Copyright The Independent
The book by Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday, above, exposes the lies behind the legend of Mao Tse-tung, former leader of the Chinese Communist Party.
On the cover of Mao: the Unknown Story is a tiny photograph of the Chairman. It is wrinkled and tattered. Until Mao Tse-tung’s death in 1976 anyone found with such a damaged photograph of the Great Helmsman, Teacher, and Red Red Sun in Our Hearts faced possible death and certain detention. In 1981, I met a woman in Nanjing who had found a bag full of Mao badges in the gutter ” five years after his death ” and had taken them to the nearest police station so she could not be blamed for possessing cast-off memorabilia of the Great Helmsman.
Indeed, the huge portrait of Mao with his immense mole still hangs, gazing into the distance, over the gate from Beijing’s Forbidden City into Tiananmen Square.
Can this be, still? Mao Tse-tung, who was responsible for the peacetime deaths of perhaps 70 million of his fellow Chinese?
It is amazing that only now has Mao received the historical coup de gryce. No one argues any more that even though Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot did terrible things, they were, somehow, ‘great’. The unchanged view of Mao is partly the fault of the Chinese Communist Party’s leaders, who claim to be his heirs and hang his portrait in the emotional centre of the capital. But even elsewhere in the world Mao is often praised, after his brutality has been acknowledged, as a visionary, poet, calligrapher, guerrilla chieftain, military genius, unifier, and even ” as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger claimed ” charmer.
Not any more. In their decisive biography, Mao: the Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday leave Mao for dead. By that I mean that Mao’s reputation as a ‘great man,’ unless one includes Hitler and Stalin too, is finished.
Chang’s previous book, Wild Swans, which is said to be the biggest-selling non-fiction paperback ever, and worth every penny, showed the effects of Maoism on her family and herself. Halliday, her husband, is a specialist on Soviet archives. His best-known book, written with Bruce Cumings, is Korea: the Unknown War, which was turned into a vivid television series. Chang and Halliday use the word ‘unknown’ again in their new book.
The central thesis of this biography is that Mao was as evil as Hitler and Stalin. Some will dismiss this is a hatchet job, meaning that Mao cannot have been that bad. He was. Chang and Halliday have taken a wrecker’s ball to Mao, but they use the scalpel too. They have investigated every aspect of his personal life and his career, peeling back the layers of lies, myths, and what we used to think of as facts. Many of these facts were really lies, usually originating in the titanic autobiographical lie that Mao fed the American journalist Edgar Snow in 1936 for his scoop, Red Star Over China. For decades, that series of lies underpinned all that Chinese and foreigners knew about Mao.
Here is a startling example of what Chang and Halliday discovered during their decade’s research. The central heroic narrative of Mao’s life, indeed of the Communist Party’s life, is the Long March, 1934-35, long before Mao came to power in 1949. A Chinese Odyssey, it goes like this: the Red guerrillas escaped from the encirclement of President Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces and, over terrible terrain, often attacked by the Nationalists and hostile local people, and after almost 90 per cent losses, finally reached safety in the remote north-west. From their guerrilla stronghold at Yanan they built up their reputation as land-reforming revolutionaries and went on to conquer China in 1949. For years Mao was given the credit ” largely from what he told Snow, who thought him ‘Lincolnesque’ ” for commanding the Reds during that epochal ordeal.
And of all the ordeals along the way, the worst was crossing the Dadu River, by way of a bridge over the deep gorge. The Nationalists on the other side had set the bridge alight, the story goes, and if the Reds had stalled there, exhausted and diminished as they were, the Long March would have probably ended in annihilation. But in the Mao legend, volunteer soldiers scrambled hand over hand along the suspension chains, through the flames, and although some fell to their deaths in the rapids below, the survivors got to the other side, drove off the enemy, the bridge was repaired, and the Reds got across and survived.
It didn’t happen. Not didn’t happen like that, but didn’t happen at all. ‘This is a complete invention,’ write Chang and Halliday. ‘There was no battle at the Dadu Bridge.’ There were no Nationalist soldiers there, ‘Chiang had left the passage open for the Reds,’ there were no flames and ‘the Red army crossed the bridge without incurring a single death’. How do Chang and Halliday know this? They interviewed ‘a sprightly 93- year-old’ woman who ran a bean curd shop right next to the bridge in 1935 and saw the whole thing. They also read an interview with Peng Dehuai, a senior commander at the time, who could recall no fighting or a burning bridge. The widow of Zhu De, Mao’s closest comrade in arms on the March, mentioned no fighting at the Dadu gorge.
As for Mao, the inspiring commander, he now emerges as nearly left behind by the March, disliked by almost everyone, wrong-headed in both tactics and strategy, and, most disgracefully for the legend, a survivor of the Long March only because President Chiang let the Reds go. At one point the Nationalists left a truck at the side of the road loaded with food and detailed maps of the route ahead. Chang and Halliday maintain that Chiang spared the Reds partly because Stalin was holding his son hostage. Mao and the other leaders were carried in litters. A survivor told Chang and Halliday that the elite ‘lounged about in litters, like landlords’. Not a single high-ranking leader, no matter how ill or badly wounded, died along the March, although most of the soldiers perished. This was an early example, Chang and Halliday assert, of ‘the stony-hearted hierarchy and privilege under Mao’s dominion’.
