Ending ‘Imperial’ Taiwan

Demos Chiang, 34, is the founderand chairman of DEM Inc, a design firm that he established in 2003, withoffices in Taipei and Shanghai. The biography on his website doesn’t evenmention the fact that he is the grandson of Chiang Ching-kuo, the president ofTaiwan from 1978-88, and the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek.

That is because Chiang Ching-kuo tooka remarkable step in 1985, becoming one of the few leaders anywhere to voluntarilyend a dynasty and a dictatorship. After Ching-kuo’s death in January 1988, Demos’father Hsaio-yung immigrated with the family to Canada. Demoswent on to study finance at the Stern School of Business, New York University,and design management at Parsons the New School for Design in New York. He is Ching-kuo’s best known grandson,thanks to his good looks and the success of his design company.

But neither he nor any of the othergrandchildren plays any role in politics in Taiwan, nor do they want to.

Many Taiwanese expected ChiangChing-kuo to continue the family dynasty into the third generation by choosingone of the three sons by his Russian wife to succeed him. He also had two sonsby a mistress in mainland China in 1942 but they were not recognized by thefamily.

Demos grew up in this “imperial”household, he says, constantly accompanied by two bodyguards. In a book, hedescribed the weekly lunch with his grandfather – the children waited for theirparents to pick up their chopsticks first and ate but did not speak: they couldnot leave their hands on the table, had to finish all their food and ask forpermission to leave.

But in August 1985, Ching-kuo toldTime magazine: “the next leader of the Republic of China will be chosenaccording to the constitution. I never considered that he would be a member ofthe Chiang family.”

After his grandfather’s death,Demos and his family moved to Montreal. “When I was growing up, it was like adream, as if I was holding Aladdin’s lamp,” Demos said. “Whatever I wantedwould come to pass. Everywhere I went was arranged in advance. But one day,when we arrived in Montreal, the lamp went out and everything disappeared.”

They were no longer “royal” but anordinary family. Relieved of this burden, his father became more relaxed, lessstrict and closer to his children.

Behind Ching-kuo’s decision werefactors both political and personal. The country he governed had developed withextraordinary speed in terms of economy, education and civil society. He realizedhe could no longer govern it with a small elite from the mainland but had toembrace democracy.

“It is rare for a dictator to makehis country democratic,” said Ye Chunlin, a teacher in Taipei. “Chiang made twoenormous contributions to Taiwan. One was to lay the foundation for the ‘economicmiracle’ of the 1980s and the other to create a democratic system in which thepeople could choose their ruler. He lifted martial law and the ban on politicalparties and non-official media.

“Both the Kuomintang and theDemocratic Progressive Party agree on the value of this contribution – theyrarely agree on anything else,” he said.

In reality, none of Chiang’s sonswas a suitable candidate to lead. The oldest, Hsiao-wen, born in 1935, was an idle student who became aheavy drinker. After one drinking bout, his blood sugar fell to a dangerouslylow level and he lost consciousness. He suffered brain damage and thereafter was unable to concentrate forlong periods.

Disappointed, Chiang put his hopeson his second son, Hsiao-wu, considered the most likely successor, sending himto work in intelligence, one of the main routes to the leadership.

But Hsiao-wu’s career was torpedoedby the assassination in California in October 1984 of Henry Liu, a Taiwanjournalist who had written an unauthorized biography of Chiang Ching-kuo. TheFBI discovered that Taiwan military intelligence had ordered the killing. Hsiao-wuwas implicated in the scandal, which caused an uproar in Taiwan.

Coming just five years afterWashington had broken official relations with Taipei, the assassination was adiplomatic disaster. Chiang had to allow FBI investigators into Taiwan tointerview suspects.

To assuage public anger, Chiang hadno alternative but to send Hsiao-wu to Singapore as the government’s commercialrepresentative; his implication ruled him out as a future national leader.

By the time their father died inJanuary 1988, the three children realized how much Taiwan had changed and thatthe society would not accept a third generation of the family as leader.

Before Demos and his family left,they went to see Song Mei-ling, then 90, the widow of Chiang Kai-shek, and seekher advice. “Yes, you should leave,” she said. “I completely support you. Butremember two things – do not forget that you are a Chiang and do not forgetthat you are a Chinese.”

Despite her fame and manyconnections in the Kuomintang, Song herself could not prosper in the new era ofdemocratic politics. After Ching-kuo’s death, she was out-maneuvered by newpresident Lee Teng-hui. She returned to her 15-hectare estate in Long Island,New York and made her last visit to Taiwan in 1995.

Ching-kuo’s three sons died young —Demos’ father in 1996 of esophageal cancer at 48 and his two uncles, in 1989and 1991, aged 53 and 46, respectively. Some Taiwan people saw the hand ofdestiny – a punishment for the sins of Chiang Kai-shek and a way to preventfamily succession.

In his later years, Ching-kuostrove not to live in an “imperial” way, according to The Late Years of ChiangChing-kuo by Zhang Zuyi, which was published in 2009.

After ordering several suits duringforeign trips in 1969 and 1970, Ching-kuo bought no new ones. He did not buybrand-name goods and went for a smart but simple look, Zhang said. In food, hekept to a simple diet, in part because of the diabetes he had suffered fordecades.

For the last 20 years of his life,he chose to live in what had been a guest house for US officers in northernTaipei, with ordinary furniture brought from a previous house. He did not allowhis staff to call it the “official mansion.”

Chiang was a model for the currentpresident Ma Ying-jeou, who had served as his secretary and English interpreter;he also does not refer to hisresidence as an official mansion and once served a large delegation of Japanesevisitors simple lunchboxes.