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Mao: the Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday





  4 July 2005

Mao: The end of the affair

A new biography by former Maoists Jung Chang and Jon Halliday blames Mao for everything that has gone wrong in China. What are they trying to hide?

by James Heartfield

Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Jonathan Cape, 832pp, £25 (hbk)


From his victory over the nationalist Kuomintang in 1949 to his death in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Tse-tung has exercised a morbid grip over the imagination of the Western intelligentsia. Just released on DVD is French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise (1), a bizarre but fascinating collapse of film into Maoist agit-prop, originally filmed in 1967 when the Mao cult was at its height. Then avant garde composer Cornelius Cardew alarmed his free-form 'Scratch Orchestra' by presenting them (for the first time) with sheet music: a military march in the Maoist style.

I can remember reading the author of Stockhausen serves Imperialism's obituary in the Maoist paper he supported, The Worker's Weekly, claiming that his accidental death walking in the middle of the street at night during a heavy snowfall in 1981 was the work of the CIA.

The Mao cult might have seemed more comic than tragic in the West, but it did muddy the political waters in the 1960s and 1970s, serving as a phoney radicalism for the radical intelligentsia when the conservative influence of the official Communist movement could no longer be avoided. Students in the London School of Economics, and of structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, hid their embarrassment at talking to ordinary people in Britain and France by an imaginary association with Mao's Red Bases.

For the Chinese, however, the cult of Mao, subject of a new biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, was much more destructive, symptomatic of the country's one-sided liberation from foreign domination. Unfortunately missing from Chang and Halliday's biography is an account of the defeat suffered by China's Communists in Shanghai and Hong Kong in 1927, which makes it harder to understand that Mao's ascendance was the consequence of a terrible setback.

The real story

In the 1920s, the movement to free China from foreign domination, and from the vicious rule of warlords and Emperors, came to a head in the rapidly industrialising coastal fringe of the country. Foreign investment had spurred the growth of the market there, and with it the emergence of a capitalist class and a vast working class. These two forces were both represented in the nationalist movement to free the country, though it was an alliance that was straining at the seams. The merchants, led by soldier and sometime commodity dealer Chiang Kai-shek, were aghast at the strike wave that the left had launched in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The story is told best in Harold Isaacs' Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, and was the inspiration for Andre Malraux's novel The Human Condition. Most recently it has been told from the point of view of an English officer of the Shanghai Military Police in Robert Bicker's Empire Made Me (2). The left, led by Ch'en Tu-hsiu and calling themselves Communists in identification with the Bolshevik revolution, were reluctantly following Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's advice to stick with the nationalists. Ever cynical, Stalin did not believe that socialism was possible in China, but hoped to influence Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang responded by slaughtering the Chinese Communists in their thousands to take control of the nationalist movement, the Kuomintang.

Mao rose to prominence in the Chinese Communist Party as someone who would cover up the disaster of the 1920s. He helped to reorient the scattered militants of the CCP from a workers' revolution to one based on the ancient grudges of the Chinese peasantry: 'it was the class struggle of the peasant uprisings and the peasant wars that constituted the real motive force of historical development in China', he wrote in 1939 (3). It was a policy that seemed destined to failure. The peasants had only ever produced violent jacqueries, which usually ended in disaster, most recently in the Boxer rebellion of 1900. But it had the advantage that it covered Stalin's blushes over 1927, and for that reason he helped promote Mao above Ch'en Tu-hsiu.

In the end, Mao's peasant-based Red Army did win out over the nationalists, in the context of the struggle against Japan's invasion. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday struggle to explain Mao's victory in their Unknown Story, because their hostility to their subject forbids any credit whatsoever. In this telling the Red Army's victories over his Kuomintang rivals are explained away as increasingly bizarre conspiracies. In the decisive campaigns, they allege, the Kuomintang troops were led by CCP spies infiltrated into the leadership 22 years earlier, when they were all on the same side, and these generals deliberately led their men to disaster after disaster (4). Worse still, the Western diplomats advising Britain and America that the Kuomintang were corrupt and brutal, Archibald Clark Kerr and Lauchlin Currie, were Soviet agents (5).

It does not fill you with confidence in Chang and Halliday's research to discover that outside of far-right websites, nobody believes that either Baron Inverchapel or the New Dealer Currie were Soviet agents, not even the authorities that they cite (6). Chang and Halliday also misunderstand the defections back and forth between the Kuomintang and the CCP. These were less examples of espionage, as the fluidity of the situation, when many Chinese top brass were just not sure who would come out on top, and hedged their bets.

What is more, there is no need to descend into conspiracy theory to explain Mao's victory. Chang and Halliday's instinct that Mao's political appeal or military know-how are not sufficient explanation is justified. The reason that Mao won was because of the collapse of all the other alternatives: the last Chinese Emperor, Pu Yi had abdicated; the British Empire had retreated before the Japanese advance on Hong Kong and Singapore; the Kuomintang had failed to defend Manchuria against invasion; and finally the Japanese in turn had been driven back by US troops. Once they stopped retreating into the marshland (the Long March properly demystified by Chang and Halliday), the Communists succeeded in filling the power vacuum. Mao 'had not overthrown the government', said US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1950, because 'there was nothing to overthrow' (7).

On a socio-economic level, the export of capital to the less developed world in the 1920s, having failed to resolve the stagnation of the developed economies, was thrown into reverse. The massive destruction of industry and capital in the war led to a retraction of investments back into Japan to partake in the postwar reconstruction, leaving mainland China starved of new funds. Chiang Kai-shek's attempt to build a national movement on the basis of the Chinese merchant class failed because it was eating up its own dwindling support in extortionate taxation (8). Of the two nationalist movements, the one that was based on the capitalists was bound to fail because capital was being withdrawn from the mainland.

Chang and Halliday seek to challenge the accepted view that 'the CCP were more patriotic and keener to fight Japan than the nationalists', which they say is an example of 'history rewritten' and 'completely untrue' (9). They support this assertion with a nit-picking analysis of the difference between the CCP slogans '"Down with the Nationalists", but merely "oppose Japanese Imperialism"'. But before considering the facts of the case, it is worth asking who it was that so deceived us. 'Chiang Kai-shek had adopted a policy of non-resistance in the face of the Japanese seizure of Manchuria and increasing encroachments on China proper', according to one account, 'and had concentrated instead on trying to annihilate the Communists'. Who is the author? Jung Chang, in Wild Swans, the best-ever-selling family memoir (10). To support this earlier claim, Chang quotes Chiang Kai-shek's maxim, 'the Japanese are a disease of the skin, the Communists are a disease of the heart'.

