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National Observer Home > No. 67 -Summer 2006 > Articles

The truth about Mao

by Andrew McIntyre

National Observer
(Council for the National Interest, Melbourne),
No. 67, Summer 2006,
pages 49-55.


Andrew McIntyre describes the impact of last year’s publishing sensation, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s exhaustively researched exposé, Mao: the Unknown Story.


To much fanfare and international recognition, Jung Chang, author of the all-time best selling non-fiction work Wild Swans, has co-authored with her British husband Jon Halliday a definitive history of Mao Zedong. The book has already been flagged as the best political history published this century and is certainly already a best-seller. In spite of the fact that other detailed books have been written on the brutality of Mao, Mao: The Unknown Story (published by Jonathan Cape) may claim to be the definite corrective on just exactly how monstrous a tyrant Mao was. Relentless in its depiction of the biggest mass murder of the twentieth century — more than 70 million deaths in peacetime — it focuses very much on Mao the man.

Although just over 800 pages and with copious notes and documentation, this book is for a general public. It reads as a compelling narrative and is told in the accessible style of Wild Swans. One of its strengths, notwithstanding the grim picture it paints, is that there is no facile moralising. The authors simply describe a man according to the lights of the people who knew him and who met him. Nevertheless, this has not stopped the inevitable apologists making surprising attempts to support Mao. So Thomas Bernstein, of Columbia University in New York, an apologist for Mao, states of the authors, “their scholarship is put at the service of thoroughly destroying Mao’s reputation. It has to be said that, after all, Chang’s very own family were victims, so this must be her ‘revenge’”. But Chang has been at pains to point out that the book overwhelmingly rests on documented facts and primary sources. “It is indisputable that Mao did misrule and was a ruthless tyrant”, she explained in one Melbourne interview: “The book is not a polemic. It is a straightforward story with facts. Readers can draw their own conclusions.”

Arthur Waldron, in a recent piece in Commentary, whilst acknowledging the central import and impact of this new book — “Like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, it delivers a death blow to an entire way of thinking” — flags that there are certain historical facts reported in the book that are hotly disputed by sinologist adherents of Mao. Whilst the importance of these disputed facts will be the subject of heated and ongoing debate at the margins, the moral impact of the book — placing Mao, at long last, completely beyond the pale — will be its lasting legacy.

Between them, the authors travelled through China and interviewed over 150 family relatives of Mao, his friends, colleagues, personal staff, and members of the top echelons of the party. These people had never before talked about Mao on the record. Whilst the authors give the reader little alternative explanation or a wider historical context for his actions, it is not possible to resist the picture put before us. The compelling conclusion is simply worse that anything one could imagine: Mao was unimaginably cynical, amoral and vicious. He survived precisely because he was more ruthless than anyone else he encountered, including Stalin. Mao, from these direct accounts, had a seamless life of cruelty, waged against friend, foe and family alike. What is worse, according to the authors’ account, his behaviour was not even mitigated by ideological belief. His actions were sustained by neither Marxist or communist beliefs, nor idealism of any sort.

Mao himself is quoted from his own diary, written at the age of 24 in 1918. It gives the clearest and most lucid account of the philosophical basis of his depraved actions:

“I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s action has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others ... People like me want to ... satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me ... People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people. … Some say one has a responsibility for history. I don’t believe it. I am only concerned about developing myself .”

On death and killing others he said:

“Human beings are endowed with the sense of curiosity, why should we treat death differently? Don’t we want to experience strange things? I think this is the most wonderful thing ... We love sailing on a sea of upheavals. To go from life to death is to experience the greatest upheaval. Isn’t it magnificent!”

To read this in the light of the tens of millions murdered or starved to death is chilling, to say the least. Mao told his inner ruling circle that it did not matter if people died. Death was to be celebrated. China was to be destroyed and then re-formed. “People like me long for [destruction] ... because when the old universe is destroyed, a new universe will be formed. Isn’t that better?”

From his earliest years thus, the authors trace Mao’s psychopathology and his cruelty to others. It starts with him as a child within his immediate family, then moves to his professional colleagues and allies as they are systematically and viciously betrayed for Mao’s personal hunger for power, money and domination. He was totally pragmatic. Lazy and opportunist, he had found very early on in his long life an easy way to obtain money and do no real work.

So consistently vile was he, it is hard to know in a short article what to choose as best, or worst, illustrations of Mao’s depravity. During the course of the Long March, he deliberately forced his troops to turn in circles for months in fruitless detours — thus sacrificing thousands of scarce fighting men — to serve no other purpose than to advance his bid for leadership. In an episode near Banyou in 1935, Mao connived, lied and menaced to oblige Kuo-tao, then military supremo of the main communist force at the time, to lead his troops through marshes where there was no possibility of finding food or villages. He even urged him “to bring all the wounded and sick who can manage to walk” in a calculated ruse to inflict maximum suffering to Kuo-tao’s forces. His aim was simply to stall him and consolidate his own position.

In the Great Leap Forward, many of the disasters and hair-brained ideas could have been avoided altogether if it were not for Mao. He refused to listen to expert advice. Rules and common sense were caste aside when steel mills were required to double production. As Chang writes, “Experts who tried to talk sense were persecuted. Mao set the tone for discrediting rationality by saying the ‘bourgeois professor’s knowledge should be treated as a dog’s fart, worth nothing, deserving only disdain, scorn, contempt …”. As a result, so many of the efforts, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and suffering of millions, came to nothing. Backyard furnaces produced steel that was unusable. Canals and irrigation schemes, often dug with bare hands, were abandoned as useless in view of a lack of planning and analysis. The famous drive to eliminate sparrows caused ecological disaster; pleas from scientists were ignored. Over four years from 1958, about 100 million peasants were coerced into such projects, moving a quantity of earth and masonry equivalent to excavating 950 Suez Canals, mostly using their own hammers, picks and shovels, food and shelter. Mao knew precisely and proudly just how many deaths went with so many billion cubic metres of soil. When senior officials in Gansu province appealed against “destroying human lives” in these projects, Mao had them condemned and punished as a “Rightist anti-Party clique”.

The critics of the book, as apologists will, have a technique whereby they readily admit just what a monster Mao was (how could they avoid it) but like true believers, if they can see a glass five per cent full, they find that that justifies the means. Apologists have already quickly pointed out that during the sane interludes between the terror campaigns — when Mao’s more pragmatic colleagues had more say — China showed remarkable economic growth and dramatically improved indices of social welfare, with life expectancy doubling in the 1950s! That none of this gets a mention in Mao, The Unknown Story is not surprising. Why should the authors dwell on improvements that doubtless would have been greater under a less oppressive regime? After all, Hitler brought inflation under control and restored pride in the German nation after its defeat in the Great War, and Stalin certainly created modern technology and massive industry — factories sometimes producing left-handed, one-size only boots.

The great purges that typified Mao’s rule are described in brutal detail. Chang and Halliday note that Mao “found within himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery. This gut enjoyment, which verged on sadism, meshed with, but preceded his affinity for Leninist violence. Mao did not come to violence via theory. The propensity sprang from his character.” His distinctive form of organisational terror was to get people to use it against each other. He perfected this method in Yenan, where all were coerced into an exercise of criticism and self-criticism by confessing and implicating each other in terrible “wrongs”. This method, with its associated horrendous torture and slow and terrifying deaths, was gradually extended to the whole of China. Yenan itself became a giant prison where defectors were automatically shot. But Mao went far beyond anything Hitler or Stalin had achieved. He converted colleagues into both gaolers and prisoners within the same living quarters. All were made to feel suspect by the spreading of false charges. Under incarceration, the young volunteers were made to confess to being spies and to denounce others, as a way of inducing terror. All of this provided the excuse for torture, sleep deprivation, whipping, hanging by the wrists, and wrenching people’s knees to breaking point, and mock executions. At night, screams could be heard throughout Yenan. And Mao personally gave instructions about torture. This was just the start of a universal dread and fear that is almost incomprehensible for us today, and represents a central blind spot of the Western Left in its appraisal of Mao. When Mao sometime later instigated a crackdown on corruption, it is estimated that more than 200,000 business men committed suicide by jumping out of buildings. They were dismissively called parachutes. Asked why they did not jump into the river to drown, an observer claimed that they would be accused of fleeing to Hong Kong, and thus imperil their families left behind. Mao was a man who tortured the women around him, including his four successive wives. When Chou Enlai, the most popular member of the regime, was diagnosed with bladder cancer, Mao ordered that he be neither told of the condition nor treated for it. Even as Chou was engaged in vital negotiations with the United States, Mao toyed with his loyal servant to ensure that he would die painfully.

In shocking contrast to this squalor, fear and death, Mao’s megalomania flowered in the most extravagant ways with the use of resources for his own comfort: massive and expensive houses were built throughout China for his personal use, remaining empty most of the time; for his dining, a particular fish had to be couriered alive 1000 kilometres in a plastic bag with water; rice had to be specially husked manually to preserve a certain membrane in the grain; his paddy fields were irrigated with spring water once used for the imperial court’s drinking water — all this occurred while his own personal staff remained cruelly undernourished. Whilst he actively stopped others from reading, he had elaborate printing works constructed to produce just a handful of editions of books for his exclusive use.

