The death of Chiang Ching-kuo saddened the nation. Even people who opposed the Kuomintang often thought highly of the man. Wang Sheng would give the eulogy at his funeral. President Wang would be sworn in the same day as Chiang’s death. He promised to uphold the legacy of the late president. Wang Sheng was 72 years old, being only five years younger than his predecessor. Over the last six decades, only two and a half years interrupted continuous rule of China by the Chiang family. During that same time, China had exclusively been ruled by men from the same province (as Chiang Kai-shek’s predecessor Tan Yankai and successor Chen Lifu were both from Zhejiang). Wang Sheng was from Jiangxi, and was thus the first Chinese president not from Zhejiang since Zhang Zuolin’s assassination nearly 60 years earlier.
Wang Sheng had become president just a week before the legislative elections. The KMT underperformed expectations. KMT candidates won only 49% of the vote. With a divided opposition, they still won a majority in the Legislative Yuan (though the opposition parties did work together quite often to determine which districts they should a united front against the KMT in, and the KMT itself was divided in many places). The KMT would lose 28 seats, putting them at 410. Combined with the five seats won by the Tibet Improvement Party, the ruling coalition had 415 seats, or around 53.7%. The two main opposition parties, the China Democratic Socialist Party and the China Youth party, lost a few seats as well. The Liberal Party and the New Democratic League gained seats. The KMT also lost several gubernatorial races, including Hebei, Henan, Liaoning, and Taiwan among others.
Shortly after the elections, KMT delegates met to elect a new party leader. This put Wang in a similar situation as Chen Lifu in 1975. Wang Sheng was a different man than Chen Lifu. He had fewer friends, but he also had fewer enemies. While Chen was polarizing, the Chinese people were largely indifferent to Wang. There was an attempt to make Chiang Hsiao-wen, the eldest son of Chiang Ching-kuo, the leader of the Kuomintang. Over one quarter of the delegates backed Chiang. A few other delegates backed Premier Hau Pei-tsun. Wang Sheng was officially made the new leader of the KMT in February 1988 with around 70% of the vote, which was the amount of support that Chiang Ching-kuo had back in 1975. Wang hoped this meant that he would face little inter-party opposition in the next presidential election in just a little more than two years.
In the early months of Wang’s presidency, the Soviet Civil War entered its final phase. Communist governments in Eastern Europe were collapsing, but so were the anti-coup forces. This meant that thousands of Soviet citizens would pour into China seeking refuge from the return of Stalinism. Included among them were government officials, who were sent to Stockholm to join the government in exile. A vote in the legislative Yuan to recognize the Soviet government in exile as the legitimate government of the USSR failed 291-482. China congratulated the people of Hungary and Poland, and later Afghanistan, for winning their freedom. Wang Sheng also voiced his enthusiastic support for German reunification. At the same time, he continued Chinese support of Communist governments in Romania and Yugoslavia.
China had already surpassed the Soviet Union in power, and the USSR continued to fall even further behind economically. But the Soviets were not finished. Moscow would covertly support the Xinjiang independence movement. Fortunately for China, an intelligence agent who worked for former East Turkestan was willing to tell China all he knew. This led to the arrests and executions of over twenty KGB agents operating mostly in Xinjiang. Ever since the 1987 coup and the invasion of East Turkestan, there had been heightened fears of Communist infiltration in China. In July 1988 newly elected Yang Rudai, a member of the leftist New Democratic League from Sichuan, was expelled from the Legislative Yuan over supposed Communist leanings. His removal caused protests against the government, during which dozens were arrested.
In 1988, people in Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu Provinces commemorated the 50-year anniversary of the 1938 Yellow River Flood. The flood was caused by the government as a way to slow down the Japanese advance. It was perhaps the largest act of environmental warfare in history. Between 400,000 and 900,000 were killed and 3 million people became refugees. It was caused by opening up dikes on the Yellow River. Chiang Kai-shek ordered it, at the suggestion of Chen Guofu, the older brother of Chen Lifu. Survivors of the flood and relatives of the victims sought to raise awareness of the event, and possibly receive some compensation. Their requests were rejected.
Wang Sheng was firmly of the old school mindset in the Kuomintang. He governed as a conservative. He didn’t want to roll back the clock, but he also didn’t want to rock the boat. His authoritarian streak seemed notable only because of the time he lived in. If anything, he was a lot more lenient than Chiang Kai-shek or Chen Lifu. But in the 1980s, Chinese people were getting used to freedom. Many Chinese people saw the arrests and were worried that the KMT was never going to allow a democratic transition of power. Pro-democracy Chinese increasingly rallied behind Li Ao, an independent politician from Harbin. Li Ao would unceasingly push for more democratic reforms, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. He would be a thorn in Wang’s side for his entire presidency.