Letter from Formosa

Letter from Formosa

Behind Chiang’s smile: a troubled people

BEVERLEY BAXTER November 22 1958
Letter from Formosa

Letter from Formosa

Behind Chiang’s smile: a troubled people

BEVERLEY BAXTER November 22 1958

Letter from Formosa

Behind Chiang’s smile: a troubled people


“The President will be glad to receive Sir Beverley Baxter and Lady Baxter for tea at his residence.” This was the agreeable message which we received at the Grand Hotel not long after our arrival in the troubled island of Formosa.

If we agree that the journalist is the contemporary historian then you will understand the interest with which we looked forward to meeting this remarkable man whose life has been a series of climax and anti-climax and endless controversy.

In the outside world he is looked upon variously as a faded potentate, a messiah who might yet lead his followers back to their own Chinese mainland, a dreamer out of touch with reality, and an American investment which cannot be liquidated.

Three days previously when we boarded the airplane at Hong Kong for the flight to Formosa we looked at our fellow passengers to try to assess their mood and the purpose of their journey. Actually we did not learn very much for the reason that they were nearly all students returning from vacation,

and like students the world over they were a jolly and noisy lot until they grew drowsy and we had comparative peace.

Yet the Hong Kong newspapers, available on the plane, were full of news about the fierce, prolonged bombardment of the off-shore islands of Quemoy and Matsu. How long could they hold out? And if they did hold out how long before the Communists would turn their fury on Taiwan itself, the home and citadel of Chiang Kai-shek?

To our surprise as we drove through the city to the Grand Hotel the whole place seemed to be en fête. In the brilliantly lit streets there were gleaming American motorcars the size of destroyers, rickshaws drawn by boys on bicycles, carriages hitched to sullen, heavy-footed water buffaloes, and laughing young mothers with their babies strapped like papooses on their shoulders. They were celebrating the moon festival in the avenues of Taiwan while a few miles away the people on the offshore islands were being pounded by the mainland guns of the Red Chinese

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Letter from Formosa

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“I do not fear that America will change her policy,11 smiling, patient Chiang told Baxter

It was with this background in mind that we drove a few days later to keep our appointment with the man who has been variously described as the Great Christian General, the War Lord, the opportunist, the protégé of America, the Leader of Lost Causes, and the Savior of his people.

As we drove up the private roadway to his house in the woods we saw men in plain clothes strolling about but watching everything with a keen eye. The president is much loved and much guarded.

What is he like—this enigmatic figure of controversy, this aging peddler of dreams? It was with some surprise that we found him a slim, pensive, smiling figure in a greenish khaki uniform, but no ribbons, looking rather like a slimmed Lord Beaverbrook in one of his lordship’s moods of reverie. Like all Chinese the generalissimo begins every sentence with a smile, which is the point' where the Beaverbrook parallel ends.

However I had not traveled halfway across the world merely to enjoy a cup of tea with the president. Therefore I asked if he would allow me to put questions to him and he agreed. Perhaps it should be explained at this point that the generalissimo speaks no English and that our conversation was carried on through an interpreter.

“Mr. President,” I said. “You always refer to Formosa and the off-shore islands as China. Surely a country consists physically of the land where the people live. Therefore it must be accepted that Communist China, because of its vast area and population, is also China no matter how much the regime may be hated.”

Again there was the automatic smile which is at once so disarming and so misleading. “The only China,” he answered, “is Free China. The people cannot speak their minds in a Communist land, and where the people cannot speak it is not a nation. Free China is a democratic nation in a community of free nations and we recognize no China which is not free.”

There was no quickening of the words, no repetition for emphasis or effect. Each sentence began with a smile as though to assure me that here was one dictator whose patience would never be exhausted.

“Have you any fear,” I asked, “that America will some day end its support of Nationalist China?”

“I do not fear that America will change her policy,” he answered.

