Period Of Instability
The 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen failed to establish a stable order in the following decades owing to rivalries among its leaders, the presence of powerful warlords in various parts of the country, a civil war with Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the conflict with Japan. This combination of problems would have been daunting for even the wisest and most judicious of leaders, which General Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party (KMT) decidedly were not. Although there were pockets of modern economic development in Shanghai and elsewhere, the poverty of the countryside and chaotic conditions stemming from a highly unstable currency provided a ready source of discontent for the communists and others to exploit.
The Nationalists may not have been paragons of democratic virtue, but they were authoritarians rather than totalitarians like Mao. If British-ruled Hong Kong was the first polity in Chinese history where peaceable citizens could go to bed at night without worrying about the police knocking on the door a few hours later, the Republic of China in the 1920s and 1930s was the first Chinese state in which one could join political parties, take part in elections, read a free press, and bring a case before an independent judiciary. Veteran China-watcher Jasper Becker also notes that while there were only seven newspapers in China in 1911, there were 910 dailies and a similar number of other periodicals by 1935, as well as radio stations, film studios, and publishing houses.
Nationalists On Taiwan
By the time the KMT moved its headquarters from the mainland to Taiwan in 1949 after the conflict with Japan and the end of the Civil War, it already had a black mark against it for its behavior on that island, where Japanese rule had ended in 1945. On 28 February 1947, Chiang's troops killed perhaps 10,000 or even as many as 20,000 Taiwanese to crush an uprising to protest the harsh rule of the mainlanders.
The KMT ruled under martial law until 1987, when President Lee Teng-hui lifted it and began to free political prisoners. Taiwan's evolution toward democracy continued on to free parliamentary elections in 1995 and was complete by 2000, when the KMT lost power at the ballot box to Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who favors a Taiwanese identity distinct from that of China. By the end of the century, the authorities in Taipei had long acknowledged the 1947 massacre, and politics and the media had become both open and boisterous.
Taiwan under the KMT became one of the first "Asian tiger" countries that emerged from being essentially poor and rural to become prosperous modern economies and leaders in high-tech. Postwar Taiwan was free of the hyperinflation that plagued and weakened KMT rule on the mainland and benefited from a U.S.-sponsored land reform. It is obvious that the KMT with U.S. backing had an easier time in modernizing a tropical island whose population in 2005 was just over 22 million than the communists did on the vast mainland that is now home to 1.3 billion souls. But this does not alter the fact that Taiwan is a prosperous and dynamic country and the first democracy in Chinese history.
Self-Inflicted Damage On The Mainland
If the KMT pulled Taiwan up by its own bootstraps with some generous help from its Cold War allies, the communists' legacy on the mainland involved much self-inflicted damage. The latest biography of Mao -- entitled "Mao: The Unknown Story," by Jung Chang, Jon Halliday, and Jonathan Cape -- estimates the number of deaths he caused at 70 million, of which about 37 million were during the so-called Great Leap Forward from 1958-61, which has been called the world's greatest famine. Millions more died or had their lives ruined during the turmoil of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. And even after the CCP launched its economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping in 1978, that same leadership killed up to 5,000 of its own citizens in the center of the capital in June 1989 in order to maintain its hold on political power (see Was Andijon Uzbekistan's Tiananmen Square?).
The reform process was resumed in 1992, and the CCP now talks of "China's peaceful rise" to great-power status. Most foreign politicians and media have ended their post-1989 critical phase regarding China and have largely formed a chorus of admiration for what is widely touted as a record economic boom. But relations between the Chinese authorities and society today continue to be plagued by the contradiction inherent in promoting economic reforms and the "opening to the outside world" on the one hand and maintaining Leninist party rule on the other.
The CCP was not the only party in the area founded on the Bolshevik model. The KMT also sent its experts to Moscow in the 1920s, and Lenin dispatched instructors to teach at the Whampoa Military Academy under Chiang, whose son and later Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo spent some years in the Soviet Union. The KMT's history showed that the Leninist model was not forever.
Perhaps the greatest question facing China today is whether a modernizing society under the rule of a group of engineers who never studied abroad will be able to make the transition to democracy in the way that Taiwan and South Korea have, or whether it will remain a prisoner to the age-old Chinese tradition of top-down, non-transparent, and bureaucratic rule by a small elite over a largely rural population, to whom poverty is no stranger.