20 July 2005
The unknown story
Jung Chang and Jon Halliday 
 814pp. | Cape. £25. | 0 224 07126 2
In their new biography, Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, a best-selling memoir of oppression under Mao, and her historian husband, Jon Halliday, show Mao Zedong not as a great philosopher, social idealist, or romantic hero of the downtrodden, but as a tyrant who manipulated anyone and anything he could in pursuit of personal power. The authors count him responsible for well over 70 million deaths in China, and on the whole see him as a greater scourge to the twentieth century than either Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. But while Hitler and Stalin have been repudiated, both in their home countries and around the rest of the world, the myth of Mao survives today: not only as an emblem of the Chinese government, but as a romantic idea in the world’s imagination. Chang and Halliday want to change that.
Some parts of Chang and Halliday’s story were already known: how Mao welcomed Japan’s invasion of China, because it made his own political victory easier; how he grew opium in Yan’an to swell his coffers, encouraged Kim Il sung to launch the Korean War, and precipitated a huge famine during the Great Leap Forward. But Chang and Halliday are better than most in showing Mao’s wizardly ability as a schemer and tactician. He was no orator, and shunned public speaking; but he trolled incessantly for political information and was ruthless in calculating his personal advantage in any situation. Throughout his life he despised rivals. No one could remain his second-in-command for long; sooner or later every one of them was killed, banished, or immobilized by blackmail. Mao easily turned against people who were close to him – his mentors, his wives, his brother, his barber, even a bodyguard. To say that he “betrayed” these people would not be quite accurate, because betrayal implies a sense that one’s actions are wrong, and Mao seems to have been free of such notions. He simply did what worked. Chang and Halliday also review Mao’s personal indulgences: his villas, his sexual appetites, his catered towel-rubs in lieu of baths, his elaborate security measures, his lack of a wristwatch because he scheduled
no appointments: he summoned anyone, at any time of day or night, whenever he felt like it. But, except that we now have endnotes on such matters, none of these stories is exactly new. Chinese people have been relaying them for decades.
The most important of Chang and Halliday’s new discoveries have to do with the sustained role of the Soviet Union in Mao’s rise. Halliday reads Russian, and has made excellent use of the opening of Soviet archives after 1992. He and Chang assert that the idea of a Communist Party of China originated in Moscow in 1919 and detail the ways in which, beginning in 1921, the Comintern called the shots for Mao and other early Chinese Communists. Mao accepted the European Communists as his masters, and used them against his Chinese rivals, but also manipulated their feelings whenever he saw an advantage in doing so. The aim of Mao’s 1934–5 Long March to the north-west of China was to link up with the Soviets to obtain arms. Chang and Halliday destroy the myth of the Long March (which was rooted in Edgar Snow’s classic 1936 interview with Mao) by showing how its foot-soldiers were not eager Revolutionaries but common folk, recruited by force and shot if they straggled. The authors also marshal evidence to suggest – but not quite prove – that the Long March succeeded, not because of spectacular tenacity, but because the Soviets were holding Chiang Kai-shek’s son in a kind of genteel hostagecaptivity, and this induced Chiang to let the Reds through – even to provide them with maps. After 1949, Mao, turning towards the world stage, was obsessed with the goal of attaining nuclear arms from the Soviets, and made the fateful decision to export food from the Chinese countryside in order to pay for them. Chang and Halliday observe that if one counts the Great Leap famine deaths as in this sense nuclearrelated, then they outnumber the bomb-related deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by about a hundred to one.
But weren’t Mao’s sympathy for peasants and his “rural strategy” his distinctive contributions to Marxist theory? Not at all, say Chang and Halliday. In the Civil War of the late 1940s, it was Mao’s rival Liu Shaoqi who pressed for a countryside strategy, while Mao insisted on attacking cities; after 1949, it was Mao who decreed an apartheid-like household-registry system that made peasant migration to the cities illegal. Chang and Halliday go so far as to refer to Mao’s “war on peasants”, but that metaphor does not seem quite right. Millions of peasants died incidentally to Mao’s purposes, and there is little evidence that he cared that they perished; but the deaths themselves were not his goal. “Contempt for peasants” would be a better phrase; Mao referred to them as “two shoulders and a bum” – that is, producers of labour and of human fertilizer. In large numbers, as “the masses”, they were like schools of anchovies to him, great swaths of which could be netted for his needs – which included, at various times, corvée labour, guerrilla armies, siege victims (who could thereby generate political leverage), producers of food for export, and grounds for the claim that China need not fear nuclear attack because so many people would still be left alive.
