There can be no doubt that all future historians of Mao Tse-tung, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, will have to come to terms with this giant boulder of a book. In it, Mao is given no quarter, no respite in a remorseless deconstruction of his rule as the world’s most fearsome tyrant, who delighted in death, cruelty, and destruction on a scale overshadowing by far the other two monsters of the twentieth century, Hitler and Stalin. In this account which Jon Halliday and Jung Chang have taken well over a decade to write and research, Mao is held responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, not to speak of the hundreds of millions of lives he destroyed, the soldiers he sent to their deaths to further his cause, or those he had buried alive. Yet while the regime’s description of Mao as 30% bad and 70% good is given short shrift, the authors do not get around to describing Mao as simply evil—but that is the book’s fundamental message.
Mao’s formative years.
Mao was born in 1893 in the village of Shaoshan, in Hunan province. He hated his hard-working and thrifty father, adored his Buddhist mother, learnt to develop a passion for reading, and grew up in the early freethinking years of the Republic. By 1917-18, the key components of his character—essentially the subordination of all other considerations to self-gratification–were in place. The authors attach much significance to the influence on Mao of Friedrich Paulsen, professor of moral philosophy at Berlin. Paulsen considered that the knowledge of consciousness was discovered by acts of will, inspired by instinct. “People like me, wrote Mao, have to satisfy our hearts to the full”. “All considerations must be purely calculation of oneself, and absolutely not for obeying external ethical codes”. This is the amoral foundation underpinning their account of Mao’s single-minded pursuit of power for the coming fifty years. Mao, they say, used ideas when they served his purpose, not because he believed in them.
Mao was a realist, an ideology which states that all is conflict, that life, as Hobbes wrote in his Leviathan, is “nasty, brutish and short”. But unlike Hobbes, Mao considered the task of the Leviathan not the achievement of order, so much as “ the complete transformation” of China. Only when the old order was destroyed could reform occur. Long lasting peace was undesirable, and death the most exciting of all transformations. History was permanent flux—a theme central to the great Song dynasty historian, Si-Ma Guang’s Comprehensive Mirror for the Aid of Those Who Govern, and a favourite of Mao until his dying days. Chang and Halliday do not mention this important source of Mao’s thinking, but focus more on his view of reality trumping ideals. To them, Mao chose ideas because they were useful to his purposes: “democracy, freedom, equality and fraternity” were to be concepts deployed “only for our political needs”, they quote Mao as saying. Marxist assumptions about class warfare conducted under the leadership of an avant-guarde as the means to defeat capitalism appealed to Mao, they suggest, because they justified privilege for the chosen few, abject equality for the masses, and the pleasure of perpetrating violence without limit.
Mao discovered that he loved violence for multiple reasons. Violence was inescapable in the revolutionary conditions of China because it smashed the social order, a conviction which brought him to Moscow’s attention, as it fitted into the Soviet model of a social revolution. But violence also gave Mao vicarious pleasure: in a report of March 1927, Mao wrote excitedly about the adrenalin rush which brutality brought him: “It is wonderful! It is wonderful!”, he exulted. This was written when Mao was active in Chiang Kai-shek’s Leninist Kuomintang, but it was a passion which stayed with him for life. When Mao presided over his “Red States” in Ruijin and then in Yenan in the 1930s and 1940s, he used Stalin’s method of purges against “AB(anti-Bolshevik) elements” to rule by terror; got his own KGB chief, Kang Sheng—China’s Beria, and author of the infamous Chinese goulag—to cow his followers; and showed no concern for loss of life or the suffering his mad policies inflicted on the Chinese people. On policies allowing millions of peasants to die of hunger, he noted that “on this matter, we indeed have no conscience”. As Michael Caine, the cockney film star told the authors about his experience in the British army during the Korean war where he observed the human wave tactics of Chinese troops to exhaust western bullets: “If they don’t care about the lives of their own people, how can I expect them to care about me?”
China’s revolutionaries cared about improving the conditions of women, by, for instance, ending the binding of women’s feet or challenging the practice of arranged marriages. Indeed, like Mao, they often considered formal marriage a “rape league”, and challenged tradition by living as “partners”—to use the post-modernist language of post-communist Europe and North America. For Mao, the partnership formula proved useful. His first, arranged marriage fell apart within a year, when Mao was 15, as his wife died. His second wife, Yang Kai-hui, loved Mao dearly, gave him three sons, and was executed by the defendants of Chang-sha, which was then under siege by Mao. Mao did nothing to save her. In documents discovered in her house in the 1980s and 1990s, Kai asked “Why are human beings so evil? Why so cruel?”. Her love in no way impeded his propensity to philander, and by the time Kai died, he was living with his third wife, Gui-yuan. She, also, had to put up with his behaviour. “Son of a pig, turtle’s egg, whoremongering no good”, she shouted at Mao in Yenan, “how dare you sneak in here and sleep with the little bourgeois bitch”. Gui-yuan ended in a mental asylum. His fourth wife, Jiang Qing, a young actress with a dubious past in Shanghai, caught his attention in 1937. She became the notorious Mme Mao, who played a prominent part in the Cultural Revolution. Jiang Qing, Mao observed, “is as poisonous as a scorpion”. In her trial after his death, Mme Mao admitted “I was Mao’s dog. Whoever Chairman Mao asked me to bite, I bit”. She committed suicide in 1981.
Myths on Mao.
Chang and Halliday demolish one myth of Mao after another. Mao, they write, was not present when the communist party of China, the CCP, was founded in August 1920, but he was present at the first CCP Congress in Shanghai in July 1921. Because Mao was keen on a good salary, and 94% of the CCP’s financing came from Moscow, it was not surprising to find Mao in support of Moscow’s plan to herd the CCP into the Kuomintang. CCP members considered Mao as too right wing, too close to the Nationalists, and too ideologically woolly. He was working in the Kuomintang’s peasant affairs department, when Chiang Kai-shek in 1927 declared war on the CCP as too beholden to the USSR, which Chiang had to rely on as a source of finance, but whose class-war policies he despised, and whose imperial ambitions he suspected. Like Philip Short, in his Mao: A Life, London, John Murray, 2004, the authors demonstrate time and again that Mao was the only CCP leader who was consistently in agreement with Stalin on the role of the peasantry in China, the importance of a Red Army, and the need to create rural base areas—in an Arabic translation, Al Qaida.
Short cites Mao‘s report on the role of the peasantry to the Kuomintang Central Committee as based on meticulous research, and interprets Mao’s strategy to win power as rooted in meticulous Marxist analysis of class war in the countryside. The authors of Mao: The Unknown Story have none of this. Mao, they write, was never concerned about peasants. His report to the Kuomintang, they demonstrate, was blasted by a Marxist ideologue, M. Volin, in a Soviet magazine Kanton, as unsystematic and unscientific. Subsequently, Mao acted as if he despised the peasantry. The peasantry was there to be exploited, and to help him conquer power. Once emperor of China, Mao’s policy was to guarantee food to the urban population, and to let peasants starve. Peasants were nailed to their locality in a manner unprecedented in the past, so when famine struck, there was no escape. “The state should try its hardest…to prevent peasants eating too much”, he opined. In 1955, he introduced the communes, prompting a long term collapse in food output so that by the 1970s China was a major net food importer from Australasia and the Americas. Mao’s farm policies, like those of Stalin and his successors, proved a major human disaster.
Mao was much more concerned about political struggles in the CCP than in military matters. For that reason, and because he considered that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun”, his energies went first and foremost to getting control over armies. Early on, he considered that political demonstrations in the streets invited retaliation, and that if power was to be conquered, it had to be done by armed force, under his own personal control. All competitors had to be eliminated, and if necessary, their soldiers sent to their deaths. Even when the enemy was at the gates, Mao preferred to purge opponents than to direct energies to the battle at hand. Though Mao permanently proclaimed that the communists were the true source of national resistance to Japan, the reality—the authors demonstrate again and again—was that Mao was much more interested in conserving his forces for the final war against the Kuomintang than to engage with China’s occupiers.
Stalin favoured Mao’s policy that the CCP create its own state in China. The first of these was operative from 1931 to 1934 in Ruijin, in Jiangxi province. Chou En-lai, who became Mao’s perennial foreign minister, organised the bureaucracy, which extracted resources from the countryside by the rule of terror in the form of tax, food, labour and soldiers. Opposition was crushed, and class war arguments were deployed to justify exploitation on a massive scale. Over the lifetime of the Ruijin state survived, the province recorded the greatest population decrease in the whole of China. In 1949, when Mao entered Beijing in triumph, the authors assert that there was not one CCP member in the area. The performance was repeated in Yenan, with the novelty that the opium trade and inflation helped finance communist activities. The province remained incredibly poor into the 1960s.
Another myth about Mao which the authors demolish is the story of key battles that never occurred, of Mao’s destruction of troops and rivals for his own benefit, and of how the leadership was carried by porters during a Long March that was indeed heroic, but heroic for the long suffering soldiery, rather less so for the communist elite. In effect, they write, the Red Army escaped because Chiang decided to let it escape as a way to keep in with Stalin, and because he wanted his blood-son, Chiang Ching-kuo returned from Moscow, where Stalin was holding him hostage. Eventually, Ching-kuo was returned after a strange affair involving Chiang’s kidnapping by the Young Marshall, a local warlord with a fancy for Mussolini, who was negotiating with the communist leadership. Stalin returned Ching in return for a commitment by the CCP and the Kuomintang to join forces against Japan. The incident brought the CCP to the world’s attention as the main “opposition” party to the Kuomintang.
Mao conquered power, another myths runs, because he forged a lean and mean fighting force, inspired by uncompromising patriotism and dedicated to improving the lot of China’s working and peasant classes. Not so, say our authors. The communists were time and again saved or their passage eased by foreign powers. Chiang was about to annihilate the remnants of the communist forces in 1931, when his troops had to withdraw from Jiangxi in response to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. In 1937, Stalin helped detonate a full-scale confrontation in southern China in order to keep Japan away from the Russian border, thereby setting the spark to the 8 year Sino-Japanese war. In the initial battle for Shanghai, Chiang lost 73 of 180 of his divisions. By 1945, China had lost 20 million dead, 95 million were refugees, Chiang’s state was seriously weakened, and Mao was able to emerge with an army of 1.3 million. Three days after the nuclear bombs fell on Hiroshima, Stalin’s armies invaded northern China, opened the Japanese arms depots to the communists, and created the conditions for Mao’s eventual triumph.
Early in 1945, Mao morphed into Chairman Mao, having himself voted chairman of the CCP Central Committee, of the Politburo and of the Secretariat—a Chinese Stalin. With status came his personality cult–courtesy of US journalists, and—the authors argue—a claque of more or less naïve fellow-travellers, with the ears of both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. This is probably one of the reasons for the book’s ambiguous reception in the US, where the scars from the conflict of the early cold war over “who lost China” are still sensitive. The main character here is Edgar Snow, who wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and the New York Herald Tribune, and allowed Mao to ghost write large parts of his famous book, published in 1938, entitled “Red Star over China”. The book played a major part in swaying western opinion in Mao’s favour, invented the questionable “heroics” of the Long March, and failed to mention Mao’s AB purges, use of torture, murder and terror. Roosevelt relied on information about China from a private network that included Snow. As the Mitrokhin Archives record, the higher echelons of Roosevelt’s administration were riddled with active Soviet spies, including, for instance, John Maynard Keynes’ US counterpart at the 1944 Bretton Woods accord, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Harry Dexter White.
Mao was always well served by a stream of western visitors, who were prepared to swallow any amount of nonsense about Mao. One such piece of nonsense that found some echo in the US in 1945 was the cute idea that the CCP were moderate agrarian reformers, who aspired to a US-type democracy. In Marxist terms, this was little more than a useful lie. Mao was also well-equipped to manipulate various do-gooders for his own benefit. In 1945, General Marshall, of European Marshall Plan fame, was sent to China by Truman in a vain attempt to prevent a civil war. Mao exploited the relatively peaceful interlude to absorb the 200,000 troops from the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo into the Red Army, strengthened by Japanese prisoners of war, before resuming the march to supreme power in China. Once in power, he spent much of his time scaring other world leaders, like Khruschev, but occasionally returned to old ways of whitewashing disaster. In 1961, he told François Mitterrand, that “there is no famine in China”—at a time that people were dying like flies from a Mao-made famine. Jean-Paul Sartre, one of France’s favourite philosophers, praised the “revolutionary violence” of Mao as profoundly moral. With friends like these, it is not perhaps so surprising that Mao triumphed over his enemies.
But triumph he did. That his victory proved to be a prolongation of the Chinese people’s tragedy, starting with the collapse of the empire in the third decade of the nineteenth century, there can be no doubt. Where the authors are vulnerable, though, is their reluctance to come to terms with the fact that in Mao’s book, what mattered was victory, and that to be savoured, victory had to be indivisible. Their depiction of Mao as a ruthless leader, prepared to wage war against other Chinese rather than the national enemy, Japan; ready to contemplate handing over large tracts of Chinese territory in the North and the West to buy Stalin’s support; perceptive enough to flatter western journalists when necessary, or to switch tactics from class war to united front and back again, as circumstances dictated; or never to engage, worse, to co-operate clandestinely with the Japanese occupier in order to defeat Chiang—all of this rings true enough, though Japanese historians apparently deny any sign of collaboration between the communists and the Imperial armies. Whatever the detailed historical truth of one theme or the other, the undeniable point is that Mao never made any secret of his intent to win. What mattered to him was the result, not the method. Mao won and Chiang lost.
So the test for Mao was not victory in war, but success in peacetime. This is where the authors have less of a problem to reconcile their evident distaste for the monster with the results of his actions. In war, he won; in peace, they are tempted to argue, he failed. The trouble here is that for Mao, as they point out, peace was a delusion. Life was war, and war being a permanent condition of mankind, China had to prepare for it. For Mao, as for de Gaulle, policy was not domestic—the achievement of equality, wealth or justice—but first and foremost about China’s affirmation as a power in the global jungle.
Their overarching theme for the years 1949 to his death in 1976, when Mao reigned as China’s Red Emperor, was his determination to preside over a military superpower in his own lifetime. This was very much the theme of Sebastian Haffner’s 1978 study on Hitler, Anmerkungen zu Hitler, which Ian Kershaw has written of as one of the most brilliant studies of the Nazi dictator. A prime theme developed by Haffner was that Hitler’s hubris was to crush his programme for Germany, Europe and the world into his own lifetime, requiring him to launch permanent revolution and war in a mad, destructive bid to challenge his own mortality. One important difference between Hitler and Mao, was that Mao came to power in the nuclear age, requiring a rather clearer divide than prevailed prior to 1945, between state policy and revolutionary policy. In a nuclear age, sending troops across international frontiers involved high risks for the perpetrators, especially if those troops came into conflict with the troops of other nuclear powers—in the case of the Korean war, the U.S. and the U.K., the only two powers ever to have countenanced the use of nuclear terror in war on an enemy state.
The sources of the Korean war is another area where the authors are less than convincing. Like other works on Mao, the authors make the point that Mao identified mainland China with the Soviet camp, but then they argue that Mao and Stalin jointly started the Korean war. Stalin was prepared to support Mao and the Korean dictator, Kim Il Sung, because a war would fulfil a number of purposes: it would be a testing ground for new technology; it would increase Chinese and Korean dependence on the USSR(interestingly, the authors regularly refer to “Russia” rather than the “USSR”, as seeming to accept the position that the two are synonymous); it would test how far the US was prepared to go to war on the communist camp; the timing would be right because major capitalist powers, Germany and Japan, were no longer in the game; and most important of all, China had limitless manpower to throw against the UN forces in Korea. Not least, Stalin and Mao were not concerned about the prospective loss of lives—no footnote being required to explain their joint belief that socialist omelettes could not be made without breaking human eggs.
The trouble with this explanation is that both Moscow and Beijing had plenty of reason to be concerned that the US had complete air supremacy over the Korean peninsula, that UN troops were under the command of the victor of the Pacific war, and that the western allies had dropped the nuclear bomb on Japan. Mao—the Unkown Story seems to be arguing that Stalin wanted the war, but did not want it. This is not easily squared with the statement that Stalin positively wanted the war. If the USSR was to extend air coverage over Korea, would the US extend the war zone to include Russia? If US troops were under too much pressure, would not the US drop nuclear weapons on China, and perhaps even seek to “roll back” Soviet rule from other territories? The hesitations induced in Stalin by such thoughts—and his bleak view of how capitalism worked would have been abundantly replenished by blood-curdling statements emerging from the Washington D.C. of 1949-50– are at first downplayed by the authors, and then emphasised in their discussion of how Mao drew Stalin into the war, though Stalin continued to insist on his leadership of the world communist movement, did provide military-industrial back-up to the Chinese, and remained very reluctant to hand over nuclear secrets to Mao. In other words, the authors start with a hard-hitting statement and then cover their tracks, or undermine their initial thesis.
The authors are more convincing in their presentation of Mao’s relations with Stalin’s heirs, and with Khruschev in particular. Khruschev did not want to become embroiled in US conflicts with China over Taiwan, and was ready to provide technical assistance to China to make the bomb. Despite high risk operations undertaken by the USSR in the Caribbean, Khruschev did wish to reach a modus vivendi with the West, did not appreciate Mao’s not-so-casual statements about China’s ability to absorb enormous human losses in a nuclear confrontation, and did castigate Stalin for his crimes against the party(not against the people—only late in life did Khruschev make the statement, referring to his 1930s stint as Stalin’s henchman in the Ukraine, that his arms were dripping with blood) at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. The Sino-Soviet split is well-recorded by the authors, but does not break new territory. As is well known, China’s first bomb was detonated at Lop Nor in October 1964.
To this reviewer’s mind, the authors are least convincing in their analysis of Mao’s relations with the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy team in the years 1969-74. First, they rightly make the point that Mao decided to invite Nixon to come to China, after the Sino-Soviet clash on the Ussuri river in early 1969 and when it had become obvious that Maoism was going nowhere in a hurry in most of the world. General Suharto had drowned the Indonesian communist party in blood in 1965; Castro was pro-Soviet, and Che Guevera was betrayed by the peasantry and killed by the Bolivian armed forces; the prime supporter of Hanoi in the war against the south was the Soviet Union. The authors present a Nixon-Kissinger team who gave too much away, were bamboozled by Mao’s talk about the shared Sino-US threat from the USSR, and allowed the Chinese regime to continue to indulge into anti-US tirades. This is naïve. As the authors point out, Mao hoped to extract nuclear technology from the US by talking about the Soviet threat. He got nothing. His dalliance with Nixon cost him his international reputation. Hanoi chastised Chou En-lai for talking with the US about Vietnam. There was never a chance that the US would abandon Taiwan.
By 1973, the Chinese foreign ministry concluded that the world was more than ever divided between two powers, the US and the USSR. As the authors point out, Mao had to abandon his dream of China as a superpower in his lifetime. In other words, the story as told of Mao’s relationships with the Nixon-Kissinger team provides enough evidence to invert the authors’ thesis that Mao took the Americans to the cleaners: rather, much of the evidence they cite could substantiate an argument that Mao massively under-estimated the Americans. Nixon and Kissinger in effect adapted US policy to changed global circumstances, the most important feature of which was the militarisation of the Soviet economy and foreign policy. In retrospect, they set the scene for the USSR’s demise short of nuclear war—an extraordinary accomplishment. It is difficult to credit their judgement that the Sino-US relationship, whose basis was, and is still, the Nixon-Mao Shanghai agreement of February 1972, increased the danger of war. The authors of Mao-The Untold Story end their analysis of this period in Chinese foreign policy on a note that suggests that the USSR was the victim of Sino-US machinations—a point of view which led Breschnev to his disastrous decision to invade Afghanistan in late 1979. Chinese foreign policy in the years 1949-76 is not this book’s forte.
The rhythm of the book does not let up as the authors present Mao’s lamentable domestic record. The authors put the number of people who died in prisons and labour camps at 27 million over the years of Mao’s reign. Unlike others authors, who tend to argue that these years saw policy swings between moderation in class war and growth in the economy, to class war and economic shortages, Chang and Halliday present a bleak picture of unremitting warfare launched by the party-state on the people of China. There were two guiding principles, in this account, informing Mao’s policies. One was to control the party, whose members Mao suspected (rightly) of preferring a quieter, Kruschev-type goulash communism. In the “Let 100 Flowers Bloom” incident, when Mao invited criticism of his policies, the authors expand on an ex-post evaluation of Mao: “We wanted those sons-of-turtles to wriggle out and sing and fart…that way we can catch them”. In his impatience to achieve superpowerdom, he then launched China into the Great Leap Forward, causing—the authors estimate –the deaths of close to 38 million people. Mao was then obliged at the Conference of Seven Thousand in 1962 to change policies—a setback for which Mao did not forgive part membership.
Relations between Mao, and his colleagues, had been deteriorating for some time. Chang and Halliday write that the way in which his great leap Forward was brought to an ignominious end prompted him to nurture “volcanic hatred” of officials. The vitriolic Mme Chang became more prominent, and in 1966, Mao launched China on ten years of Cultural Revolution, in which the authors calculate that 3 million people died violent deaths, two-thirds of the Beijing historic sites were destroyed, terrified households destroyed their libraries(Mao stole volumes for his own pleasure, much like Goering’s plunder of art works in Europe during the second world war), and up to 100 million people suffered in one way or another. Most Chinese families have to support un-or under-educated 50 year old members who failed to attend schooling, or were incited by Mao to believe that thoughtless action was a reasonable substitute for learning.
Mao’s final years are mired in failure. Henry Kissinger, in his record of his years at the forefront of US foreign policy, records Mao admitting as much. To judge by the company that Mao kept, after the brief interlude around the early 1970s, when Mao and Chou negotiated the key relationship with the US, there was little to boast about. China’s competition with the USSR for leadership of “revolution” in the post-colonial world ended in failure. Enver Hoxha, Albania’s tin-pot Stalin, upbraided Mao for “the shitty business” of talking with Nixon; Mobutu dropped by to say hello. Hanoi’s victory in 1975 was a Soviet, not Chinese victory. Mao backed the monster, Pol Pot in Cambodia. A longer time bomb of Maoism was triggered in Peru’s Shining Path movement, which came into its violent own in the 1980s. Closer to the present, Nepal is being convulsed by Maoist revolutionary tactics. In western Europe, Maoist break-away parties challenged Moscow-oriented parties in Portugal—The European Commission president, Barroso, was a “maoist”—although there are suspicions that he was on the CIA payroll at the time of Portugal’s “revolution of carnations”. Probably, one of the major Mao legacies is the formative influence his Little Red Book, and its “liberation” ideology, had on the European “1968ers”—particularly prominent in Germany over the past seven years.
As Mao aged, he failed to establish an heir. He toppled his intended heir apparent Liu Shao-chi, whose conscience had been pricked by the terrible suffering he learnt of first hand from the inhabitants of his home village during the Great Leap Forward. He fell out with Lin Biao, who died with his family in trying to escape to the USSR by plane in September 1971. In 1972, Chou En-lai pleaded with Mao to allow himself to be treated for cancer, an operation Mao refused. When the operation was allowed, it was too late to stop the cancer’s spread. The last three years of Mao’s existence, when relations with the US cooled, were recorded, the authors point out, as comparable to the years of famine during the Great Leap Forward. The one change was the formidable alliance made between Chou En-lai and Deng Xiao Ping, back from banishment, to counter the machinations of the Mme Mao and the Gang of Four. For the authors, Mao was concerned neither with the future nor with the past. He lived and died for himself.
When Mao died, China was an impoverished backwater, hundreds of millions lived below any modest threshold of poverty, technology was hopelessly outdated—as the Red Army experienced in the brutal short war fought with Vietnam in the winter of 1978-79–, and China’s main exports were oil and raw materials. Philip Short in his biography of Mao nonetheless tries to be fair-minded: China under Mao,Short writes, made the great leap from semi-colony to great power; from millennial autarky to socialist state; from imperialist victim to UN Security Council member. Short then goes on to make the fantastic claim—very much in the manner of Eric Hobsbawm’s apologia for his membership of the communist party for fifty years after the knowledge was out for anyone who cared to listen about what life was like in Stalin’s USSR—that the overwhelming majority of those whom Mao’s policies killed were unintended consequences of policy failure. Short was trying to argue that the unintended consequences of Mao’s policy failures put him in a different category to Hitler and Stalin.
One major contribution of Chang and Halliday’s book on Mao is to render such special pleading impossible. They make a strong case, that would take very detailed and length historical research to counter, that his failures flowed from his relentless search for power for power’s sake, his shedding any shackles of restraint in the form of ethical principles, and his cynical regard only for his own self-gratification. They do not say so, but their Mao is one of the characters straight from Dostoevsky’s Possessed, a horrendous nihilist who believes in nothing but himself. The trouble with this interpretation is that it allows Marxism to get off too lightly: for the authors, Mao wears his Marx lightly. Marxism as a prism on the world is a tool which lends itself to the waging of permanent war and “revolution”. Short, rightly in this reviewers view, takes Mao’s Marxism more in earnest, but then lets Mao off the hook by implying that he intended well, but “ ..oh sorry, millions of people died. I didn’t mean it”. Where Chang and Halliday score is that they have no truck with such pusillanimity. Mao, they say, was a ruthless power-seeker. The point that they do not elaborate is that Marxism is a warlike doctrine, justifying power for power’s sake and nihilistic to boot. Chang and Halliday are tough on Mao, to paraphrase Tony Blair, but not on Marxism.
Nonetheless, this book is without doubt a major challenge for Mao’s heirs. The legitimacy of the present party-state is inescapably entwined with Mao. And as they write in an short epitaph, “the current communist regime declares itself to be Mao’s heir and fiercely perpetuates the myth of Mao”. They demolish the myth, and therefore lay a powerful axe to the roots of the present regime. But it is far from certain that the regime will topple. Indeed, the Mao biography makes two powerful pointers to the present: one is that Mao’s ambition to superpowerdom is being pursued by other means. No doubt Mao would turn in his grave if he read about his regime embracing capitalism. In this reviewer’s opinion, we are not observing capitalism in China, but a market-driven Marxist growth engine. The other is that Mao arguably immunised the Chinese for generations against ideology, a point which Short draws out in his biography, but is not made by Chang and Halliday. What the Chinese people want is performance, economic performance of course, but also in terms of justice, security, and a degree of equality. Mao’s heirs are presiding over a proto-democracy, and it is the Chinese people who are, and will be calling the shots. The present rulers of China, though, remember that Mao unleashed “the masses” in the Cultural Revolution: they clearly consider that western democrats want the same.
No doubt, there will be many challenges to Chang and Halliday’s de-construction of Mao—it would be surprising were it not the case, since this great work on Mao does not have the archival abundance which the great biographies of Hitler, from Bullock to Kershaw, have enjoyed, or that Sebag Montefiore was able to draw on in his extraordinary tour de force describing the ghastly court of Stalin. Mao’s regime has survived, and has not had its archives opened wide. The likelihood that they will be any time soon is minute. This book cannot be the final say about Mao. But it is a great book, incontournable.
Copyright: Jonathan Story 2006
A shorter version of the this article is published in Salisbury Review, Spring 2006, Vol.24.No3. pp.42-44.