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Helmsman from Hell

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
May 1, 2006
Weekly Standard


Mao: The Unknown Story
by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
Knopf, 814 pp., $35

Mao Zedong has been dead for 30 years, but he continues to cast a considerable shadow over the state he founded, the People’s Republic of China. Both his preserved corpse and a giant portrait of him continue to occupy positions of honor in Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing. That’s no accident, since today’s rulers still trace whatever legitimacy they possess back to the institutions created by the Great Helmsman. Hu Jintao is president, after all, not because he won the votes of most Chinese but because he won the votes of the most influential members of the Communist party’s inner circle.

In many ways, of course, particularly in the economic sphere, today’s China bears scant resemblance to the one Mao left behind in 1976. But even as a pragmatic philosophy of “market-Leninism” has taken hold, there has never been a real repudiation of Mao. The official line has remained the one laid out in 1981 by Deng Xiaoping (who was raised to the heights of power by Mao, purged, and then rehabilitated)—that Mao was “70 percent right, 30 percent wrong.”

Imagine the scandal if a postwar German leader had said that Hitler was “70 percent right.” Or if a current leader of Cambodia said the same thing about Pol Pot. Yet, in spite of being responsible for more peacetime deaths (an estimated 70 million) than the other great monsters of the 20th century, Mao has, at least until recently, occupied a different place in Western opinion. Wearing a Mao button or T-shirt is still seen in some quarters as kitschy fun in a way that a tribute to Hitler or Stalin would not be. There’s even a bestselling business book called The Little Red Book of Selling. Don’t look for the Mein Kampf of Investing anytime soon.

Sure, there is growing recognition that Mao was responsible for widespread suffering and death. But somehow he is still given credit in the popular imagination for a host of virtues: for being a well-intentioned agrarian reformer, a staunch anti-Japanese fighter, a personally abstemious and incorruptible scholar-king, a progressive thinker intent on junking oppressive remnants of China’s feudal past, and a pragmatic nationalist who raised his country to new heights of power and only turned to the Soviet Union after being spurned by the United States. Much of this impression was created by Communist propaganda, making use of Western dupes such as Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China, the 1937 book that first introduced Mao to much of the world.

Jung Chang and her British husband, Jon Halliday, have produced a blockbuster that seeks to demolish these myths once and for all. She has previously told her story in Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991), an international bestseller that set her family’s experiences against the tumultuous backdrop of 20th-century Chinese history. Having survived the lunacy of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (when she was briefly a Red Guard), Chang escaped to Britain in 1978 at age 26. Mao: The Unknown Story is her scathing indictment of the man who tormented her and countless other Chinese. While billed as a dispassionate work of history, it is really a heartfelt exposé and denunciation that has more in common with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (as Arthur Waldron has noted) than with Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History.

The main themes are established at the start of the narrative. Mao was born in 1893 to a farm family in Hunan province, but, contrary to the claims of his acolytes, Chang and Halliday write, “Mao’s peasant background did not imbue him with idealism about improving the lot of Chinese peasants.” Instead, they write, in a statement echoed throughout the book, “Absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao’s outlook.”

The key to Mao’s worldview can be found, they argue, in a philosophy paper he wrote as a 24-year-old student in the winter of 1917-18. The young Mao wrote: “People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people…. I am only concerned about developing myself.” Combined with this extreme solipsism was a grandiose desire to transform his country. China, he wrote, “must be …destroyed and then re-formed …People like me long for its destruction, because when the old universe is destroyed, a new universe will be formed. Isn’t that better!” The costs of this radical undertaking were waved away: “Long-lasting peace is unendurable to human beings, and tidal waves of disturbance have to be created in this state of peace.” Even death was no big deal to Mao. (At least the deaths of others; he always took great care to prolong his own existence.) “Human beings are endowed with a sense of curiosity. Why should we treat death differently? Don’t we want to experience strange things?”