One surprising anecdote was the extent to which Mao succeeded in manipulating Richard Nixon through the famous “ping pong” diplomacy and subsequent first trip to Beijing and the shoddy and humiliating treatment President Nixon was forced to endure in private meetings with him in front of Dr. Henry Kissinger. The book shows just how much this meeting and the subsequent seduction of the United States played in projecting a benign image of Mao so much at odds with what we know now.

What is left today of this legacy? Three decades after his death, Mao Zedong is still officially endorsed by the present Chinese government, with his bland face hanging in Tienanmen Square and adorning every banknote. The recent defection of a Chinese diplomat in Australia and the brutal beating of civil rights activist Lu Banglie in October this year are very contemporary reminders of the nature of the Chinese Communist party and the way it deals with minorities like the Falun Gong and political dissent. The government is not shy of persecuting journalists. Indeed there are more journalists in jail in China than anywhere else in the world. Zhao Yan, correspondent from the Beijing Bureau of the New York Times was arrested last September as was the corespondent of the Straights Times. One must remember also China’s cynical and manipulative attitude on North Korea with its Mao look-alike Kim Jong-il, as a way of tormenting Washington and Tokyo. The government’s demand for independent Chinese bloggers to register, as is Microsoft’s recent admission that its Chinese blog sites would block titles like “freedom” and “democracy” in the country’s efforts to control the Internet, are signs that there is a long way to go. As a result, the Chinese Republic’s own Security Bureau reports that 3.6 million people protested in 74,000 “mass incidents”, a 20 per cent increase on 2003, in defiance of an 18-month crackdown involving more detentions, curbs and petitions and tighter controls on the internet and other communications.

Be that as it may, are there signs of a reappraisal of Mao? A new museum in the southern Chinese city of Shantou has just opened up and appears to defy communist sensitivities about the Cultural Revolution by putting the blame squarely on Mao Zedong. There are displays including scenes of a country in the grip of madness on a mass scale with gilded statues of Buddha plastered with signs saying “sentenced to death” being burned. Smoke billows from factories and colleges. Teachers, priests and officials are paraded in dunce caps and made to grovel. According to the writer Ji Xianlin on a plaque in the museum, “The Cultural Revolution was the most wild, brutal, blind and ridiculous tragedy ... It blackened the face of the Chinese nation. We should never forget it.” The museum is the work of a former vice-mayor of Shantou, Peng Qian, who was persecuted by Red Guards and decided to build the museum after he found the graves of some twenty victims of the Cultural Revolution on this hilltop. Peng seems to have crucial support from senior regional communist figures, including former Guangdong provincial party secretary Ren Zhongyi, an advocate of radical political reform.

One also must ask why Chang and Halliday had carte blanche to interview people for the very first time throughout China for this book when their intentions would have been known to the authorities. Could it be that the government is indeed looking eventually to put the shadow of Mao to rest, but with the initiative coming from outside?

Whilst it is understandable for China, given what it has gone through, to find it difficult to throw off the inheritance of Mao — a typical “Young Pioneer” high school student visiting the new Shantou museum still thought Mao a great leader who created a “new China” — it seems intolerable that the Western Left, academics and political elites still refuse to understand totalitarian left-wing regimes. According to one British socialist reviewer of this book, Mao Zedong’s role is “worthy of an all-sided analysis from which young people and workers today could benefit in the struggle for socialism”. That particular reviewer strangely objected to the book grouping Mao with Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler, which he found an “abomination”. Are these people still operating under the Love Story exemption: “love means never having to say you are sorry”?

There is still too much adulation of Mao’s perceived triumphs. A recent leftish Australian analysis challenging Chang and Halliday’s facts on the crossing of the Luding bridge during the Long March nevertheless seemed sympathetic to a huge new museum that included a mural of Red Army troops grappling their way across the bridge, amid shot and flame. In 2005, in spite of all that is now known, the mural extolled the virtues of the poor peasants injecting tourist dollars into their economy. Just imagine, for one minute, the outrage if there were to be a theme park museum for Kristelnacht or enactments of the Nuremberg rally to boost German tourism. It is precisely this double standard towards the biggest monster of the twentieth century that Mao: The Unknown Story is targeting.

This fashionably reverential attitude toward Mao is still seen in the uber chic of New York, where Andy Warhol’s Mao silk-screen prints passed the $100,000 mark at a New York auction houses some years ago. There is certainly resilience and chutzpah amongst the liberal believing class. This is why this book is so important. Hopefully, it will pin once and for all the monster that was Mao, as Solzhenitsyn has surely pinned the gulag and Stalin.




Mr Andrew McIntyre is a regular contributor of opinion pieces for Quadrant and other national journals and newspapers.










National Observer No. 67 - Summer 2006