Copyright The Financial Times
Published: June 17 2005 11:25
MAO: The Unknown Story
by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
Jonathan Cape £25, 832 pages
Three decades after his death, Mao Zedong still enjoys an officially enforced reverence in China accorded few erstwhile national leaders of any country. Mao’s face adorns every banknote. The blandly sinister, giant portrait of his fleshy visage still hangs in Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of modern China in Beijing.
Deng Xiaoping tossed out Mao’s impoverishing, autarkic economic policies as soon as possible after he died in 1976. But even with that repudiation, officials and scholars who criticise Mao in public in China today still do so at their peril.
The reason that Mao survives as the symbol of modern China is pure politics. Drag down Mao and you will inevitably bring down the ruling Communist party with him. Deng understood that and helped engineer a formula, or more accurately, a ruling on Mao’s legacy – that he was 70 per cent good and 30 per cent bad. With the case closed, the party could set about regrouping and running the country. Since Deng’s ruling more than 20 years ago, Mao’s atrocities have been largely a taboo topic in China.
So Jung Chang’s new biography is not, then, a reminder of how perplexing Mao’s survival is as a national symbol. There is a reason for that. But this thick, densely researched book is a reminder of a kind of dark, psychic disconnection at the heart of China’s modernisation.
The tremendous economic progress China has made and the improvements it has delivered to the lives of so many hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens is an uplifting phenomenon.
But the party’s inability, unwillingness or just plain refusal to allow an honest airing of Mao’s multiple horrors tells us something much less noble about the country. China’s leaders recently lectured Japan on the need to face history squarely. They would not dare allow a similar debate at home on their own country’s past.
Mao: The Unknown Story is a bit of a misnomer. Mao’s crimes are not unknown to anyone who has tried to find them. But Chang and her husband and co-author, British academic Jon Halliday, have laid out the case for the prosecution in bestial, and at times excruciating, detail unrivalled by other biographies.
This includes not just the most notorious and destructive of Mao’s campaigns – the Great Leap Forward, which produced a famine in which 30-40 million people died in three years from 1958; and the cruel Cultural Revolution which started a few years later, a decade of madness in which many thousands died and tens of millions of families and communities were shattered, and which finally undid Mao.
Less well known are the murderous purges deployed by Mao well before the communists took power in 1949, most notoriously the almost random targeting and killings of so-called traitors – the “AB (anti-Bolshevik) elements” – in the 1930s. Philip Short chronicled the “AB” killings better in his Mao biography published just a few years ago. But in the Chang/Halliday book, the “AB” campaign is just one episode in a seamless life of cruelty waged by Mao against friend, foe and family alike.
The authors deploy a touch of pop evolutionary biology to explain Mao’s personality, with the assertion that he had an innate love for “bloodthirsty thuggery”. “Mao did not come to violence via theory,” they write. “The propensity sprang from his character and was to have a profound impact on his future methods of rule.”
Mao had people he perceived as political opponents killed or tortured; intra-party rivals were refused medical treatment, or alternatively, in the case of Liu Shaoqi, once his loyal number two, kept alive just long enough so he could be denounced at a party congress, and then left to die painfully.
One of his most formidable rivals, Wang Ming, was poisoned, twice, before he managed to get away. On occasions, whole armies were sacrificed as part of Mao’s manoeuvrings to centralise power in his hands.
Mao enjoyed watching people suffer, or at best, he was callously indifferent to it.
His endless abuse of colleagues to ensure that they remained subservient makes for difficult reading.
Chang and Halliday depict Zhou Enlai, correctly, I think, as a pathetic, debased character, wheeled out to use his charm when necessary, but otherwise craven in the face of Mao’s worst excesses. Mao repaid Zhou’s slavish support by refusing to allow Zhou to get treatment for his cancer until it had almost killed him.
The book is occasionally hyperbolic; it describes, on flimsy evidence, one communist spy in the nationalist camp as perhaps “single-handedly” changing the course of world history; sometimes weird – actor Michael Caine pops up as a primary source for the “human wave” attacks by the Chinese in the Korean war; and also at times unconvincingly conspiratorial.
The authors argue that the nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, “to a large extent steered” the “Long March”, deliberately holding back from attacking the fleeing communists in order to use them to subdue warlords that he would otherwise have had to fight himself. This is a claim that excludes a ton of evidence to the contrary. But the book is for the most part gripping, racing along in an almost potboilerish style that made Chang’s first book, Wild Swans, the story of her family during the Cultural Revolution, equally readable.
The secrecy that still surrounds top-level Chinese leaders means we have few accessible accounts of their lives and work beyond sometimes stultifying academic chronicles. Chang and Halliday have used diverse sources, from the invaluable Russian archives to a myriad of individual interviews, to bring the monster alive. More than anything, the book’s strength is their understanding of the importance of bringing alive the human, or the inhuman, factor in Mao’s story. This, they do brilliantly.
In some respects, the book’s weakness is the flip side of this. It may seem a little eccentric, even obscene, to complain about a lack of “context” in a book about a man directly responsible, by the authors’ count, for 70 million deaths. But the ceaseless focus on Mao, and the blame attached to him and him alone for every atrocity that took place during his rule, is overwrought.
We don’t just need more about the times and less about the man. We know that countless Chinese suffered under Mao. But we also need to understand why so many enthusiastically joined in the violence that Mao unleashed and the imperial traditions he exploited to manipulate the masses. Sheer terror is not a sufficient answer.
Richard McGregor is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief