The emperor exposed
MAO: THE UNKNOWN STORY
by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
Hard cover RRP: $59.95
To readers of News Weekly, Mao Tse-tung will be recognised as an evil genius, the architect of the communist takeover of China in 1949, and the man who welded the Chinese Communist Party into a force capable of gaining total power over the nation with the largest population on earth.
To many others, he was the man who inspired millions of people in the developed West and the Third World into believing that he had created a Marxist utopia on earth.
This book goes behind the broad vision, to examine what kind of man Mao really was. The picture that emerges is unexpected, extraordinarily detailed, and chilling.
Jung Chang, the principal author of this book, wrote Wild Swans, a family memoir of living in Maoist China in the 1950s, when Mao unleashed his Great Leap Forward. She now lives with her husband and co-author, Jon Halliday, in the UK.
What makes this biography of Mao most interesting is that Jung Chang accessed hundreds of Chinese documents and interviewed many of Mao’s surviving colleagues in China. She and Jon Halliday also interviewed many people from other countries for this book.
It is difficult to know to what extent Mao was a convinced Marxist-Leninist, and to what extent this ideology provided the cover for his megalomania.
Like many revolutionaries, he came from a relatively prosperous family. His father was a hard-working peasant who had succeeded in becoming one of the largest land-owners in his village.
He grew up as China was opening to the world, and absorbed Western ideas of individual freedom, which contrasted with traditional Confucian ideas of an unchanging social order, and values of order and harmony.
Mao’s earliest surviving writings, as a student teacher, provide a clue to his fundamental principles. Even before he came into contact with communists, he wrote that his moral code was based on “one core, the self, ‘I’, above everything else”.
Mao shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty; he rejected any objective moral code; and he took delight in social upheavals and destruction, even the violent overthrow of society.
It was at the age of 26 that Mao became involved in the infant Chinese Communist Party, which had been founded on Lenin’s orders in 1920. Yet Mao was an unconventional communist. He seemed to have little interest in peasants or workers. He was not primarily interested in people, and rose to run the Communist organisation in the province of Hunan by his thuggish and dictatorial style.
He was also extremely manipulative, and when the Chinese party leadership rejected a Moscow plan to infiltrate the Kuomintang (Nationalists), Mao seized the opportunity to prove himself loyal to Moscow, and moved to power in the Communist Party.
On witnessing the violence of a popular uprising in 1927, Mao said he felt “a kind of ecstasy never felt before”. The authors comment, “What fascinated Mao was violence that smashed the social order. And it was this propensity that caught Moscow’s eye, as it fitted into the Soviet model of a social revolution.”
With the breakdown of the Nationalist-Communist alliance in 1927 and the liquidation of the Communist Party leadership, Mao emerged as a leader of the party, from which he launched his 20-year bid for power, based on the concept of a people’s war, led by workers and peasants, to overthrow tyranny.
In fact, Chang and Halliday show that Mao’s army was no different from the bandits who infested China’s provinces at the time. It relied on terror to command loyalty, and looted the towns it occupied. What differentiated Mao from the other warlords were three key factors: the unstinting support of the Soviet Union; his dream of uniting all China under his own control; and the communist cadres who surrounded him, like Chou En-lai, Lin Biao and Liu Shou-chi.
How was it, then, that Mao – whose allegiance to Marxism was opportunistic – was able to survive as leader of the Communist Party? The answer is to be found in the convergence of circumstances in China at the time.
Mao was totally devoted to power and, as the Chinese Communist Party was bankrolled and controlled by Moscow, Mao followed the twists and turns of Kremlin policy without question, while other Chinese communists showed more independence.
As the Chinese party’s paymaster, Moscow interpreted loyalty to the Comintern as faithful adherence to Marxist-Leninist dogma.
Additionally, because China was in a state of war, Moscow was unable and unwilling to shift leaders in mid-stream.
Mao Tse-tung, the consummate propagandist, understood the importance of cultivating the Western media, and attracted a legion of Western followers, including people in senior positions in the Roosevelt Administration, after the Long March in 1935.
His opponents – the Chinese nationalists and the Japanese invaders – consistently under-estimated him, each regarding the other as the major enemy. Mao exploited their weaknesses to survive.
Western journalists, such as Edgar Snow and Ernest Hemingway, created the heroic image of Mao as a Chinese Robin Hood. In his 1938 classic, Red Star over China, Snow gave Mao an international audience.
Corruption and warlordism
By the end of World War II, Japan had been defeated, leaving its military machine in Mao’s hands, and the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, was exhausted by years of war, corruption and warlordism.
In contrast, Mao had been bankrolled and armed by Moscow, assiduously supported by fellow-travellers and communist parties in the West, and by adopting the image of a Chinese intellectual was seen as a moderniser and democrat.
The scene was now set for his conquest of China, which was achieved through a combination of military ruthlessness, the promise of land to the landless peasants, and widespread disgust at the nepotism and corruption of the Nationalists.
Once he had seized power in 1949, Mao exceeded even his most bloody predecessors in an orgy of terror, while wearing the drab “Mao suit” which became synonymous with the austerity of the Maoist revolution.
A life of political struggle left Mao with disdain for the symbols of wealth, but he was obsessed with opulent villas and insisted on being surrounded by beautiful (and available) women.
As the authors show, he ruled China with an iron fist, and as a result of his constant purges – dressed up in slogans like the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, the “Great Leap Forward”, the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, the campaign against “The Gang of Four” and others – well over 70 million Chinese people were murdered or starved to death over a 30-year period.
Ultimately, that redoubtable Cold Warrior, US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger fell over themselves in legitimising Mao.
At Nixon’s first meeting with Mao in 1972, the US President enthused, “The Chairman’s writings moved a nation and have changed the world”, while Kissinger gushed, “I used to assign the Chairman’s collective writings to my classes at Harvard!”
Hold over Western intellectuals
Mao’s hold over generations of Western intellectuals had consequences which are with us to the present day – witness the 1960s “cultural revolution”, Pol Pot, the Malayan Emergency and, even today, various Latin American revolutionary movements. It is probably true that the guerrilla movements in countries like Iraq also owe something to his tactics.
Mao: The Unknown Story is a tour de force. The story which still needs to be told is how so many of the Western intelligentsia fell over themselves in genuflecting to “The Great Helmsman”, while his sole surviving legacy is one-party dictatorship in China.