A new interpretation

Indeed Mao: The Unknown Story flatly contradicts Wild Swans throughout. One revelation in Unknown Story is that Mao engineered Chiang Kai-shek's abduction by his junior Chang Hsuieh-lang in 1936. But in Wild Swans Chiang was 'partly saved by the Communists' (11). Perhaps Unknown Story is intended to correct the 'completely untrue' claims made in Wild Swans, and put the 10million readers of this best-ever-selling non-fiction paperback right. But there are no indications that Jung Chang is correcting her earlier assertions in the text or footnotes. And look, here, on the back page cover of Unknown Story, not corrections of, but 'praise for Wild Swans'.

It is not just the earlier Wild Swans that contradicts the argument in Unknown Story that the nationalists took on the Japanese occupiers, or the many other sources (12), but the facts presented in Unknown Story itself. Just 20 pages on, Chang and Halliday tell us that Chiang Kai-shek 'mobilised half a million troops'. To fight the Japanese? No. 'He had agreed a truce with the Japanese, acquiescing to their seizure of parts of north China, in addition to Manchuria, and this freed him to concentrate his strength on fighting the reds', they write approvingly (all the time condemning Mao for fighting Chiang, not the Japanese) (13). When evidence of Communist opposition to Japan is unavoidable, Chang and Halliday insist that it was an exception, as in the July 1940 campaign against supply lines in northern China to relieve besieged Chongqing, which cost the Eighth Route Army 90,000 men (14). When Chiang Kai-shek slaughters the Communist New Fourth Army in 1941, Chang and Halliday want it both ways: minimising the atrocity, but also blaming Mao for betraying his rival commander Xiang Ying.

It is not the facts that are new, so much as the interpretation that Chang and Halliday put on them. Even the interpretation is not that new, repeating much of the argument put by the US right, the Taiwanese government created by the Kuomintang's retreat to that island, and more latterly by the increasing number of mainland Chinese critics of Mao.

Chang and Halliday argue that Chiang Kai-shek let the Red Army retreat north because Stalin was holding his son hostage in Russia. Not wholly unknown: Chiang Ching-kuo, who later went on to become president of Taiwan, gave this explanation of his articles condemning his father in the Moscow Press back in 1937 (15). Chang and Halliday shore up their argument by asserting that Chiang Kai-shek's information minister Shao Li-tzu, who had accompanied Ching-kuo to Moscow, was a Communist agent, and that Li-tzu's son had been killed by the Kuomintang in revenge in 1931. Which is a great tale, except that Shao Li-tzu kept his post as the information minister right up until 1949, in 'an almost unbelievably complex web of intrigue, deceit, bluff and double bluff' (16). Or maybe it is just plain unbelievable.

Of course it is more than possible that Stalin detained Chiang Ching-kuo in Moscow as leverage, but that does not mean that he did not initially go willingly in 1925 - many Kuomintang were trained in Moscow. More importantly, Chiang Kai-shek does not seem to have worried about the danger to his son enough to stop killing off thousands of CCP members in Shanghai and Hong Kong in 1927, so why would he have been so moved to spare Mao? A simpler explanation is that Chiang Kai-shek welcomed the Communists' long retreat from the coastal cities, and Chang and Halliday describe well the way that the Kuomintang boxed the Red Army in.

Pursuing the Communist 'sleeper' explanation of Kuomintang strategy, Chang and Halliday allege that Russian mole general Zhang Zhi-zhong single-handedly started the war with Japan, in August 1937. 'This was probably one of Stalin's greatest coups', they write, noting that the eight-year war cost 20million lives and shifted the ratio of Chiang's army to Mao's from 60:1 at the start to 3:1 at the end (17). The implication is that the Communists (through their agents) provoked the war with Japan to advance their cause. A more conventional explanation of the conflict is the division of China between the major powers at the Washington conference in 1921, and that 'Japan lacks many of the raw materials needed for industrial manufacturing', driving it to establish 'a colonial penumbra' before 1945. At least that was the explanation that Jon Halliday preferred in 1973, when he gave it in the book Japanese Imperialism Today (18). But 30 years later the overriding need to excoriate Stalin and Mao means blaming them for their enemies' sins. Japan's atrocities against China are supposed to be down to Communist provocation not imperialist domination. Even the infamous Japanese massacre of 300,000 Chinese at Nanjing is minimised by a comparison with starvation during the Communist siege of Changchun in 1948 (19).

Similarly the 1950 Korean War between the North's Kim Il Sung, backed by China, and the USA, is explained wholly in terms of Mao's attempts to secure Soviet military aid. No doubt those were among Mao's motives, but Chang and Halliday ignore the motives of the other players, South Korea's Syngman Rhee and US President Truman. In fact, South Korean forces had tried to invade North Korea in June 1949, a year before Chang and Halliday have North Korea invading the South (20). Whatever Mao's motives, Truman needed a war to promote his containment policy. As US General Van Fleet said in 1952: 'There had to be a Korea either here, or some place in the world.' (21)

In Chang and Halliday's telling, Mao's determination to string out the war led America to bomb, in US Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk's words 'until there was nothing left to bomb'. No doubt Mao's cynical recklessness exacerbated the conflict, but in the end it was America, not China that destroyed Korea. As impressive as Unknown Story's bibliography is, one glaring omission is Halliday's own book Korea: The Unknown War, or any of the many books by its coauthor Bruce Cumings that have detailed American and South Korean provocations and atrocities against the North (22).

In Hong Kong, too, the Unknown Story argues that while the British colonial authorities might have 'killed some demonstrators' in 1967, the real danger was attacks on police by mainland Chinese soldiers (23). A much better account of the conflict between the people of Hong Kong and the British authorities can be found in Halliday's 1974 essay 'Hong Kong: Britain's Chinese Colony', where the 1967 events are 'anti-colonial riots' against an administration where there 'is no democracy'. Thankfully the younger Halliday's call for an end to 'over a century of British aggression against China and the cessation of the horrendous and continuing exploitation of four million Chinese in Hong Kong' prevailed over the older Halliday's version of Britain as a victim of Chinese aggression (24). But sadly Chang and Halliday's demonisation of Mao leads them to emphasise the conflict between Britain and mainland China over a more interesting investigation of the collaboration between them on Hong Kong's special status as offshore trading post (25).

Despite its retrieval of Cold War positions, Mao: The Unknown Story is especially interesting on Mao's various attempts to create an 'Asian Cominform', and to influence the development of the emerging Third Worldist movement, and how these were eventually stymied by the Soviet Union. Halliday's original research in Moscow's archives adds a lot. Compellingly, Chang and Halliday relate China's failure to internationalise Maoism to the moves towards rapprochement between China and America in the 1970s. Though here they portray Nixon and Kissinger as patsies who give away too much, forgetting that the major reason for the opening to China was to undermine the USSR. However, the most interesting material in Unknown Story is China's own internal development under Mao.

The ghoulish details of Mao's rule ought to disabuse the most unreconstructed Maoist: that he travelled the Long March carried by servants on a bier, that President Liu Shao-chi's six-year-old daughter was brought to watch her parents being beaten, that the party outlawed irony in the Spring of 1942, and launched a campaign to outproduce US steel with domestic furnaces (26). (My own favourite is the story of the comrade who arrives late at a meeting to hear a compelling denunciation of the errors of leader Li Li-san, only to be told when asking the speaker his name, 'I am Li Li-san'.)

No doubt Mao's personal depravity was a decisive factor, but it blossomed in the peculiar conditions of China's liberation through the withdrawal of all developmental possibilities, whether capitalist or socialist. Mao made a political state that corresponded to the deformation of Chinese society and industry. It was in that context that Mao attempted to substitute political will for economic development, launching his 'Great Leap Forward' between 1958 and 1961. This attempt to industrialise through coercion alone only succeeded in plunging the country into starvation (27).

Chang and Halliday are particularly informative on the political in-fighting that followed, and specifically Mao's determination to overthrow the party machine that forced him to back down on the Great Leap Forward, and even demanded humiliating 'self-criticisms' at the February 1962 Conference. 'A few years later', Chang and Halliday tell us, Mao 'launched his Great Purge, the Cultural Revolution, in which [President] Liu and most of the officials in that hall...were to be put through hell' (28).

Wild Swans

It is the atrocity stories from the Cultural Revolution that began in 1965 that have excited reviewers. It is at this point, though, that Mao: The Unknown Story ought to have a health warning. Jung Chang was one of the Red Guards, the shock troops of Mao's great purge. 'I was not forced to join the Red Guards', she wrote in Wild Swans, 'I was keen to do so': 'I was thrilled by my red armband' (29). This is of course a political affiliation that she shared with her husband-to-be, Jon Halliday, who in 1973 was lauding Mao's political thought (30).

In fact, not just a Red Guard, Jung Chang was the privileged daughter of China's Communist elite. It is a peculiarity of the reception of Wild Swans that it was told and read as a story of great personal suffering, when its author grew up with a wet-nurse, nanny, maid, gardener and chauffeur provided by the party, protected in a walled compound, educated in a special school for officials' children (31). As a Grade 10 official (32), her father was among the 20,000 most senior people in a country of 1.25billion, and 'it was in this period that "high officials" children became almost a stratum of their own' (33). Still, the enthusiastic Western audience of Wild Swans found something to identify in Jung Chang's perennial fear of being reduced to the level of the rest of the population, shuddering with her at the prospect that 'Mao intended me to live the rest of my life as a peasant' (34).

Chang's description of the Red Guard ideology is disturbingly familiar since many of its themes, though watered down, were carried over into the radical left in the West: a philistine rejection of past culture and literature, dismissal of higher learning, exams and attacks on teachers, 'the idea that everything personal was political' (35), and disengagement from the global economy into 'self-reliance'. At the risk of trivialising the Chinese experience, one can see what the deconstructionists of the École Normale Supérieure got out of their early flirtation with Maoism.

As Chung explains, the first Red Guards were themselves the sons and daughters of the high officials (equivalent to the Soviet nomenklatura). This gave rise to the 'theory of the bloodline', summed up in the saying 'the son of a hero father is a great man; a reactionary father produces nothing but a bastard'. And Chang admits 'I was according to the "theory of the bloodlines", born bright red, because my father was a high official' (36). 'Armed with this theory, some high officials' children tyrannised and even tortured children from "undesirable backgrounds"', she says, though she only admits to withdrawing from the company of her less senior classmates and colleagues (37).

Chang is careful to reject the theory of the bloodline ('ridiculous as it was brutal'), but it is hard to avoid that it is the unconscious theme of the earlier book Wild Swans, an account of three generations of women rising above the political din of civil war and revolution. One theme that Chang returns to again and again is the betrayal of the parents by the children, which she says was the point of the Red Guard - to use the younger generation to overthrow the party establishment. What she does not say is whether she personally denounced her father, though he was purged, and suggestively she does record his forgiving her - 'it is good that you young people should rebel against us the older generation' - as if to salve her conscience (38).

Chang accounts for her own disillusionment with the Red Guards on the grounds that they were being turned against the old guard (39). But a keener motive is that the original predominance of the children of the elite was being diluted as the movement attracted more plebeian supporters: 'The original Red Guard groups, most of them made up of teenagers, now fell apart, as they had been organised around the children of those same high officials who now became targets.' (40) Chang's personal realisation that the Cultural Revolution did not advance her position in the hierarchy but threatened it mirrors the broader elite's fears that they had unleashed forces that were wrecking public order. Under the slogan 'arm the left', competing Red Guard groups were descending into civil war (41).

Falling out of love with Mao

Just as they had fallen in love with Mao in the 1960s, Chang and Halliday fell out of love with him in the 1980s. Where once he had been the great leader, now he was the evil despot. The limitations of this personalisation of the regime's failings is that it restricts the criticisms to Mao alone, where in truth the elite as a whole were culpable - including Jung Chang and her parents. Chinese-American academic Wenying Xu, who lived through the Cultural Revolution, characterises a kind of autobiography whose authors 'strive to portray their own moral superiority to those Chinese who betrayed, persecuted, or brutalised others for their own political security or advancement', and 'Such is the tone in Jung Chang's Wild Swans'. These are 'unsatisfactory because of their high moral tone, which exonerates them from any responsibility for the horrors' (42).

One factor driving the scholarship is that there are clearly many more critical accounts of the Mao era being published in the People's Republic of China. Veteran Communist and former secretary to Mao, Li Rui, chose the publication of Mao: The Unknown Story to demand the country face up to its past (43). Now that Mao is dead and buried, it is relatively easy to project all of the country's failings on to one individual. For Jung Chang that means excusing her own role as Red Guard, and retrospectively exonerating her father (despite his own admissions of supporting torture and issuing execution orders (44)). Seeing how convenient it is to restrict the blame for China's crippled development to Mao you have to remind yourself that Jung Chang played in 'Auntie Deng's' apartment as a child - that is to say the apartment of the stepmother of Deng Xiaoping, architect of the market reforms after Mao's death (45). It might not be officially sanctioned, but Mao: The Unknown Story is parallel to the historical revision that the Chinese leadership is undertaking as part of its opening to capitalism.

The attraction of the book in the West is that it seems to confirm the prejudice that radical change must end in disaster. This is especially pressing for one-time radicals who have now made their peace with the system. In his Guardian column, Simon Hoggart admitted: 'I still flush with embarrassment when I think that as a student I thought Mao was a good thing', before turning on Tony Benn for thinking the same, when the evidence of Mao's depravity is there in Chang and Halliday's book (46). As well as provoking an embarrassment at youthful indiscretions, Mao: The Unknown Story satisfies a Western superiority complex that has been provoked by China's recent economic take-off. Irritated at China's much higher growth rates, Europeans and Americans enjoy reading horror stories that tell them this is a deficient society after all.

The single fact that every reviewer cites is Chang and Halliday's estimate of 70million deaths attributable to Mao's rule. Tellingly, the figure does not feature in the text but in a picture caption. The principle components are the 38million deaths due to the 'Great Leap Forward' famine, the estimated 27million deaths in camps, the three million killed in the Cultural Revolution (47). This is indeed a ghastly indictment of the attempt to enforce a disengagement from the world economy and economic development by political will - and its attendant repression - alone.

But if Mao was guilty of making a virtue of China's isolation, he did not create it. That was a consequence of the postwar contraction of capitalist accumulation to its metropolitan centres, Western Europe, America and Japan. Chang and Halliday dismiss China's liberation as the beginning of enslavement to Mao, but China free from foreign domination did develop within the constraints put upon it. Even with the 1957-61 famine and the Camps, life expectancy rose from 35 in 1949 to 63 in 1975 (71.3 in 2000) (48). Political independence, too, is the precondition for the indigenous development of Chinese industry today - and this great leap forward has real prospects.

James Heartfield's paper 'China's Comprador Capitalism is Coming Home' is published in The Review of Radical Political Economy, Vol. 37, No 2, Spring 2005.

(1) La Chinoise, 1967

(2) Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, Robert Bickers

(3) East Asia, Arthur Cotterell, Pimlico, 2002, p221

(4) 'Our investigations have convinced us that General Hu was a Red "sleeper".' Mao: The Untold Story, p312; 'Moles continued to play a key role in the defeats Chiang suffered', p318; 'Unlike Wei, Fu was not a secret Communist. But he was surrounded by people who were...', p319

(5) Mao: The Untold Story, p241, 242

(6) Radical Diplomat: The Life of Archibald Clark Kerr, Lord Inverchapel, Donald Gillies, 1998; 'Guilt by association? Lauchlin Currie's alleged involvement with Washington economists in Soviet Espionage', Roger Sandliands, History of Political Economy, 32:3, 2000, p474-515

(7) Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson, 1969, p355

(8) The Shanghai Capitalists and the Nationalist Government 1927-1937, Parks M Coble, Jr, 1986

(9) Mao: The Untold Story, p104

(10) Wild Swans, 1991, p158

(11) Wild Swans, London, 1991, p158

(12) See, for example, From Third World to First, Lee Kuan Yew, 2000, p582

(13) Mao: The Untold Story, p125

(14) Mao: The Untold Story, p233

(15) They were published in English in 1989 by the US Global Strategy Council, in Ray Cline's Chiang Ching-Kuo Remembered

(16) Mao: The Untold Story, p141

(17) Mao: The Untold Story, p210

(18) With Gavin McCormack, Penguin, p1, 17, 230

(19) Mao: The Untold Story, p325

(20) 'US and South Korea accused of war atrocities', Guardian, 18 January 2000

(21) UP, 19 January 1952

(22) Korea: The Unknown War, Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, 1988; The Origins of the Korean War, Bruce Cumings, 1981, 1990

(23) Mao: The Untold Story, p591

(24) New Left Review, vol 87-88, 1974, p101, 112

(25) Which gets a better treatment in Hong Kong: Britain's Chinese Colony. See also 'China's Comprador Capitalism is Coming Home', James Heartfield, Review of Radical Political Economy, vol 37, No 2, Spring 2005

(26) p144, 553, 256, 444

(27) Mao: The Untold Story, p444; see also The Chinese Communist Party in Power, P'eng Shu-tse, 1980

(28) Mao: The Untold Story, p498

(29) Wild Swans, p404

(30) In the otherwise sensible book Japanese Imperialism Today, pxvii

(31) See Wild Swans, chapter 13, 'In a privileged Cocoon'

(32) Wild Swans, p255

(33) Wild Swans, p353

(34) Wild Swans, p503

(35) Wild Swans, p179

(36) Mao: The Untold Story, p538; Wild Swans, p390

(37) Wild Swans, p378

(38) Wild Swans, p433

(39) Wild Swans, p428

(40) Mao: The Untold Story, p543

(41) Wild Swans, p471

(42) 'Agency via guilt in Anchee Min's Red Azalea', Melus, Fall/Winter 2000

(43) 'China must face up to its dark past, says Mao confident', Guardian, 2 June 2005

(44) Wild Swans, p 166, p 591

(45) Wild Swans, p 348

(46) Guardian, 11 June 2005

(47) Mao: The Untold Story, p338, p456

Population Growth in China: The Basic Characteristics of China's Demographic Transition (.pdf 200 KB), Maristella Bergaglio


from the October 18, 2005 edition

Mao: the ugly reality behind an icon

An exhaustively researched new biography offers surprising revisions to Chinese history

By Marjorie Kehe


It is hard to single out the most chilling aspect of Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Changand Jon Halliday. To dive into this hefty new biography of China's "great Helmsman" is to feel alternately shocked, angry, and, finally, just plain sick at heart.

The story of man's inhumanity to man is, of course, not new and much about Mao's life is already familiar to readers.

But the level of detail offered by this exhaustively researched book (the labor of more than a decade for novelist Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday) creates a compelling portrait of Mao that will still shock many, as will a handful of revelations.

The whole of the former chairman's life is covered in this book, beginning with his birth to a peasant family in 1893 (in hills so remote that when the Chinese emperor died in 1908, it took two years for news of his death to arrive there) up through his frustrated and self-pitying final days in 1976.

In between, the authors offer a thorough analysis of Mao's rise to power, his actual achievements (or lack thereof) as a military man, the relentlessness (and cruelty) with which he strove to push China to world domination, and the endless and ruthless scheming he resorted to in order to retain power.

Chang and Halliday are able to offer a remarkable level of detail throughout their narrative, due to the impressive breadth and depth of the primary sources they tapped. (A short list includes former US Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, present and former communist dignitaries and officials throughout the world, one of Mao's official photographers, one of his translators, one of his nurses, a woman who washed his underwear, and the Dalai Lama.)

The result is a portrait that may rattle even those who long ago shed any vestige of reverence for Mao. This man who was a hero to many and a god to some comes across as lazy, callous, self-indulgent, clever rather than wise, and as careless of his own children as he was of the Chinese people.

Mao's seeming indifference to the suffering of others is perhaps the hardest aspect to grasp, although Chang and Halliday do a good job of offering a context for his lack of feeling.

Views he expressed at the age of 24, they say, "remained at the core of Mao's thinking throughout his life," and, even as a young man, Mao's egotism was shocking.

Was this because he was coddled by a gentle mother and then angered by the demands of his father? The authors don't try to blame Mao's crimes on his childhood.

But they do offer us his youthful words, statements like, "People like me have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people."

Mao must have firmly believed this. There is little else that could explain his tranquility in the face of the suffering triggered by his policies. Jung and Halliday estimate that he caused the deaths of 70 million Chinese.

"There are 2.7 billion people in the world," he once calculated at a world summit with other Communist leaders. "One-third could be lost; or a little more, it could be half ... I say that, taking the extreme situation half dies, half lives, but imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist."

Yet despite his willingness to sacrifice others, Mao is not portrayed as a particularly devout believer. Chang and Halliday paint him as a pragmatist who simply found himself in the right place at the right time.

The biggest surprise in the book is probably its reexamination of Mao's role in the Long March. Chang and Halliday make a compelling case that Mao succeeded here through no heroism of his own but rather largely because Chiang Kai-Shek chose to allow the Red Army safe passage.

There is much that is painful to read in this book, but perhaps the harshest chapters are those that deal with the starvation of the Chinese people in the 1950s. Mao's determination to push his country toward industrialization (and to curry favor with other Socialist nations by offering generous food aid) came at a horrific price to his people.

Chinese government figures show that by 1960, the average Chinese was eating about 1,500 calories a day - a diet equivalent to that of slave-laborers at Auschwitz.

Yet while his people starved, Mao feasted on specialty foods, responding to stories of peasant suffering with statements like: "Having only tree leaves to eat? So be it." and " 'Oh, peasants' lives are so hard' - the end of the world! I have never thought so."

Compelling as its narrative is, this book has its flaws. For one thing, the repulsion its authors feel for Mao is too clearly on display, evident in tone and occasional descriptors like "the beady Mao."

Unsourced statements sometimes seem dubious, including claims like, "There was not one school in the whole of China where atrocities did not occur." It's hard to accept unattributed absolutes about a country so vast.

And emotional states are sometimes presented as givens. "The plain fact was that Mao could not stand his wife," they write of Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, the infamous Mme. Mao, but then offer nothing more than speculation as to the state of Mao's feelings.

But such shortcomings don't change the fact that this is an extremely compelling read even for those only casually interested in Mao - and a necessity for anyone hungry for more.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.


The New



The New Criterion, Volume 24, October 2005, on page 4



Mao & the Maoists

By Keith Windschuttle

Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday; Knopf, 832 pages, $35.

In the summer of 1936, the American journalist Edgar Snow left Peking for China’s northwest to visit the new territory taken over by the Chinese Communist Party. There he conducted a number of lengthy interviews with the party leader Mao Tse-tung. He wrote them up and published them as The Mao Tse-tung Autobiography, the first and only extensive account of his life Mao ever gave. Snow interviewed other Communist leaders and then converted all his material into his own book, Red Star over China, published in English in 1937–1938.

At the time, Snow was thirty-two years old. Born in Kansas City, he had gone to China soon after he graduated from the University of Missouri. There he became a moderately successful correspondent for the New York Herald-Tribune, the Saturday Evening Post, and other newspapers. Overnight, his book transformed him into a bestselling author and an international celebrity.

Red Star over China was an account of the civil war in China between the Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. It examined their response to the 1931 Japanese invasion and occupation of China and told the story of the Long March of Mao and his army in 1934–1935 from their base in the south to a new home in the north. Until then, the rest of the world knew the Chinese Communists only through the denunciations of their enemies, but Snow transformed their reputation. He portrayed Mao and his supporters as heroic figures, dedicated to liberating their country from both the foreign invaders and the hopelessly corrupt Nationalists. Snow depicted them less as socialist revolutionaries and more as agrarian reformers, determined to break the shackles of feudal agriculture and liberate the peasants from their rapacious landlords. The Communists, he wrote, were not tied to the Soviet Union and sought friendship with the U.S. In defense of their ideals, they had been subject to ambush and massacre by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Only 26,000 of the march’s original 80,000 troops survived. They had endured an almost superhuman 7500-mile exodus across the country. Mao had walked alongside his rank and file foot soldiers almost all the way.

Snow’s book played a major role in converting public opinion in both America and Europe towards a more favorable view of Mao. Its biggest impact, however, was within China itself, where it had a profound influence on radical youth. Red Star over China and the Mao autobiography were quickly translated into Chinese and widely distributed. Many young, urban, middle-class Chinese men and women who read Snow’s books were converted. They cut their long hair short—still a daring and eyebrow-raising gesture in the 1930s—and joined the Communist Party. By 1941, thanks to the reputation Mao had earned from the Long March, party membership had grown to some 700,000.

Attracting volunteers from urban youth had been an important objective for Mao. His surviving troops were mostly illiterate soldiers drawn from the peasantry. The Communist Party needed young, educated administrators for its future regime. From 1937, they congregated at Yenan, Mao’s new capital in Shaanxi province, eager to emulate the heroism of the veterans.

The story that drew them there, however, was a fiction. The new biography Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday shows that every major claim made by Snow was false. Rather than opposing the Japanese invasion, Mao had welcomed it. He hoped the Japanese would engage and destroy his rival, Chiang Kai-shek, and would also draw Soviet troops into China. Mao avoided armed conflict not only with the Japanese but also with the Nationalists. Rather than being a champion of independence for his country, Mao since the 1920s had been an agent of the Soviet Union, taking its arms and money, doing its bidding, and accepting its control of the Chinese Communist Party. He knew his only hope of gaining power in China was with Soviet support, a belief ultimately confirmed in his takeover of the country in 1949. Mao was no agrarian reformer. He redistributed no land and liberated no peasants. His initial “red base” at Ruijin in Jiangxi province, southern China, had been achieved not by a revolutionary uprising of the masses but through military conquest by the Red Army, armed and funded by Moscow. His rule was identical to that of an occupying army, surviving by plundering the local population and killing anyone who resisted.

Much of Snow’s account of the Long March was also untrue. The march’s objective was to establish a new base in the north, near the Mongolian border, in order to have ready access to Soviet supplies and arms. Many of Snow’s tales of outnumbered Communist forces bravely breaking through Nationalist lines were pure invention. Chiang Kai-shek, in fact, largely determined Mao’s route by giving him free passage through selected regions, while blocking alternative routes. Chiang’s aim was to use the arrival of the Red Army in the territories of otherwise recalcitrant provincial warlords to coerce them into joining him, thereby exploiting the Communist presence to unify the country under Nationalist rule. Some of the most famous battles of the Long March never took place. The celebrated crossing of the suspension bridge over the Dadu River at Luding, for instance, had not been in the face of Nationalist machine gun fire. No Communists were killed there at all. And Mao shared few of the privations of his troops. Instead of trudging over mountains and through swamps, he and the other leaders were borne throughout most of the march in litters, shaded by tarpaulins, carried by long bamboo poles on the shoulders of their bearers. In fact, Mao arrived at the end of his journey in northern Shaanxi province with only 4,000 of his original 80,000 force still intact.