Chang and Halliday nevertheless claim that Mao did not join the Communist party in order to realize these fantasies but simply to get a good job that didn’t involve any manual labor. In 1920 he was given a commission by one of the founders of the Chinese Communist party to run a Red bookshop in Changsha, the capital of Hunan. “Mao was no fervent believer,” Chung and Halliday write; he became a Communist “not after an idealistic journey, or driven by passionate belief, but by being at the right place at the right time, and being given a job that was highly congenial to him.” There is no doubt some truth in this, but it slights the importance of the very beliefs quoted a few pages earlier. If not perhaps an orthodox Marxist-Leninist—Mao never showed much interest in the classics of Communist literature—he was nevertheless driven, like many other tyrants and conquerors, by a sense of personal destiny and a desire to remake the world that went beyond, as Chang and Halliday sometimes suggest, simply seeking a life of ease. Otherwise he would have become a merchant or college professor, not a professional revolutionary.

Whatever his motivation, Mao proved a genius at insurrection. Like other successful dictators, he made his first, and top, priority consolidating his authority within his own ranks by terrorizing real or imagined doubters and rivals. Mao’s first large-scale purge, which occurred in Jiangxi province in the early 1930s, set the pattern. According to Jang and Halliday, over 10,000 Red soldiers alone were killed. Many were first subjected to gruesome tortures such as having a wire “run through the penis and hung on the ear of the victim,” and then having the torturer pluck at the wire. Wives of Reds who fell into disfavor were not exempt from monstrous mistreatment: “Their bodies, particularly their vaginas, were burned with flaming wicks, and their breasts were cut with small knives.”

Bloodthirsty in dealing with fellow Communists, Mao shrank from battling Japanese invaders. Though Chiang Kai-shek’s numerous detractors have long excoriated him for not doing more to fight the Japanese, Mao did far less. The only time his troops engaged in combat with the Japanese, Chang and Halliday write, was when Red Army commanders disregarded his orders. Moreover, they claim that Mao actively collaborated with Japanese intelligence to undermine their mutual enemy, the Kuomintang. Mao: The Unknown Story shatters the lingering image of Mao as nationalist guerrilla fighter.

Another pillar of the Mao cult is reduced to dust when the authors show how dependent Mao was upon the Soviet Union from day one. Moscow’s agents created the Chinese Communist Party, selected its leaders, and kept it going through massive infusions of weapons, cash, and advisers. The conventional wisdom among Western Sinologists that American intransigence drove Mao into Stalin’s arms is revealed as a combination of wishful thinking and Communist disinformation. In fact, Chang and Halliday write, Mao did not even want his regime to be recognized at first by the “capitalist countries” because he feared that “recognition would facilitate subversive activities [by] the U.S.A. and Britain.”

Yet another major element of Maoist mythology concerns the Long March, the 6,000-mile trek that Mao led in 1934-35 from southeast China, where the Red Army was in danger of annihilation, to establish secure enclaves in northwest China across the border from Soviet-controlled Mongolia. Chang and Halliday want to show that Mao was no hero. Rather than marching alongside his soldiers, they note, he was carried most of the way by porters in a bamboo litter covered with tarpaulin to keep out the sun and rain. Not content with such damning facts, the authors insist that the Long March succeeded only because Chiang wanted it to.

Why would the Nationalist leader allow his sworn enemies to escape? Chang and Halliday offer three explanations, none entirely convincing. First, Chiang wanted to let the Reds go in order to convince Stalin to let his son, a student in Russia, return to China. Second, Chiang wanted to drive the Reds out of “the rich heartland of China …into a more barren and sparsely populated corner, where he could box them in.” Third, Chiang thought that independent warlords along Mao’s route “would be so frightened of the Reds settling in their territory that they would allow Chiang’s army in to drive the Reds out.” To carry out this devious scheme, Chang and Halliday write, Chiang carefully limited his attacks on the retreating Communists, while always leaving an escape route open.

What Chang and Halliday themselves describe as an “unbelievably complex web of intrigue, deceit, bluff, and double-bluff” may indeed account for the Communists’ survival. Or it may have something to do, as conventional accounts have it, with the fortitude and determination of the Red Army and the corruption, incompetence, and disunity of their enemies. Chang and Halliday do not offer any real proof of Chiang’s supposed “Reds-for-son swap”—“It was not an offer that could be spelt out,” they note—yet they admit of no rival interpretation.

