Hailed as the most popular writer of Chinese swordfighting novels, he was born in Zhejiang Province in 1924. Those of us who grew up watching Chinese swordfighting dramas would not find Jin Yong (Louis Cha) unfamiliar. He was the author of many wuxia novels like 書劍恩仇錄, 射鵰英雄傳, 神鵰俠侶, 倚天屠龍記, 天龍八部, 笑傲江湖, 鹿鼎記 which were serialised in a HK-based newspaper run by Mr Cha himself – Ming Pao. You can read more about his life and works here.
Those who only read his novels may not realise that Jin Yong was also a socio-political commentator. The book above (which I borrowed from the library) is a collection of his many essays and socio-political articles. Those who are only familiar with his pulp fiction will surprised by Jin Yong’s depth and breath of knowledge in history and politics, both Asian and Western.
I find his report on his 10-day visit to Taiwan (his first visit in 1973) most interesting. It was his first visit to the “renegade province”, having avoided Taiwan as prior to his founding of Ming Pao in 1959, he was pro-China. Unlike most of us, Jin Yong was a VIP in Taiwan and he had the opportunity to meet up and chat with folks at the helm including Taiwan’s president Chiang Ching Kuo. Even though his visit only lasted 10 days, he met up with all the “key personnel” and was therefore able to make such a detailed analysis. The English summary (and my remarks) are as follows.
At that time, mainland China offered to hold peace talks with Taiwanese leaders. The offer was flatly rejected by the latter. The reason given was that agreeing to peace talks would be tantamount to surrender and they believed they had every right to make that call because it’s not that the KMT had never tried to work together with the CCP. They revealed that even as they were calling for peace talks in public, they were carrying out subversive activities in secrecy. KMT leaders could boast that nobody in the world understood the CCP better than they did. Of course, it would benefit the PRC most if Taiwan surrendered without a fight. They did not rule out the possibility of holding peace talks with the PRC in future, but the prerequisite was that PRC’s political system had to be very different from what it was then. Nevertheless, there were some who were keen on these talks. They might not have the interests of Taiwan at heart as we shall see in a moment.
In 1971, the PRC was recognised as a member of the United Nations. At the same time, the Republic of China (founded in 1911, joined UN in 1945) was ousted. Taiwan became isolated. When Jin Yong asked the leaders what they could do, they replied that they could only try their best to build a stronger relationship with the US through informal channels. In spite of Taiwan’s loss of UN membership, Canada sold nuclear reactors to Taiwan and trade between Taiwan and Canada doubled in volume even though they had no diplomatic ties with Canada.
When Japan formally established diplomatic ties with the PRC, Chiang Ching Kuo predicted that the Japanese would be disappointed. Japan’s special envoy to Taiwan privately admitted that dealings with the PRC were indeed problematic.
Why did Taiwan not declare independence earlier? The leaders gave three main reasons.
- They did not want to disappoint their supporters on the mainland. By declaring independence, they would be abandoning those supporters.
- Most countries would not be inclined to recognise Taiwan as an independent country. It would have made little difference on the diplomatic front.
- Taiwan would run the risk of being invaded by the PRC.
By then, Taiwanese leaders had acknowledged the impossibility of recovering territories on the mainland. KMT leaders were still hopeful that the regime or political ideology on the mainland would evolve and become more democratic. KMT leaders acknowledged that they had made many mistakes governing the Republic of China. They would learn from these mistakes and if the CCP made even bigger mistakes in future, mainlanders might prefer a government like Taiwan’s. While it was pointless to talk about the KMT making a comeback on the mainland, Taiwanese leaders were only aiming to safeguard the Taiwanese way of life which differed greatly from that of the mainland.
Taiwan’s leaders told Jin Yong that they were confident that the PRC would not invade them soon after they have been taught a lesson in 1958 when many PRC fighter jets were lost in Taiwanese airspace thanks to Taiwan’s air defence missiles. As military technology advanced in Taiwan, the threat of invasion was greatly diminished. Interestingly, Jin Yong found that the Taiwanese believed that the PRC would never use nuclear weapons against them. Likewise, the Taiwanese had no plans to make nuclear weapons but they did harness nuclear energy to power their industries.
Taiwanese leaders declared that democracy was their ultimate goal. How far were they from that goal? Jin Yong highlighted a technical issue with the leader of Taiwan being called “president” because he has not been chosen by the rest of China. Jin Yong felt that he ought to be called “KMT chairman” instead.
Another issue was the lack of freedom of the press. No newspaper in Taiwan would get away with criticising the Chiang family. However, even though journalism was still pretty much shackled in Taiwan compared to the US, UK and HK, Taiwanese people already had easy access to world news. Only local news concerning high level officials and communist propaganda were censored.
The independence of the judiciary in Taiwan at that time was also wanting. Besides that, there were overseas travel restrictions, prohibition of protests, demonstrations and the unlimited powers of the police to search, arrest and detain. Basic human rights issues were played out on a daily basis.
The Taiwanese leaders had two trump cards over the CCP. One was the popular support which most mainlanders did not give the CCP. The other was the Taiwanese economy. The communist ideology of putting the strength of the country before the welfare of the people was not popular. Citizens on both sides wanted a higher standard of living.
However, for thousands of years, Chinese people had tolerated oppressive treatment from the ruling class. While those who had a taste of freedom overseas probably wouldn’t want to go back, Jin Yong noted that some Western scholars believed that submitting to dictatorship and authoritarian rule had already been deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. He considered this as an insult to the Chinese people, making them look pathetically subservient. If Jin Yong’s were still around today, he might be surprised to see the ideological slavery that is evident on 抖音. Perhaps as a man of letters, Jin Yong could not accurately grasp the mindset of the average peasant.
To win the hearts from the CCP, greater democracy and freedom than the PRC were not enough. They must measure up to the West. One Taiwanese leader told Jin Yong that many of the restrictions faced by Taiwanese people in the beginning could be relaxed without compromising “national” security. Jin Yong quipped that a reasonable clean environment would be far more conducive for good health and building resistance than a thoroughly disinfected one.
Jin Yong observed that Taiwan had made progress. Government critics had successfully appealed against persecution. Apart from criminals and tax evaders, no free country should prevent its citizens from travelling abroad. Taiwan was still not a democracy in the 1970s, but Jin Yong observed that it had taken a number of steps in that direction.
The Taiwan that Jin Yong saw had been focusing on its economy. They began by shipping fruits like mangoes and pineapples to Japan. From the 1970s, they ventured into manufacturing, gradually moving from labour intensive to capital intensive industries. Only then could they increase workers’ wages. And they were doing well against all odds. Even the US did not expect Taiwan to survive.
When Jin Yong visited, he noticed that the average Taiwanese family could afford a TV set and a motorbike. Most houses had very simple furnishings. Jin Yong attributed the fall of the KMT on the mainland to its failure to manage the economy. Inflation had spiraled out of control. In Taiwan, they had their own currency which was very stable and inflation was well under control. They had learned from their mistakes. In terms of the ease of doing business, Jin Yong felt that Taiwan was still way behind HK. Inequality was also a problem. The leaders recognised ensuring equality would involve too much micromanagement. The most practical means to tackle the issue was to ensure equal opportunity for every citizen.
Land reforms in Taiwan
In collaboration with the US government, the Taiwanese government launched revolutionary land reforms in Taiwan starting as early as the 1950s. Some of the features of this exercise were:
- Imposing limits on rental income, capped at 37.5% of yields.
- Government taking over privately owned land by issuing bonds to landowners
- Selling land acquired from landlords to farmers who were allowed to pay by installments.
- Redrawing the boundaries for urban and rural areas.
After the scheme took off, 90% of Taiwanese farmers owned the land they farmed. Landlord exploitation gradually died down and productivity rose sharply. As in mainland China, some indigenous landlords opposed the reforms, but the majority of the biggest landowners were the Japanese. The Taiwanese government put them in jail instead of killing them like the CCP did in their land reforms.
Leaders Jin Yong talked to regretted not implementing these reforms when they were running the country on the mainland. Their scheme would have been much better received than the communist way. River systems were very different in Taiwan compared to the mainland. Given that the greater part of most rivers ran in the mountains, they were not only unnavigable on most of their lengths, there was a need to build dams and provide adequate storage to safeguard agriculture. Taiwanese leaders had wisely invested in dams and reservoirs. Oil refining was also an important industry in Taiwan. Their retired military officers took over many state-owned enterprises and they prospered.
Jin Yong said that he was not against socialism but he strongly opposed authoritarian rule, class struggle, absolute faith in government. He believed that a free market economy would always be better than a controlled, managed economy. However, many unabashedly capitalist economies had adopted socialist ideals and welfare.
Communist propaganda during those days claimed that Taiwanese people were oppressed by their corrupt, ineffectual government. That was indeed an accurate description of the KMT while it was the government on the mainland. Jin Yong believed that even the communist party could do something good after the Cultural Revolution. Not all mainlanders were dissatisfied with the CCP. Most of them were not demanding, not having been exposed to the outside world. As the PRC recovered from its famine-stricken years, the people were even thankful to the Party.
Conscription ensured that Taiwan would have a credible defence force to deter an invasion from the PRC. Jin Yong observed that there were two clearly distinguishable “tribes” in Taiwan. One was the Taiwanese natives and the other was the former mainlanders. While all the soldiers were young men born in Taiwan, senior officers who had to be experienced, were almost entirely former mainlanders. The same went with academics. University professors were mostly former mainlanders and they formed the most prominent group rallying for peace talks. This may result in division as most native Taiwanese would find unification quite meaningless. The one thing that both groups shared was their opposition to communism.
Jin Yong asked if Taiwanese leaders had ever considered a military alliance with the Soviet Union. The answer was an emphatic no. Firstly, they were against communism and secondly, they wanted to protect the Chinese way of life. Taiwanese leaders were also optimistic that the free world would not sit and watch them get destroyed. Already, Taiwan was getting a lot of investments and support from overseas Chinese. Having never been colonised by the British or by communism, Taiwan preserved many of the positive as well as negative aspects of Chinese culture and traditions.