Snow presented his book as the work of an intrepid reporter who had made a risky journey to get his story and to tell it like it was. He wrote in the first edition that no censorship had been imposed on him. The truth, however, was that the initiative for the book came from Mao himself, who in 1936 decided he needed a friendly foreign journalist to give him a more benign and positive image. The party’s Shanghai underground vetted and approved Snow and arranged his passage, accompanied by a secret Comintern agent. Snow had to submit his interview questions for approval in advance. Mao checked everything Snow wrote and amended and rewrote parts himself. After Snow left to arrange publication, his wife, Helen, remained in Yenan, mailing him further corrections to the manuscript made by the Communist leadership.

Snow was the first and the most influential of a long line of Western supporters of Mao Tse-tung and the Communist takeover of China. On the left of politics, Snow is still widely regarded today as a heroic figure, both for his writings in the 1930s and for the persecution he suffered in the 1950s from investigations by J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy, which forced him to flee the United States for Switzerland. He is still held up in schools of journalism as a model practitioner. In the past decade he has been the subject of no few- er than three book-length biographies, all published by American university presses and all favorable. The University of Missouri proudly advertises that it holds his collected papers in its archives.

The Chang and Halliday book demolishes utterly the reputation of Snow and all who have followed him. It is the most exhaustive analysis of its subject yet written and makes especially good use of the Soviet archives to reveal how Mao’s rise to power was large- ly directed by Joseph Stalin. The book’s analysis of the real politics behind the Long March is entirely convincing. It exposes how the small number of Western writers with access to the regime in the 1930s, especially Snow and the American radical feminist Agnes Smedley, became its willing dupes. These writers not only perpetrated a grotesque distortion of reality but also contributed in a very real sense to the successful career of the man who must rank as the greatest monster in human history.

Chang and Halliday calculate that over the course of his political career from 1920 to 1976, Mao was responsible for the deaths of 70 million Chinese. This is more than the total killings attributable to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin combined. The biggest single number of Chinese dead was the 38 million who perished in the famine of the four years from 1958 to 1961, during the so-called Great Leap Forward. Westerners have known since Jasper Becker’s path-breaking 1996 book Hungry Ghosts: China’s Secret Famine that the famine killed between 30 and 40 million people. Becker attributed this to Mao’s ideological folly of conducting an ambitious but failed experiment in collectivization. Chang and Halliday produce new evidence to show it was more sinister than that.

Mao’s regime confiscated Chinese harvests in these years so it could export food to Communist-controlled Eastern Europe in exchange for armaments and political support. Food and money were also exported to support anti-colonial and Communist movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the first year of famine, 1958–1959, China exported seven million tons of grain, enough to feed 38 million people. In 1960, a year in which 22 million Chinese died of starvation, China was the biggest international aid donor in terms of proportion of GNP in the world. Thanks to Chinese agricultural exports, East Germany was able to lift food rationing in 1958, and Albania in 1961.

In China, at the same time, a major food source for the urban population became the “food substitute” chlorella, a disgusting substance that grew in urine and contained a little protein. In the countryside, starving Chinese peasants were reduced to eating bark and compost and, in Anhui and Gansu provinces, to cannibalism. In Chinese cities in 1960, the maximum daily intake was 1200 calories, compared to the 1300–1700 calories a day fed to the inmates of Auschwitz.

Mass homicide on the scale of the Great Leap Forward was something that Mao prepared for. He told the 1958 party congress it should not fear but actively welcome people dying as a result of party policy. It was a common theme of his at the time. In Moscow in 1957 he said: “We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution.” On the prospect of another world war, he told the party in 1958: “Half the population wiped out—this happened quite a few times in Chinese history. It’s best if half the population is left, next best one-third.” Hence, Mao’s eventual career tally of 70 million deaths was actually much less than he anticipated.

The huge size of the Chinese population, around 600 million in 1960, gave Mao many more potential victims than were available to either Hitler or Stalin. What made Mao the greater monster was not just the sheer quantity of his killings. It was because so many of his victims came not only from his real and imagined enemies but also from his own supporters. Chang and Halliday make it clear that Mao built his political power out of a life-long strategy that easily outdid even Stalin in waging murder and terror among his own Communist Party comrades.

This pattern was established in 1931–1934 at Mao’s initial “red base” at Ruijin in Jiangxi province. The system of control was introduced by Chou En-lai, sent there by his Moscow controllers from party headquarters in Shanghai. It was based on the model of the Stalinist state in the USSR. The whole population was organized into various committees whose role was to carry out party orders. Anyone suspected as an ideological enemy was dispossessed of all property, sentenced to limitless forced labor, or executed. Mao’s innovation to the Soviet system was to turn this persecution into public display. Mass rallies, public denunciations by informers, and public confessions of being AB (anti-Bolshevik) became the order of the day. Mao used this accusation to purge the party hierarchy of anyone who disagreed with him or whom he thought potentially disloyal. The first to be charged were Red Army military officers and Mao’s rivals for leadership. Most of those murdered were party members. Men were conscripted into the army. As a warning to those who objected, army deserters were tried and executed in public. Army recruiters who failed to conscript enough soldiers were publicly denounced at mass rallies and executed on the spot.

Everyday social intercourse and hospitality could bring death. “No family was allowed to have visitors or stay overnight,” veterans recalled. “Any family found to have done so was killed, together with the visitor.” When Mao and Chou En-lai prepared for the Long March, they drew up a list of party officers they rated as unreliable. Their parting gift to the region was to execute thousands of these party members, including the majority of teachers at army schools. Chang and Halliday calculate that between 1931 and 1934 some 700,000 people died at the Ruijin red base, half of them murdered as AB or “class enemies,” the rest worked to death or dying from other causes attributable to the regime. Mass graves and derelict villages littered the landscape. In four years under Mao, the population of this once rich and prosperous region fell by 20 percent, the greatest decline in all China.

The young, educated middle-class men and women who cut their hair and took their idealism to Yenan in the late 1930s hardly knew what hit them. They quickly found themselves trapped within a regime they could only leave by forfeiting their lives. Those caught trying to run away were immediately executed. The party structure in Yenan was grossly inegalitarian, with party officers enjoying a much better diet and better clothing than the volunteers. The only car in the settlement—donated by Chinese laundry workers in New York to act as an ambulance—was confiscated for use as Mao’s private limousine. Anyone criticizing these arrangements, no matter how pri- vately, found themselves denounced as Trotskyites and sentenced to solitary confinement. In 1942 Mao accused all the volunteers who had come from Nationalist-held areas of being spies. He ordered thousands arrested and tortured to make confessions. Executions, both real and mock, were an everyday affair. Life at Yenan came to be centered on interrogations and terrifying mass rallies where volunteers publicly confessed to being spies.