“His mind remained lucid to the end, and in it stirred just one thought: himself and his power”, write Chang and Halliday. This is a good summary of their book, but to infer what was in Mao’s mind, at the end of his life or any other time, is not so easy. It was not a normal mind. (In 1955, Mao observed to a Finnish ambassador that a nuclear explosion of Earth would be “a big thing for the solar system” but nothing much for the universe as a whole.) Few people were close to Mao, but some who were – two girlfriends, his physician and a personal secretary – have left memoirs that suggest a truly peculiar psychological trait in Mao: he was without human sympathy. Mao’s doctor Li Zhisui tells of sitting next to Mao at a performance in Shanghai when a child acrobat slipped and crashed to the floor. The audience gasped. Mao, alone, laughed. Both the crowd’s gasp and Mao’s laugh were reflexive responses, not the products of deliberation. In my view, any attempt to understand the mind of Mao must seek to understand the mental conditions that would produce that kind of laugh.
Chang and Halliday avoid a topic that Chinese intellectuals have often speculated on: was Mao, to some degree, insane? Insanity ran in his family, including two of his children. In his later years Mao was so paranoiac that
he ordered attendants to make noise as they approached so as not to terrify him when they drew near. He had no normal family life and no true friends. For all his immense privilege and power, it is hard to imagine him, in the ordinary sense, as happy.
The myth of Mao diverges so far from the reality that one can understand an author’s impulse to approach it with a hatchet, as Chang and Halliday have very effectively done. But this approach leads them to omit the good that happened during the Mao years, even if it was not of Mao’s doing. The authors may have feared that to acknowledge anything beneficial would weaken their case against Mao or would play into the hands of those who argue that, despite all, the emergence of New China made it worthwhile to pay the price of Mao. They should have set such fears aside. No fair-minded reader can finish their book and then conclude that Mao was worth the price that China paid. To point to some of the good which occurred during the 1950s or 60s would not have undermined the authors’ case, but would rather have given it extra credibility.
For example, Chang and Halliday mention the many young people who, in the 1940s, believed the Communist ideals, and either flocked to Yan’an or joined the Party underground in the cities. But then they describe how Mao mistreated these idealists, without mentioning that, in the 1950s, they and large numbers of others, went on to help China to achieve significant progress in such areas as health, life expectancy, employment, housing, literacy and social services. Many 1950s idealists truly cared for the public good, made sacrifices for it, and thought that in doing so they were associating with Mao. Chang and Halliday could have shown this to have been a gigantic case of false consciousness. The exalted image of Mao in people’s minds bore no resemblance to the actual, highly secretive, Mao, who in fact was calculating how to exploit popular idealism as just one more route to personal power. In his Anti-Rightist drive of 1957, Mao betrayed the idealists. He criticized them, humiliated them, drove many to ostracism, divorce and suicide – and for every one that he persecuted he frightened dozens more. All this is without doubt true, but it does not follow that what these people did in the name of Mao was not good.
In China, traces of idealistic socialism survived as late as the 1980s, even as many of its intellectual leaders – Liu Binyan, Wang Ruoshui, Su Shaozhi and others – were purged or exiled. (Mao and his heirs have never tolerated serious Marxists.) In a 2004 interview, Liu Binyan, twentieth-century China’s leading investigative reporter, said that he still believes that “socialism with a human face” could have worked in China. In a posthumously published book entitled The Newly Discovered Mao Zedong, Wang Ruoshui, formerly a deputy editor-in-chief at People’s Daily, holds Mao responsible for numerous “errors”. Wang, certainly at the end of his life, was far from naive. His insistence on the word “errors” is his way of agreeing with Liu Binyan: things could and should have been different.
Another notable good that sprang from the Mao years was utterly unintended and unforeseen by Mao. Following the mayhem of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, a generation of Chinese suddenly saw their leader’s inspirational language (“serve the people”, etc) as fraudulent “empty talk”. Disillusionment taught them, better than any words of a Great Helmsman ever could, that from now on they would have to think for themselves. The co-author Jung Chang herself, who was born in 1952 and was once a Red Guard, is a clear example of this effect. Broadly speaking, among Chinese people of all kinds, the decades since high Maoism have seen a steady increase in the readiness to protest and to rebel at unfair treatment. This trend has had much less to do with intellectual influences, Maoist or Western, than with a recoil from the disasters that Mao inflicted. The same recoil has, of course, also had its costs. The often noted collapse of public morality in China in recent times is closely related. The unscrupulous, grab-what-you-can mentality that plagues China today flourished under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, but the foundation for public cynicism was laid by Mao.
