Mme Chiang, dragon lady of Taiwan, dies in New York at 106

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The Independent US

Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who helped her husband rule China before the couple fled to Taiwan, has died at her home in New York. She was 106 and suffering from pneumonia.

She was taken ill last week and died on Thursday. Chiang Fang Chih-yi, a relative in Taiwan, said that Mme Chiang had been in good health until she caught a cold. She said that she died "very peacefully".

Once considered one of the world's most glamorous couples, Mme Chiang and Chiang Kai-shek, then President, were forced out of mainland China by the Communists in 1949. Their establishment of an alternative Chinese state in Taiwan created political problems, the repercussions of which are still being dealt with today.

For many years, the charming and US-educated Mme Chiang, whose maiden name was Soong Mei-ling, acted as her husband's most senior diplomat. Her father, Charles Soong, was educated as a Christian missionary at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and Mme Chiang once said that her only Oriental characteristic was her face.

During the Second World War, with much of China occupied by the Japanese, Mme Chiang used her diplomatic skills and her understanding of the West to appeal to the US to help her husband's Nationalist government.

Her appearance before the US Congress in 1943 impressed politicians.

Yesterday in Taiwan, television stations played grainy black-and-white footage of her speech. "I can also assure you that China is eager and ready to co-operate with you and other peoples to lay a true and lasting foundation for a sane and progressive world society," she said.

Washington responded but there was less willingness five years later when she returned to ask for US help in a civil war against Communist forces.

It was the Nationalists' defeat that forced President Chiang to retreat to the island of Taiwan, 100 miles off the coast, where he ruled, ever watchful of the threat of invasion and constantly harbouring ambitions of reuniting the two Chinese states.

President Chiang was a harsh and autocratic ruler, known for jailing dissidents. He was opposed to democratic reform, which only happened in Taiwan after his death in 1975.

Yesterday, Nationalist Party politicians in Taiwan said that Mme Chiang was "beloved by the people of Taiwan". But there were also many that remembered the rule of her husband as a dark time and condemned "the dragon lady", as she was known, for supporting him.

Mark Hwang, 39, a motorcycle salesman from Taipei, said: "She was part of an era I don't want to remember. Taiwan was not a democracy then."Malcolm Wang, 44, a teacher, said: "Some admire Mme Chiang and her husband as the people who saved China from the Japanese. But others remember the corruption and repression under the Chiangs in Taiwan in the 1950s, and they will not have any regrets about Mme Chiang's death."

Three years before President Chiang's death, control of the Nationalist government was passed to one of his sons from a previous marriage. When he died, Mme Chiang moved to the US.

She had no children of her own and her relationship with her stepson was strained. She rarely appeared in public and last visited Taiwan in 1995.

By then, America's relationship with Taiwan had become something of a diplomatic juggling act.

In 1979 Jimmy Carter formally recognised the Communist People's Republic of China and severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan, as part of a "one China" policy.

While that remains America's formal position today, Washington has made clear its willingness to defend Taiwan against aggression from Beijing.

In April 2001, having angered Beijing by agreeing a multimillion-dollar arms deal with Taiwan, President George Bush said that he would use the "full force of American military [to help] Taiwan defend herself".

He urged Taiwan not to formally declare independence. He said: "I certainly hope Taiwan adheres to the 'one China' policy, and a declaration of independence is not the 'one China' policy. We'll work with Taiwan to make sure that that doesn't happen."

In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry referred all questions about Mme Chiang's death to its Taiwan Affairs Office, which declined to comment.

The Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua reported her death with a brief dispatch: "Mme Chiang Kai-shek died on Thursday night in New York."

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