Unlike Hitler and Stalin, who used secret police to arrest and interrogate victims, Mao used all those not yet accused to spy on, guard, interrogate, arrest, and punish those already accused. The Yenan settlement became a self-perpetuating totalitarian state. No outside press or radio communication was permitted. No letters could be sent or received from the outside world: Indeed, letters were construed as evidence of spying. Humor, sarcasm, and irony were banned. The regime invented a new catch-all offence, “Speaking Weird Words,” which meant any comment that could be interpreted as a complaint or a wisecrack could have its speaker accused of being a spy or traitor. Two years of this regime transformed the once young and passionate volunteers into robots, capable of enunciating nothing but bland echoes of the party line. A visiting journalist observed: “If you ask the same question of twenty or thirty people, from intellectuals to workers, their replies are always more or less the same. There always seems to be a point of view that has been decided by meetings.” Not surprisingly, “they unanimously and firmly deny the Party has any direct control over their thoughts.”

Mao used precisely the same model in the so-called Cultural Revolution of 1966–1968. Party historians and sympathetic Western academics, then and now, rationalize this event as Mao’s attempt to revive the revolutionary spirit and arrest pro-capitalist and anti-socialist tendencies. In reality, Chang and Halliday show, it was yet another purge of Communist officials designed to terrorize the party and secure Mao’s leadership. Indeed, Mao himself thought of it as the Great Purge. Its principal targets were those party leaders who thought Mao’s attempts at collectivization and industrialization during the Great Leap Forward were a disaster. Chief among them was Liu Shao-chi, long Mao’s second-in-command in both army and party, but who had made several mistakes, including confessing to a Soviet politician that more than 30 million had died during the 1958–1961 famine. Liu also publicly apologized to famine victims and successfully urged a reduction in the seizure of crops and other foods. Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in May 1966 and deposed Liu at a meeting of the Central Committee in August that year.

The Cultural Revolution was organized by an inner circle of five men and one woman (Madam Mao), with Mao at its head. It made him the center of a national cult. Mao’s face dominated every issue of the People’s Daily and a profile of his head adorned badges that became required wearing. More copies of Mao’s Selected Works and more portraits of him were printed (1.2 billion) than China had inhabitants. Some 4.8 billion badges of Mao’s head were manufactured, more than six for each person in China. Every Chinese received a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book of quotations, which had to be carried and brandished on all public occasions. In effect, Maoism became the compulsory state religion.

The first agents Mao used to terrorize society in 1966 were young people in schools and universities. He ordered all schooling suspended and told students to condemn their teachers for poisoning their heads with “bourgeois ideas.” Students were told to “safeguard” Chairman Mao, though from what they never learned. Nonetheless, many were enthusiastic recruits to the cause. Allowed to engage in politics for the first time in their lives, many youth grabbed the opportunity eagerly. Under the name of Red Guards, they rampaged through their institutions, dragging teachers and lecturers into public places, manhandling and beat- ing them up. Many female teachers were sexually assaulted in these incidents, an indignity that produced what Chang and Halliday call “a cascade of suicides.” Teachers and other members of the educated classes were consigned to industrial regions and the countryside to perform manual labor.

Red Guards fanned out into the society at large, attacking and destroying any signs of traditional Chinese culture. Anyone found wearing traditional dress or hairstyle was disrobed and shorn. The only acceptable clothing for men or women was the party uniform of jackets, trousers, and caps. The books of Peking’s major library and the Peking Opera’s traditional costumes and props were all consigned to a great bonfire in the city. The country’s leading writers, singers, and artists were made to kneel before the fire while blows rained on their heads. Red Guards ravaged dwellings in every city and town searching for books or anything else associated with culture. Fearing the consequences of being found with such items in their possession, many families burned their books and art objects or sold them as scrap. The Red Guards also fulfilled Mao’s long-held goal of erasing much of the memory of China’s past by destroying historical monuments erected under previous dynasties. In Peking, of 6,843 public monuments still standing in 1958, Red Guards demolished no less than 4,922.

Chang and Halliday observe that Stalin had carried out his purges through an elite, secret police force, the KGB, which hustled victims out of sight to prison, gulag, or death. Mao, however, enacted his Great Purge through violence and humiliation carried out in public. He vastly increased the number of persecutors by having his victims tormented and tortured by their own direct subordinates. By 1966, Communist rule in China had produced a plethora of people hungry to take revenge against those in authority and eager to seize power for themselves. Once again, Mao used party members to collaborate in their own terrorizing. During the Cultural Revolution, the whole of China was ruled like the initial red bases at Ruijin and Yenan. It eventually chalked up a death toll of more than three million people.

The story brought together by Chang and Halliday is so shocking that reading it literally takes your breath away. This is true even for those familiar with the works of other authors who over the past decade have revealed some of the more gruesome aspects of Mao’s career. Chang and Halliday’s book is not merely a tale of the evil done by one man. It is a telling comment on the human condition. In the breakdown of civilization on the scale experienced by China in the 1920s and 1930s, any society could end up being ruled by a ruthless and cunning psychopath like Mao Tse-tung. Those who imagine that the cultural traditions of Western liberal democracy would confer immunity against such an outcome should read this book to see just how many Western intellectuals and politicians were eager to further Mao’s career. Edgar Snow was the first, but he was far from being the only Western writer or artist to succumb to Maoism.

During the Great Leap Forward, a small number of Chinese escaped by swimming across to Hong Kong where they broke the news about the nationwide famine and the brutality of the regime. The press gave them little credence. Instead, the West was fed a steady diet of propaganda from respectable political leaders and writers who asserted the opposite. The future Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited in 1960 and wrote a starry-eyed, aptly titled book, Two Innocents in Red China, which said nothing about the famine. Britain’s Field Marshal Montgomery visited in both 1960 and 1961 and asserted there was “no large-scale famine, only shortages in certain areas.” He did not regard the shortages as Mao’s fault and urged him to hang on to power: “China needs the chairman. You mustn’t abandon this ship.” The United Nations was completely ineffectual. Its Food and Agricultural Organization made an inspection in 1959, declaring that food production had increased by 50 to 100 percent in the past five years: “China seems capable of feeding [its population] well.” When the French socialist leader, François Mitterand, visited in 1961, Mao told him: “I repeat it, in order to be heard: There is no famine in China.” Mitterand dutifully reported this assurance to a credulous world. At the same time, Mao enlisted three writers he knew he could trust—Edgar Snow, Han Suyin, and Felix Greene—to spread his message through articles, books, and a celebrated BBC television interview between a fawning Greene and Chou En-lai.

Among Western intellectuals, Mao’s most enthusiastic supporters came from the French Left. Simone de Beauvoir visited China in 1955 and declared: “The power he [Mao] exercises is no more dictatorial than, for example, Roosevelt’s was. New China’s Constitution renders impossible the concentration of authority in one man’s hands.” She wrote a lengthy book about her visit entitled The Long March. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, her consort Jean-Paul Sartre praised the “revolutionary violence” of Mao as “profoundly moral.” It is true, as Chang and Halliday argue, that in terms of electoral politics, the Maoist parties China funded in Western countries from the 1950s to the 1970s only ever gained miniscule support. But among intellectuals, the story was very different.