The final nail in the coffin of the guerrilla years is that Mao rarely fought either the Nationalists or the Japanese during that period, and when his commanders did fight Chiang’s forces, just twice, Mao was furious.
For several years Mao oversaw the growing of opium poppies and the extremely lucrative sale of ‘the black product’ in areas outside his control. He told Premier Chou En-lai that the business was worth six times the official Yanan budget. The Russians, whose sources on Mao’s career are Halliday’s most significant contribution to the biography, estimated sales then at $ 60m ‘or some $ 640m (£350m) today,’ a humiliating admission for a patriotic movement that based its hatred of imperialism on the British export of opium into China in the 19th century.
And there are many other well-documented assertions: Mao was not dragged into the Korean war by the Communist leader Kim Il Sung and the American assault on the north: he wanted the war and knew Chinese losses would be astronomical, but was willing to trade hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ lives for Stalin’s help ” he didn’t get it ” in building a Chinese arms industry. Later he lured President Nixon to China and persuaded, beguiled and dazzled the president and Kissinger into offering him secret intelligence on the Soviet Union.
All this knocks big holes in the Mao legend. But the ultimate target of Chang and Halliday’s onslaught on Mao is the cold heart that drove his pitiless behaviour. Four times married, he abandoned, one way or another, all his wives and most of his many children. The three wives of his adult life seemed to have been crazy about him no matter what. His surviving children tended to go mad. For a man once famed among women’s liberationists in the West, he exploited and devoured numbers of women right up to his final senile, unwashed, toothless days. I knew one such woman, who as a teenage air force soldier attended Mao’s dancing parties in the late Sixties where the great moment was being invited into the Chairman’s bedroom to ‘make me some tea’.
What about Mao the national leader? Actually, he cared little for peasants and during the worst famine ever, suggested they eat leaves while he sold their produce abroad, partly to give the impression that China was thriving.
As for his close comrades from the guerrilla days, Chou En-lai, Liu Shaoqi, Peng Dehuai, Zhu De and the rest, Mao turned on them all. Of Premier Chou En-lai, famed among Western leaders for his courtly manners, and believed still by many Chinese to have saved certain people from Mao’s wrath, Chang and Halliday write: ‘When Mao gave the word, Chou would send anyone to their death.’ Mao never forgot past slights or acts of disobedience. In the case of Chou, it seems, Mao remembered that in 1931 he had criticised the young Communist Party in a newspaper, and on the basis of this ancient document ” which may not have been authentic ” Mao was able to blackmail Chou into years of slavish obedience.
He instilled fear and obedience in ever wider circles until he achieved something Hitler and Stalin had never attempted: turning millions of his people against each other, by persuading them that spies, class enemies, counter-revolutionaries, and Mao-haters were everywhere. He had learnt early that rather than shipping victims off to camps or the Gulag, or torturing and murdering them in secret, what really terrified the masses was watching torture and execution and making such murderous acts a revolutionary virtue.
In short, he was a monster, and Chang is right to claim that Mao ‘was as evil as Hitler or Stalin, and did as much damage to mankind as they did’. She also says ” hence ‘the Unknown Story’ subtitle ” that ‘the world knows astonishingly little about him.’
This is untrue. Millions of Chinese know enough about Mao to be glad he is dead. More than 20 years ago the Party itself held Mao chiefly responsible for the Cultural Revolution, ‘the greatest disaster’ since 1949, although it also insisted that his good points greatly outweighed the bad. One of his former secretaries, Li Rui, has written that Mao ‘did not care how many he killed’ and others have long-since pulled the veil away from Chou En-lai. In the West, the opium story has been published, as has much of Mao’s reckless self-serving behaviour on the Long March, Chou En-lai’s grovelling, and how Nixon and Kissinger crawled. There are excellent biographies of Mao. In a very short one, Mao, based on already published materials, Jonathan Spence of Yale wrote that Mao’s rule ‘was hopelessly enmeshed with violence and fear’. Harvard’s Stuart Schram, an early biographer, has published his multi-volume Mao’s Road to Power, a collection of every existing scrap of paper Mao wrote up to 1949, which shows his ruthlessness. In the late 1970s, Lucian Pye of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology laid out Mao’s psychopathology, at a time when this was regarded as over the top. Harvard’s Roderick MacFarquhar’s three volumes, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, compares Mao to Stalin and describes his eating well even while his policies were creating ‘the worst man-made famine in history’. The Private Life of Chairman Mao, by Mao’s doctor, Li Zhisui, displays the patient as monster.
I discuss these earlier works not to undermine Chang and Halliday. What they fail to do, when they say ‘the Untold Story’, is credit others ” even if they cite them in their bibliography ” with insights similar to their own. Their primary sources in Chinese and Russian are copious but how they were evaluated we do not know.
Nonetheless, what Chang and Halliday have done is immense and surpasses, as a biography, all that has gone before. There is much new material here and brutal analysis. Mao must be understood, at last, as an Olympian monster, with abilities but not virtues. Once he was in a position to wield power over and against others, his inner circle knew that ‘Mao liked killing,’ but with rare exceptions, were too terrified and mesmerised to resist. In 1966, Mao Tse-tung met a young Red Guard from a school where the headmistress had just been murdered. His advice to her? ‘Be violent.’
Mao: the Unknown Story, Jonathan Cape, £25
Jonathan Mirsky – The Independent
Copyright The Independent