“But,” I said, “supposing that the pressure by American public opinion became too strong, and President Eisenhower was forced to change his front. What then?” This time the smile was not quite so bright. Then without any raising of his soft', modulated voice he answered: “If America will no longer support Free China then we shall fight on alone.” Quietly the interpreter spoke the words to us in our own language and inevitably my memory went back to the day when Churchill spoke in much the same way to us in the House of Commons as France was reeling to collapse. The parallel is perhaps absurd or at least strained. Perhaps the woodland paintings by Madame Chiang hanging on the walls helped to induce the parallel for they are just as pleasant and as unadventurous as the paintings which Sir Winston exhibits annually at the Royal Academy.

So the visit, which had been punctuated with repeated cups of tea, eventually came to an end and we left the generalissimo's modest country house and drove back to the city which was again en fête —or so it seemed.

Now let us try to come to some decision on this island enigma which may yet precipitate a terrible war, not by its will or its strength but because of its mere existence. Is Chiang Kai-shek’s China a democracy as we understand the word, and if so, should the democratic powers support her if war breaks out on a full scale?

Despite its elected parliament and its chambers of commerce it must not be thought that Formosa is a bastion of

democracy as we understand the word. The president is not a democratic political leader such as Harold Macmillan or Hugh Gaitskell. In actual fact he is, in relation to his people, more like Dr. Frank Buchman and his moral re-armamenteers. The president is not a member of parliament and is therefore not a figure of controversy. He can do no wrong — an accepted fact which raises him above controversy, and saves a lot of trouble.

But what really matters to the Western world is whether the existence of this

man prevents the inclusion of Red China in the United Nations and therefore makes it impossible for the West to bring her before the jury of world opinion. How in the name of sanity can China the Giant be barred from the U.N. while these little scented islands of Formosa are included?

I raised this point a few days after my talk with the generalissimo when I lunched with a man who can be regarded as the most important American on the island. There was a robustness about his spirit which found vent in an attractive

mixture of irony, romanticism and downright common sense. I was surprised to find that he had no criticisms whatsoever of the attitude of President Chiang Kaishek or President Eisenhower.

“But how,” I asked, “can you admit Communist Russia to the United Nations and deny membership to Communist China?”

He poured a stiff whisky and soda and his eyes twinkled. “Supposing you belonged to a good club,” he said, “where the members were a decent lot. Then one day you decide to admit a fellow who is

a bit of a swine in the hope that he might become a decent guy. Well, supposing he turns out to be a real stinker although he keeps to the rules and we can’t get rid of him. There he is and there he stays. But supposing he has a buddy, who is just as bad as himself, and he puts him up for membership. Not bloody likely! That would be our verdict.”

“So you would not admit Communist China to the club?”

“Over my dead body,” he replied.

A couple of days after my talk with the generalissimo I was invited to call on the minister of defense and have a glass of tea with him. In England the tea hour is sacred but in China the tea hour covers the waking hours of the day and night.

The military guards at the minister's office were as smart as their English counterparts in far-off Whitehall. The stamping of feet and the brisk salute would have delighted a sergeant-major anywhere.

Hardly had I been greeted by the minister, a tall imposing figure, when he burst into a monologue in which epigrams flew about in all directions. “We people here in-Taiwan are a sphinx without a riddle. What is the size of our army? How many divisions have we? I cannot tell you how many divisions because it is a military secret, but ask any boy on the streets and he will tell you.”

Then he moved from military to civilian problems. “In China collectivism does not work. That is what the Communists should have known. Communism is against the Chinese character. Common sense is not necessarily the highest wisdom.”

Feeling that it was time for me to say something I asked him to give me an appraisal of the existing situation. He raised his hand as if to command silence from an unseen audience. “This situation,” he said solemnly, “is a mixture of Greek tragedy and Thomas Hardy.”

Soon we shall be going on to visit Japan, our ally in the first war and our enemy in the second. But the memories of Formosa will linger and refuse to depart.

Sometime, somehow, Í shall return to Sun-Moon Lake where we spent a weekend, if only to see again the silver light of the moon upon the water and the majesty of the sun as it rises over the mountain tops.

There is trouble in paradise, deep trouble. A happy people, harming no one and threatening no one, have claimed the right to live. But does it really matter to us if they are put to the sword or driven out as refugees?

That is the question which the free world must answer or forever hold its peace. ★