The inhuman touch – MAO: The Unknown Story

Richard McGregor – The Financial Times

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


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1 thought on “The inhuman touch – MAO: The Unknown Story”

  1. Chang and Halliday’s Mao, Unknown Story is good, but it is not good as The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Zhisui Li
    Chang and Halliday’s Mao, Unknown Story provided a brand new version and perspective of Chairman Mao. It is the first time to portray Chairman Mao as a bloody mass-murderer. In their book, Chairman Mao was a large-scale murderer during a Chinese peace era. Nearly 80 million people were dead by his Utopian idealism: that was an unbelievable number. It is four times the number of deaths of the Soviets in the war between the Soviet Union and Germany. He used drastic violence to suppress people who he believed stood in his way for industrializing China. He ignored the death of 30 million people during the starvation period of the Great Famine, which was caused by his foolish “Great Leap Forward” for overtaking the British and catching up to the Americans. After the Great Famine, his lunatic behavior reached new heights. He launched the culture revolution, which was completely insane. He became a maniac. Under his direction, the violence was propelled to its bloodiest high tide. The horror broke historic records. Elementary school students unbelievably beat their teachers to death. The death toll was continuing to pile up until the day he died. From Mao, Unknown Story, the figure of Chairman Mao was drawn as a vicious monster and mass-murderer.
    No wonder, horrible bloody killings described in Mao, Unknown Story truly happened in China from 1949, when Chairman Mao took over China, to 1976 when Chairman Mao died. Chairman Mao did everything so lunatic, and insane. From the catastrophe which he brought to China, he deserves to be considered a bloodthirsty monster and a bloody mass murderer. Overall, the book is good and correct.
    Even though the book is good and correct, it cannot compare with Dr. Zhisui Li’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao in deeply and lively describing of Chairman Mao. No less than Dr. Andrew Nathan pointed out, all of biographic writers have a limitation in deeply and lively describing their objects. Because they have never served their objects, they have no chance to observe them closely. Also they have done a lot of research, but the inherent defect is that they don’t really know their objects’ personality and psychology. They don’t know their objects’ courtyard operations; their objects’ retainers, and the relationship between their objects, their objects’ retainers and the government officials.
    Dr. Zhisui Li’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao did not portray Chairman Mao as a bloodthirsty monster and a bloody mass murderer; instead of that, it focused on details of Chairman Mao’s personality, psychology and his courtyard operation. Owing to Dr. Zhisui Li’s position, it made him as so called: inside man. He could know a lot of Chairman Mao’s important information that an outsider could not know. Even Chairman Mao’s former public health minister told Dr. Li to come see him anytime if Dr. Li wanted to tell him about any of Chairman Mao’s activities. In the same way, Chairman Mao’s former chief commanding officer of guards also was available to Dr. Li with no appointment.
    The deepest impression for me about Dr. Li’s book is the Chairman Mao’s courtyard and his retainers. Chairman Mao’s medical doctor, chief commanding officer of guards and secretaries comprised his retainers. They were called “Group One”. Chairman Mao’s retainers formed a powerful and vicious retainer circle. Their power was even above party officials. The party officials were not servants of people. Instead they were servants of Chairman Mao. They cared for Chairman Mao’s retainers a lot of more than they cared for people. The gossip of those retainers could cause party officials a serious trouble. People were powerless and ignored. The party officials entertained Chairman Mao’s retainers with the best Chinese whiskey and the best Chinese cuisine while the Chinese commoners had a little of meat to eat. During the starvation period of the Great Famine, Chairman Mao even stopped eating meat. But his retainers flaunted the banner of celebrating Chairman Mao’s birthday, and required the local party officials to hold a grand dinner party for them. The dinner fulfilled the best Chinese cuisine, seafood, and the best Chinese whiskey, wine, beer. The party was in the name of celebrating Chairman Mao’s birthday, but Chairman Mao didn’t even attend. Dr. Li found it very hard to swallow that tasty food. However his colleague exhorted Dr. Li, saying that unless he wanted to leave “Group One”, he had better wallow in the mire with them. Some party officials even colluded with some of Mao’s retainers making a fraud deal in secret. The fraud deal deceived party treasurers by saying that Chairman Mao ate more than one thousand chickens in three, four days. Actually, the party officials took chickens for their own meals. Chairman Mao even had never known it until he was dead.
    The factions in Chairman Mao’s retainers circle were stricken by each other fiercely. Opponents attempted to topple their counter part desperately. A vicious atmosphere permeated daily life. Nobody felt safe. Chairman Mao’s wife was frequently involved in the factions’ conflicts. In this vicious atmosphere, even Chairman Mao himself suspected somebody of crawling on his bedroom roof at midnight. He did not trust any of his retainers. He even suspected that the swimming pool in his palace was poisoned.
    Dr. Li’s dream to be a great neural surgeon became a surviving nightmare. Although Dr. Li wanted to avoid touching this vicious politics, he could not stay out from it. For survival he was forced to stay with one faction. Later, the factions’ grappling escalated to a cross line battle between the retainer circle and party officials, and eventually led to a palace coup after Chairman Mao was dead. Chairman Mao’s wife and her three colleagues were arrested. However, Dr. Li survived successfully.
    I feel that Dr. Li portrayed the figure of Chairman Mao and his courtyard operation more close to the true Chinese history, what was really happened in China from 1949 to 1976. Compared to Dr. Li’s book, Chang and Halliday’s Mao, Unknown Story seems pale.

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