It was his first trip to Taiwan but Jin Yong observed that compared to their cousins on the mainland and in HK, Taiwanese were friendly people. In fact, he felt that the friendliness and hospitality of the Taiwanese people were more genuine than that of the cold and rigid Japanese. The only rude and arrogant people Jin Yong encountered in Taiwan were low level civil servants.
However, he also noticed that Taiwanese people lacked a sense of urgency, moving a lot slower than people in HK. Laws in Taiwan were also a lot stricter than those in HK. He found Taiwanese to be more flexible, forgiving, compassionate and not as pragmatic as people in HK. On the downside, traffic on Taiwanese roads was horrendous and driving habits were bad.
With Jin Yong, Taiwanese leaders referred to mainland leaders as 共产党. Among themselves, he overheard the Taiwanese calling them 共匪. On the mainland, communist leaders would refer to Taiwanese leaders as 蒋匪. Taiwan had its own propaganda department which would periodically dispatch balloons bearing messages from the Taiwanese government across the Straits. They also had a research team monitoring developments on the mainland and advising the government on how to deal with government there.
Mao Zedong had declared that he would never wage a war without being confident of victory. Jin Yong believed that Taiwan would be gone if the KMT ever messed up. Of course back then, he did not know that Taiwan would eventually develop into a multi-party democracy doing fine with the KMT in the opposition. Anyway, Jin Yong predicted that there were a few conditions that would herald an invasion by the PRC.
- CCP establishes a strong hold over the entire territory with a powerful leader.
- The Soviet Union becomes an ally of China and no longer poses a threat.
- America promises not to intervene.
- KMT government fails resulting in crippling internal conflict in Taiwan.
Some of the conditions Jin Yong laid out had already been satisfied. Obviously, Taiwan could not control what happens in the mainland and their relationship with the USSR. But does Taiwan stand any chance of surviving an invasion? Their optimism is reflected in liberal use of the word 莒 in naming buildings, trains etc. It comes from the reminder 勿忘在莒 – don’t forget that we are in Ju. To explain this, we need to go back in Chinese history during the period of the Warring States.
Ju was a city that the state of Qi 齐国 had managed to defend after practically all the cities had been conquered by the state of Yan 燕国, its army led by General Yue Yi 乐毅. The situation seemed hopeless for Qi but Qi general Tian Dan 田单 managed to fight back and recovered lost territories. This was a reminder to Taiwanese that it’s possible for them to become masters of China.
However, Jin Yong also mentioned the conditions for Qi’s seemingly miraculous victory over Yan. Qi lost the battle initially because the people were losing their trust in a callous ruler who exploited and tormented them. Tian Dan did not retaliate immediately. He timed his counter offensive at a time when there was a change of leadership at Qi and Yan. In Qi, a wise and benevolent ruler loved by all the citizens took over at the helm. Unfortunately, the new ruler at Yan was a suspicious character. He dismissed General Yue Yi and replaced him with inept commanders. Tian Dan saw his opportunity and fought back.
On the mainland, the KMT had completely messed up, giving the CCP an opportunity. If China had invaded Taiwan back then, they would have the advantage of an uncooperative people. By the 1970s, the CCP under Mao had made many serious mistakes while Taiwan grew from strength to strength with guidance and assistance from the US.
The PRC could try to legitimise their invasion by claiming that they are liberating Taiwan but in order for “liberation” to be meaningful, the people to be liberated must have been suffering before that. If their lives were not improved by this “liberation”, then the invasion would lack legitimacy. Jin Yong believed that if the KMT messed up again, the PLA could just breeze through Taiwan – without knowledge of the current political system in Taiwan where the KMT could get voted out and the bureaucracy still works.
Like most reasonable people, Jin Yong wished for peaceful unification – with the prerequisite that the PRC embraces democracy with freedom of the press, lifting of travel restrictions, freedom of religious beliefs, property rights and human rights.
Considering the fact that Jin Yong wrote all this in 1973, his insights back then are truly remarkable. Nevertheless, we should also take note of the times when Jin Yong was wrong. When he was working for Da Gong Bao in China, he was pro-communist, anti-West and did not hate the CCP even though he own father was persecuted. He later became very disappointed with the CCP and started a Rightist newspaper Ming Pao which was often sabotaged and even faced attacks from pro-communist terrorists. It was the British government that protected his freedom to publish.
When Deng Xiaoping took over, Jin Yong became optimistic about China again. He participated enthusiastically in the committee drafting Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The Basic Law was to ensure HK autonomy (one country two systems) after 1997 but Jin Yong had often been criticised for being too obliging towards Beijing. The Tiananmen incident would change his mind completely, causing him to swing back to his rightist position. He resigned from the committee drafting HK Basic Law. Below is a rare video of Jin Yong feeling shocked and emotional after the Tiananmen massacre.
Jin Yong was a multi-talented genius, but like many people, he was not immune to misjudgement and flip flopping. Jin Yong remained hopeful of changes in China, but his dream of retiring in his hometown of Hangzhou, Zhejiang would never come true. He died on 30 October 2018 in Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital.
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