Saturday, January 14, 2006

KMT Cult: Theology, Charisma, Discipleship

Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? -- I Corinthians 9:1

I blogged a few days ago on the possibility that James Soong might really run for mayor of Taipei in 2006, and what that might mean for the DPP......

James Soong, whose ill-advised attempt to become President in 2000 cost the pro-China parties the Presidency, is at it again. Soong is said to be seriously considering a run at the mayor of Taipei in 2006. The pro-Green Taipei Times has the call:

Today the English papers are full of the news about the Chiang legacy. From the pro-KMT China Post:

Opposition Kuomintang (KMT) Legislator John Chiang, a son of the late President Chiang Ching-kuo, yesterday said he has decided to run in the year-end Taipei mayoral race.

The lawmaker made the revelation while visiting his father's mausoleum in Touliao, Taiyuan County, on the 18th anniversary of the late president's death.

Chiang, who was born out of wedlock to the late president, said he was motivated to join the race by a desire to follow his father's legacy of diligence and compassion to the people.

For those of you who do not know, Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, headed up his father's security apparatus and sent many a Taiwanese to an early grave or exile. "Compassion to the people," indeed. He often credited with the technology-intensive industrial growth of the 1980s.

The scene at the mausoleum of Chiang was not without its comic moments, including Ma Ying-jeou in tears:

KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Soong also paid their respects to the late president yesterday.

While a tearful Ma, who served as Chiang Ching-kuo's English translator, pledged to carry out the late Chiang's wish to be a politician with integrity, Soong called himself a follower of Chiang Ching-kuo, who Soong said was a tireless servant of the people in Taiwan during his term as the governor of Taiwan Province.

Tears of Ma notwithstanding, the truly arresting remark here is Soong's comment about Chiang Ching-kuo, whom he calls himself a "follower" of (a point he has made before, and often).

The Chiang legacy has a strongly and blatantly religious appeal to the mainlanders. Essentially, KMT policy toward China began as a political policy, and as the possibility of taking back China receded into history, it ended up as a theology, a highly detailed fantasy whose collection of myths and understandings of history helps organize the sociopolitical identities of the local mainlander population. Robert Price, a maverick New Testament scholar, has analyzed what is going between John Chiang and James Soong in another context:

"Sometimes the death of the founder of a religious community eventuates in a succession dispute: who has the right to succeed him as pontiff of the faithful? The successor may be entitled to the same degree of authority the founder had, or it may be a delegated, lesser authority, that of a vicar or caretaker. In either case, it is not unusual for conflict to emerge between partisans of the founder's relatives on the one hand, and of his disciples on the other. It is one of the messiest aspects of what Max Weber has called "the routinization of charisma," whereby the followers of a charismatic founder have to do the best they can to hold things together after the death of the leader. He was a tough act to follow, and no one can quite fill his shoes, so no one particular effort to claim to do so passes unchallenged.[1]"

Price then goes on to point out that it is routine for a nascent cult to fission into two groups, those who choose to believe that the charisma resided with the family, and those who choose to believe it followed the faithful disciples. In Islam, the split over who got the Caliphate, Ali (his adopted son and cousin), or Abu Bekr, Umar, and Uthman (his Companions), has given us Shi'a Islam and Sunni Islam, respectively. Similarly, the Baha'i faith split when the Bab (the Gate) was executed in 1847. The Azalis said that the Bab had designated a brother to follow him, but in 1853 a rival prophet, Bah'a'ullah, declared himself the successor to the Bab and won over the majority of the Baha'is, who remain split. Again, when Joseph Smith died Mormonism divided over whether the Twelve or a family member should succeed him. The better-known Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints remained faithful to the Twelve, while the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints followed the prophet's progeny. A last example is the American Muslim religion, which, on the death of Elijah Muhammed, passed into the hands of his son, who promptly moved the religion towards Sunni Islam. This angered many followers, and an early disciple of Elijah Muhammed named Louis Farrakhan led a schism to return the religion to its old ways. The result is that there are two American Muslim groups, the American Muslim Mission, and the Nation of Islam.

The mainlander political identity is now in a long transition through a similar identity crisis. It is often observed by more cynical observers, such as myself and the Taipei Times, that the KMT is a rickety coalition held together by flows of cash. That is essentially true. However, the mainlanders themselves, for whom the KMT is simply both the vessel and political manifestation of that identity (just as the Catholic Church became both the vessel and political manifestation of the early Christian identity), have a more complex identity than mere money flows, built around ideas like the glorification and idealization of China (and denigration of Taiwan), and of course, the Theology of Return (along with the practicalities of power).

When people speak of "the Chiang legacy" and who best to carry it forward, they are really speaking of this Theology of Return and its attendent theological constructions. Soong and Chiang are manifesting an age-old cult behavior, spearheading rival possibilities within the mainlander political identity. Soong appeals to the mainlanders by positioning himself as the disciple of the Chiang legacy (despite being a splittist who founded his own party), while Chiang plays up his membership in the family, an implicit argument that the charisma has descended to him (despite being illegitimate).

This leaves us with Mayor Ma of Taipei, for whom the KMT really is only a rickety coalition of ethnic minorities, watered by money flows, and intended solely to vault him into the Presidency. Ma is like one of the Medici Popes, for whom the Church was simply an institution that brought wealth and power, and whose theology was a convenience to be ordered to that end. Let us not forget that Ma is pushing his own candidate, Ou Chin-der (歐晉德), in the Taipei Mayor election. Ma has widespread support, especially among young mainlanders for whom the theology of return means going to work in China to make lots of money. Suppressing the Chiang legacy to put his own man forward will be a real test of Ma's authority and political skill.

It will also force mainlanders to ask themselves: what is the KMT? Requiem has not yet been sung for the Theology of Return, and a few embers of charisma still cling to the Chiang legacy like flourescing lures on a deep-sea carnivore. While many correctly view the 2006 elections as a test of whether the DPP can hold its own, if Soong, Chiang, and a handpicked man of Taipei Mayor and KMT Chairman Ma all run against each other, they should also be seen as a referendum on what it means to be a mainlander in Taiwan two decades after the Chiangs have passed into history.

[1] Price, Robert. 2003. The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. Amherst, NY: Prometheus. p81

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