by all accounts and certainly an engaging one, but not really responsible to the people he rules.

There is also an uglier irony to the phrase “Free China.” It’s the police.

I asked the Minister of the Interior, a man named Wang who is in charge of security, how many police forces exist on Formosa. He launched into a long speech in Chinese; when the interpreter took over he began:

“First of all, the minister wishes to make it clear that this is not a police state.”

At the end of the speech I repeated my question; the minister conferred in Chinese with his commissioner of police, who was present, and at last the interpreter said:

“There are four. There is the administrative police, and then the ordinary municipal police. Then we have the special police, to protect the people’s minds, and finally the foreign affairs police who deal with foreigners.” (The last force is supposed to employ most of the waiters and floor boys at the Friends of China Club, where foreign reporters stay.)

How many political prisoners were then in jail without trial?

After an agitated colloquy in Chinese between minister and police commissioner, the interpreter said:

“The minister says there can be no prisoners held without trial. Under our constitution the police can hold a suspect in jail for not more than twenty-four hours.”

In that case, would the minister please explain what happened in the case of Walter Chen, who had been arrested three months before and held incommunicado ever since without either charge or trial?

Walter Chen was a Formosa boy; he sang in the choir at one of the Taipei churches and was a leading member of Youth For Christ there. He worked for a shipping company which, like most employers in Formosa, provided dormitory housing for its staff. A Taipei student, whom Walter Chen knew slightly, got into trouble—he made some statement against the government, was promptly dubbed a Communist, fled from the police and went underground. On the first night of his flight he slept at the dormitory where Walter Chen stayed; after that he disappeared.

There is no evidence that Walter Chen had any contact with the fugitive; he had known him, and that was enough. Police came and took him away, and that was the last anyone heard of him for a long time. His widowed mother, who had nothing to live on except the money Walter Chen had been sending to her managed to make her way to Taipei from her home in Tainan, but was not allowed to see her son or communicate with him. The police told her Walter would be held until the fugitive was found.

When I spun this tale to the Minister of the Interior he had a very long and flustered conference before he answered.

“Neither the minister nor the commissioner has ever heard of this case,” said, the interpreter at last. “They think it must be a case involving Communism, and that would not come under their department.”

Then there was a fifth police force?

“The Peace Preservation Corps is under the Defense Department, not our department.”

This was not an isolated example of Peace Preservation Corps methods. Eighteen months ago another man disappeared, I learned from a friend of his. Last fall he suddenly came back again. No charge had ever been laid against him, he’d just been arrested.

“What happened? What did they do to you?” his friends asked.

“I don’t want to say anything about it,” he replied. “If I talk, they may come and get me again.”

When you mention things like this to U. S. officials in Formosa they wriggle slightly, and explain that things are different in the East and that there was a real problem of communist infiltration here.

They don’t mention another aspect that cropped up a few months ago. A general was arrested who had been in charge of many Peace Preservation Corps operations. It turned out he’d been able to accumulate four thousand ounces of fine gold in less than four years of office. It’s hard to imagine a better shakedown instrument than control of a secret police.

I asked a resident reporter why things like this, or cases like that of Walter Chen, don’t get more publicity in North America.

“You only compromise Formosan people if you try to dig up that sort of thing,” he said uncomfortably. “Couple of French reporters were here not long ago, and they went to see some Formosans and wrote about it, and they got several people into trouble.” “Besides,” he added honestly, “my agency isn’t interested in that sort of feature stuff. They want spot news, like when the Generalissimo says the sun’s going to rise tomorrow.”

But though American news agencies may not be interested in that sort of news, Communist news agencies are. It’s open to some doubt whether the Nationalist regime is as fully restored to popularity on the mainland of China as it thinks it is.

Admittedly there is still a trickle of refugees coming out from Communist China. Occasionally they come across to Quemoy by boat or by raft; Nationalists could escape the same way in the opposite direction if they liked but even the Communists don’t pretend that any have done so.

Taking Chinese disenchantment with the Communists for granted, though, it’s still hard to see how they could rise to support an invasion from Formosa. According to people who lived in China for two years after the Communist victory, the first thing the Reds did was to disarm the populace thoroughly—not so much as a pike or a rusty flintlock was left in the peasants’ homes. At the same time the army was made a distinctly favored group, and its loyalty cultivated.

Another matter for argument is the quality of Chiang’s own army as a fighting force.

There’s no longer any argument about its morale, which is high, or about its behavior, which is excellent. Even bitter critics of the regime, and the Formosans are still bitter critics, admit that the soldiers have conducted themselves very well since the removal of the national government to Taipei in 1949.

They are not well fed, for their diet is almost wholly rice with insufficient protein; of the eight thousand lepers in Formosa about two hundred and fifty are soldiers, and leprosy is now regarded as really a deficiency disease, an illness of the poor and hungry. But in spite of their poor circumstances they don’t loot nowadays.

They are now well clothed and fairly well equipped but not so well trained. U. S. rifle instructors find that even now, after six years of continuous training in Formosa, the Chinese infantryman has trouble remembering that he should squeeze the trigger and not jerk it. Target practice has been little use because too few Chinese can read or write well enough to keep score.

General William Chase, head of the U. S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group, answers “no comment” to every question a reporter can think of; he’ll say only that the Chinese army is making good progress. But a sign outside the General’s office speaks louder than any words of his. In capital letters a foot high, it carries the one word:


However, if the Nationalist army inspires little confidence as an invasion force, it’s probably better fitted for the defensive. Certainly a Communist landing on Formosa would be resisted pretty vigorously, and in that the Chiang forces could count on co-operation from the Formosans themselves.

Too Small for Independence

I wasn’t able to talk to many Formosans; they are still a bit timid about speaking to foreigners, lest the Peace Preservation Corps find them out. But to the half dozen or so whom I did meet, I put the same question:

“If you had your wish, what kind of government would you want on Formosa? Independence? UN trusteeship? Japan again? Or would you rather carry on with the Nationalist Government that’s here now?”

To my astonishment, they all said “We’d carry on with what we have.”

Only eight years after the riots and the murderous reprisals of February 1947, when Nationalist troops shot about five thousand Formosans including most of their potential leaders, this answer seemed to me incredible. But they all said the memory of 1947 was fading a bit, that the hostility to the Chiang Government was diminishing.

Independence they didn’t want because they were too small; Communist China would gobble them up, and that would be the worst fate of all. UN trusteeship was too uncertain and transitory. As for the Japanese, whom Formosans were still secretly regretting four years ago, they no longer look like easier taskmasters than Chiang’s men. So, at least, I was told by people who speak the language and talk to Formosans on a basis of intimacy—they thought that gradually the Formosans were becoming loyal if not enthusiastic backers of the Generalissimo.

Maybe that’ll be the answer in the long run. Maybe the “Free China” warriors, with all their trumpetings of war next year or the year after, will end by settling down into a humdrum Government of Formosa. That is, if the Communists and some U. S. Senators will let them.