Everyone knows that Chiang Kai-shek lost the Chinese Civil War. What The Economist presupposes is:
China’s spectacular rise in the past three decades has helped the Communists parry suggestions that the country would have been better off without Mao. But it may well have been. Chiang’s army fled to the island of Taiwan, which prospered. Mao’s China suffered economic ruin before Deng Xiaoping eventually began to turn its fortunes around in the late 1970s. Had China’s economy grown at the same pace as Taiwan’s since 1950, its GDP would have been 42% bigger by 2010 than it actually was. In other words, it might have achieved its growth miracle plus another one about the size of France’s economy.
Chiang would have remained in charge of a corrupt, autocratic government with a brutal secret police. His Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT), would have faced discontent among the rural poor who formed the bulwark of Mao’s forces. However, Chiang’s brand of authoritarianism may have proved a softer one than Mao’s. There would have been no killings of millions of landlords purely on ideological grounds, and no Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, which caused a famine that killed tens of millions. Unlike Mao, he would not have wiped out private enterprise and forced peasants to surrender their land to “People’s Communes”, a policy that exacerbated the famine and that—though long since officially repudiated—still plagues the development of China’s countryside. Neither would Chiang have plunged China into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, during which millions more were killed or persecuted. [Source]
At Foreign Policy, Robert Kaplan argues: what if he didn’t lose?
Upon his retreat to Taiwan in 1949, Chiang reorganized his party to stress enlightened authoritarianism: dictatorship plus good, responsive governance. He promulgated a wide-ranging land reform program, emphasizing a sharp reduction in rural rents. Chiang’s land reform contrasted with Mao’s revolutionary land confiscations that led to over a million deaths in the early 1950s alone. This period really demonstrated the vast gulf between Mao’s utopian Marxist-Leninist precepts and Chiang’s Confucianist ones: rarely was the chasm wider between one form of dictatorship and another.
Taiwan’s path from that point forward was toward prosperity and eventual democracy. Meanwhile, China today becomes increasingly less autocratic (albeit in fits and starts) and increasingly less centralized, having long ago discarded Mao’s Marxist-Leninism in all but name. If China continues in this direction, even as it forges closer economic and cultural ties with Taiwan, Chiang will turn out to be a more important historical figure than Mao. While the regime in Beijing may dial up nationalism — with a nod to Mao — as a response to increasing economic disarray, the larger narrative is one of Chinese civilization devolving into informal geographical regions, with Taiwan providing the superior working model. [Source]
Mao-era Party member Sidney Rittenberg discussed some factors behind Chiang’s real-world defeat in a recent interview at War Is Boring. Other scenarios examined in The Economist’s “The World If” supplement include the rise of the yuan, Chinese economic expansion into Siberia following the disintegration of Russia, and the fruition of plans for a Sino-Nicaraguan rival to the Panama Canal.