This reveals some of the book’s flaws: an unwillingness to weigh historical evidence, to qualify sweeping claims, or to account for the impact of chance and miscalculation in the shaping of events. Mao: The Unknown Story is, to put it mildly, rather conspiratorial. Most major developments are traced to secret plans, mainly Mao’s. Undoubtedly, China in the 1930s and ’40s was full of duplicity and shifting allegiances, but is it really credible to ascribe two major turning points—the 1937 Japanese attack on Shanghai, and the Red victory in the 1945-49 civil war—entirely to the machinations of secret agents without taking account of broader historical forces?

This is just what Chang and Halliday do. According to them, the Kuomintang general in charge of the Shanghai garrison in 1937, Zhang Zhizhong, was a Communist “supermole” who attacked Japanese forces to draw Japan into a wider war in China that would preclude a Japanese attack on his Soviet patrons. Later, they name two other senior Nationalist generals—Hu Tsung-nan and Wei Lihuang—as closet Communists who deliberately sacrificed their armies in 1947-48, making inevitable the Nationalists’ defeat.

Mao: The Unknown Story is based on extensive research conducted over more than a decade, including hundreds of interviews with everyone from Mao’s colleagues to former President Bush, the Dalai Lama, and actor Michael Caine (a Korean War veteran). While Chang interviewed Chinese participants and somehow gained access to official archives (she does not say which ones), Halliday unearthed a good deal of fresh material in Russia and the former Soviet bloc countries. Their apparent diligence makes it impossible to dismiss such startling claims, but it is hard to accept them on faith, either. Numerous Sinologists have complained that, in critical spots, their sourcing is either deficient, vague, or not available for verification by other scholars. Whether they have unearthed historical treasures not available to anyone else, or passed along rumors as fact, is impossible to say. Judgment will have to be reserved until other scholars can follow their footnote trail and look at the documents they cite and talk to the people they mention. That could take years. In the meantime we are left with a scathing portrait of Mao that is, for the most part, solidly rooted in the historical record as it already exists.

There can be no denying, for instance, the catastrophic impact of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), to which Chang and Halliday do full justice. Mao’s aim was to turn China into an economic and military superpower. To achieve this goal he pulled vast numbers of peasants off their fields and into inefficient factories and collective farms. He also expropriated their food and exported a good deal of it to the Soviet Union in exchange for factories and weapons. There was not enough left for most Chinese to eat; urban housewives in 1960 got fewer calories a day than slave laborers at Auschwitz. Even as mass starvation broke out, Mao continued to give away vast amounts of food and money to bolster his influence among foreign Communist movements. According to Mao: The Unknown Story, China donated more of its gross domestic product in foreign aid (a whopping 6.92 percent in 1973) than any other country in history, with much of it going to countries such as East Germany that were considerably richer than China itself.

The Great Leap Forward killed an estimated 30-40 million people, making it the worst famine in history. (Chang and Halliday give a misleadingly precise figure of “close to 38 million people” based on dubious demographic data.) Mao was predictably unperturbed by all the suffering he had caused. “Deaths have benefits,” he told senior cadres in 1958. “They can fertilize the ground.”

This insouciant attitude was possible because Mao himself was shielded from any suffering. He lived the life of an emperor, protected by his own praetorian guard, residing in dozens of vast estates complete with swimming pools and nuclear-bomb shelters, enjoying books, operas, and other entertainments forbidden to anyone else, gorging himself on delicacies produced just for him, traveling in his own fleet of aircraft, trains, ships, and automobiles, his needs tended by a vast staff of retainers, including comely “singers and dancers, nurses and maids” who performed double duty as concubines.

The accumulation of such well-documented depravities, one after another, has a devastating effect. For all its flaws, Mao: The Unknown Story succeeds better than any other book in exposing Mao as the monster that he was. It is a blood-curdling indictment told in simple, spare language and easy-to-digest chapters that anyone can understand. If the CIA is interested in promoting democracy in China—and, if it isn’t, it should be—it could do a lot worse than to smuggle millions of translated copies of Mao: The Unknown Story to the mainland, where it has been officially banned.

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