The situation in China today seems also to explain why Chang and Halliday have written Mao: The unknown story. Their passion may be partly the result of Chang’s memories of the pain she suffered under Mao, as set forth in Wild Swans. But a greater reason is clearly that the Mao myth still haunts China today. Hitler and Stalin have fallen from grace, and the less gargantuan twentieth-century tyrants – Pinochet, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and others – are buried even further from any greatness. But Mao’s “portrait and his corpse still dominate Tiananmen Square”, write Chang and Halliday, and the current Chinese regime “declares itself to be Mao’s heir” even as it continues to obliterate much of the truth about the man. A recent survey by China Women magazine found that Mao is a number-one hero among Chinese teenagers, who understand “hero” to mean, inter alia, “kind and caring; tolerant; selfless; honest; brave” – all qualities that could not be further removed from the Mao that Chang and Halliday reveal. Early this summer, Chinese government officials notified editors at the Far Eastern Economic Review that its June issue would be banned from China if it carried a review of Chang and Halliday’s book written by the
distinguished China-watcher Jonathan Mirsky. Reviews in the Financial Times and on the BBC were also blocked.
The Chinese government clings to its Mao myth because it fears that its shaky legitimacy would be even shakier without it. Propaganda officials do what they can to protect Mao’s image, so it is hard to blame Chinese teenagers for their abysmal understanding of Mao. Yet it would be a mistake to see today’s pro-Mao sentiment as something entirely stimulated from above. In the 1990s, a wave of “Mao fever” became a genuinely popular trend in China. Ordinary people, exasperated by rampant corruption and vaulting inequality in the money-rules-all Jiang Zemin years, looked back at the 1950s and felt a certain nostalgia, as if to say, “whatever Old Mao’s faults may have been, at least we didn’t have these problems back then”. Mao may have been “too correct”, but at least there was an idea of correctness in the air, whereas now anything goes, and public morality is a sham. This Mao-nostalgia was made easier, of course, by distance from the man himself. A joke in the 1990s said there are two reasons why people visit Mao’s mausoleum at Tiananmen: to salute him and to confirm his death. Both feelings were genuine.
If China is finally to free itself from Mao, the Chinese people will have to relinquish their Mao myth, and this clearly is what Chang and Halliday hope that their book will help to achieve. In the end, though, they have concentrated too much on the figure of Mao. They tend to divide the leaders of the Communist movement into good people (Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and others) who were trying to help the common folk, and bad people (Mao, Zhou Enlai, Kang Sheng, Lin Biao, Jiang Qing, and many others) who cared only for themselves. In making these divisions they feed the assumption, which is deeply embedded in Chinese political culture, that if only the good people can gain the upper hand, everything will be fine. But this is an oversimplification. Not only did the “good” people behave pretty badly (Deng Xiaoping ordered more than one massacre of civilians during his career); more fundamentally, the problems are intrinsic to the whole political system and its subculture, not merely the fault of individuals. To be sure, Mao did play a major role in creating that system – in which fear and blackmail induce “thought work” and “confession”; in which A’s “mistake” can become B’s club for destroying A (Chinese officials, when appearing in groups, still monitor one another’s speech); in which insincere language manipulation turns into an art of self-defence; and in which suspicion of rivals, jockeying for position, colluding and betraying, deception, obsession with secrecy, the private recording of phone calls, etc – behaviour much like that of the Mafia but less brotherly, as Simon Leys observed more than twenty years ago – all become routine. Once this system was established it was not merely peculiar to Mao: it belonged to everyone. In modified form it is still with us.
People inside this system know what it is really like, but, precisely because they are part of it, need to dissemble to outsiders. Foreigners who cannot see past the surfaces become trophies of the system’s deception and sometimes even turn into official “friends of China” (although, to the insiders, little true friendship, and even less respect, is actually involved). Part of Chang and Halliday’s passion for exposing the “unknown” Mao is clearly aimed at gullible Westerners. Mao entranced Edgar Snow, Zhou Enlai charmed Henry Kissinger, and in both cases the consequences for Western understanding of China were severe. Chang and Halliday quote Kissinger on how talking with Zhou resembled a Chinese banquet, “prepared from the long sweep of tradition and culture, meticulously cooked by hands of experience . . . many courses . . . some sweet and some sour . . .”. Here I pause to wonder whether “sweet” and “sour” are a subtle reference to Kissinger’s background knowledge of Chinese culture,
specifically to the hybrid dish called sweet-and-sour that is common in Chinese-American restaurants. Would he also, in France, extol haute cuisine by reference to French fries? Kissinger’s memoirs make clear that his praise for the rarefied summit of the Mao world was not only tactical flattery, but the result of naivety and a very superficial understanding of China. Moreover Kissinger is not alone. For decades many in the Western intellectual and political elites have assumed that Mao and his heirs symbolize the Chinese people and their culture, and that to show respect to the rulers is the same as showing respect to the subjects. Anyone who reads Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s book should be inoculated against this particular delusion. If the book sells even half as many copies as the 12 million of Wild Swans, it could deliver the coup de grâce to an embarrassing and dangerous pattern of Western thinking.