BOOK REVIEW: China's Russian Princess

The Silent Wife of Chiang Ching-kuo, by Mark O’Neill. Joint Publishing Company, Hong Kong. Paperback, 240 pp. HK$138/ NT$620

Chiang Ching-kuo is one of the least remembered modern Asian leaders. But though he lived much of his life in the shadow of his father, Chiang Kai-shek, he deserves a better press. As president of the Republic of China on Taiwan from 1975 to 1988, he opened the road to democracy and to the government by the Taiwanese.

Even less remembered is his Russian wife Faina Ipatevna Vakhreva, the quiet spouse always overshadowed by Kai-shek’s widow, the formidable Soong Mei-ling, but who was with him through thick and thin.

Outside Taiwan, the remarkable story of this couple is little known, but this short and easy-to-read book by Mark O’Neill a journalist and author who for decades has been resident in the Chinese world, makes an entertaining and instructive journey through fifty years of history as well as of family.

Perhaps most forgotten is how and why Ching-kuo came to be working in the same machine workshop in Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg till 1924 and since 1991) as a 19-year-old orphan from Orsha, now in Belarus and then in the far west of the Russian empire.

Ching-kuo went to Moscow at the age of 15 to study at the Sun Yat-sen University recently set up there under Communist Party auspices. He was more than willing to go and his father had been impressed by the new Soviet state when he had visited in 1923 to ask for military supplies. But the young idealist who learned Russian and adapted very well to the country was to find himself a hostage to Soviet-Kai-shek relations and the ideological prejudices of a contemporary at the Sun Yat Sen university who had become the Chinese Communist Party representative in Moscow.

From a steady job in the Dynamo Electric Plant in Moscow, he was despatched to a collective farm and then to a gulag in the Altai region near Mongolia and now Kazakh borders. (Wang Ming went on to have his own roller-coaster career, helping create the United Front with the KMT which flourished briefly in 1936 before falling out with Mao in 1941 holding minor jobs and dying in Moscow in 1974 after writing denunciations of the Chinese Communist Party).

Ching-kuo was allowed to return from Altai to a responsible machine shop job at the new Ural Heavy Machinery Factory, where he met and married Faina and for a while lived an ordinary Russian life with her till Stalin’s Great Terror of 1936/37. Suspicion of foreigners saw Ching-kuo dismissed and in fear of arrest and execution. Fate in the form of the Xian incident when Kai-shek was captured saved him. Stalin was desperate for a united front against Japan and Kai-shek made Ching-kuo’s return to China part of a deal to work with the Communists.

Ching-kuo had become almost Russian. Now it was Faina’s turn to become Chinese, learning a Ningpo-accented language and acquiring the name Chiang Fang-liang – and gaining the approval of Madame Chiang. For five years they lived a relatively quiet life away from the war with Japan with Ching-kuo as Commissioner of Ganzhou prefecture in southern Jianxi. She played mah-jong and brought up their three sons and a daughter. Their marriage survived his fathering of other children with two women. It was only when forced by the Japanese advance that they moved to Chongqing and Ching-kuo began to work with his father, earning his respect and trust through the difficult years which ended with their flight from Chengdu to Taiwan in 1949 where the family was already living.

In Taipei, Faina stayed very much in the background, but did learn English to help communicate with the Americans and other foreigners. She also had to manage two difficult sons and their relationship with their father. Ching-kuo meanwhile was a loyal executor of his father’s policies, enforcing marital law and overseeing the arrest and sometimes execution of those suspected of being Communists or favouring Taiwanese independence, but keeping his distance from the business.

But on the death of Kai-shek in 1975, Ching-kuo’s own more accommodating character, influenced perhaps by his memories of the Soviet Union and his own incapacity due to diabetes, gradually asserted itself. Hence the rush of liberalization in his last year and the appointment of Taiwanese Lee Teng-hui as his heir apparent in the face of opposition from Madame Chiang and the KMT old guard.

He might not have survived as long he did but for Faina’s constant attention. But his death was not the end of her sorrows. Her three sons were all to die of cancers before her own death in 1994, a tragic ending to the life of resourceful and modest women. It is a moving tale well-told and illustrated by many photos, including delightful ones of the Chiang family, from the presidential archives in Taipei.