In France, the intellectual center of Mao- ism from the late 1960s to 1976 was the journal Tel Quel. This publication was the focus of much of the theoretical activity that emerged in Paris at the time and was responsible for launching the careers of many of the luminaries of the French intellectual Left, notably the cultural analyst Roland Barthes, the post-structuralist philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, the theorist of psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan, and the radical feminist Julia Kristeva. Themes that emerged in Tel Quel at the time were taken up by the influential British Marxist journal New Left Review and from there spread to the rest of the English-speaking world. Tel Quel began as a Marxist-Leninist journal but became influential in shifting the Western Left away from old Marxism, with its emphasis on the blue-collar working class as the bearer of social revolution, and towards the new Leftism of the post-1960s period, with its emphasis on feminism, anti-racism, gay liberation, and anti-colonialism.

The journal’s founder, the novelist and critic Philippe Sollers, in 1967 began pub- lishing Mao’s poems accompanied by sympathetic articles. By 1971 the journal had switched to an overtly Maoist political and theoretical position. Although the editorial group flattered Mao as a serious thinker, lauding in particular his essay “On Contradiction,” the only substantive point they took from him was about the autonomy of the cultural sphere. Traditional Marxism held that the culture of a society was determined by its mode of production. Taking their cue from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Tel Quel argued instead that culture was a relatively autonomous realm. This opened a space for them to endorse the notion of cultural politics—the idea that literature, debates, lectures, performances, and artistic output could effect social change—a position that was bound to be popular with writers, academics, and artists who had been previously consigned by Marxism to utilitarian roles. Intellectuals were thus elevated to major players in the socialist revolution. Ideas and attitudes that survive today for which Tel Quel can claim more responsibility than most include the theory of postmodernism, the academic field of cultural studies, the policy of multiculturalism, the sanctification of theorists as celebrities, and an utter hostility to liberal-democratic capitalism, especially in its American form, which the journal identified as the source of all oppression.

Tel Quel’s formal switch to Maoism in 1971 cost it the support of Derrida, Althusser, and a few other writers who did not want to break with the French Communist Party, which remained steadfastly loyal to the USSR. But most of the editorial group went along with Sollers. The culmination of their enthusiasm for Mao was a visit to China by Kristeva, Barthes, and Sollers in 1974. In his history of the journal, The Time of Theory (1995), the English writer Patrick ffrench writes that its Maoism pushed it sharply to the Left. The group wanted to emulate the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. This was rather difficult, however, since none were students. They were the teachers, lecturers, and writers who in China had been dismissed from their posts and forced into manual work. Instead of going out into the factories and fields, the Tel Quel writers made do with less arduous measures. They printed the slogan “Vive la pensée-maotsétoung” in each edition of the journal and decorated their offices with political graffiti copied from Chinese walls.

Maoism, writes ffrench, gave the journal a reputation for political radicalism of a “somewhat hysterical nature.” In the context of Parisian leftism, it was hysterical only because it dared to differ from the local, Stalinist-oriented Communist Party. In reality, it represented little more than a switch from one murderous tyrant to another. Tel Quel’s allegiance to Mao lasted until his death in 1976, when the group began a search for new revolutionary heroes to champion. There is little doubt that were another totalitarian dictator to emerge today with a Little Red Book of aphorisms as banal as those of Mao Tse-tung, the intellectual heirs of Tel Quel would be the first to worship at his feet.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, there was a great debate among economists about the best policies to end the poverty and backwardness in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By this time, enough information had emerged from the USSR to show that its regime’s claims and statistics about industrial success and agricultural output in the 1930s and 1940s were either largely exaggerated or outright bogus. State control of the economy, collectivization, and five-year plans should have been consigned to the dustbin of economic history. Yet at the very time this was becoming apparent to those with eyes to see, left-wing economists were lining up to offer precisely the same advice to the Third World. Many used Mao’s Cultural Revolution as confirmation of their case.

In Britain, the group of Keynesian economists at Cambridge University led by Joan Robinson used its considerable influence with Social Democrat politicians around the world to argue this line. The policy these economists recommended for Britain itself was a mixed capitalist/state-owned-enterprise model, but for the Third World they came out as true believers of state-controlled socialism. In her 1969 book The Cultural Revolution in China, Robinson urged Mao’s policies of the 1960s as the solution to the underdeveloped world’s poverty. She said that the Soviet example showed a socialist revolution could transform a backward country into a great industrial and military power. But Mao had demonstrated that transforming the economic base was not enough to create genuine socialism. So, she argued, the revolution had also to be carried into the superstructure, that is, the culture of the society. Robinson admitted that China had not published any official statistics since 1960, so Mao’s experiment could not be confirmed by any systematic account of GNP or economic growth rates. Nonetheless, she was certain that the new democratic relationships forged between experts and workers during the Cultural Revolution had been successful, offering

solid benefits to all except the former privileged few, in improvements in the standard of consumption, social services, and economic security, which have transformed China from one of the most miserable countries in the so-called developing world into one (perhaps the only one) where development is really going on.

Robinson especially praised the Chinese system of public self-criticism and confession of errors. Instead of recognizing that these public displays were often the prelude to a death warrant, Robinson commended them: “the Chinese are taught to analyze mistakes in order to avoid them in the future; they do not mind even foreigners knowing that mistakes have been made.” Throughout the late 1960s, when she made personal appearances at conferences in India and other underdeveloped countries, this Cambridge don, whom many Keynesians thought deserved a Nobel Prize, took the stage with a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book clutched firmly in her hand.

In the United States, other Keynesian economists took a similar line. In his 1973 book, A China Passage, written after a Potemkin-style tour of the country, John Kenneth Galbraith gushed: “There can now be no serious doubt that China is devising a highly effective economic system.” Despite the complete absence of any credible statistics, Galbraith endorsed estimates by other economists who traveled with him that Chinese industrial and agricultural output was growing at 10 or 11 percent per annum: “This does not seem to me implausible.” Throughout his career, Galbraith had made a point of avoiding the jargon and ideological crudities of orthodox Marxist economists. He also distanced himself from the theories of Third World underdevelopment and monopoly capital advanced by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in the American Marxist journal Monthly Review, a publication which in the 1960s became overtly Maoist. But, like Joan Robinson, when it came to recommending policies to lift the people of China out of poverty, Galbraith advocated precisely the same political program.

The United Nations proved equally incompetent. An economist at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Sartaj Aziz, wrote a 1978 book, Rural Development: Learning from China, defending the system of communes Mao had established during the Great Leap Forward. Introducing it, the British economist and environmentalist Barbara Ward, author of Only One Earth, was effusive:

The Chinese have found solutions to virtually all the major problems found by the first stages of modernization. The Chinese achievement was contrived by ignoring the accepted beliefs of Western development experts and the most sober tenets of orthodox Marxism.

Jasper Becker observes in Hungry Ghosts that figures like Robinson, Galbraith, Aziz, and Ward used their weighty reputations with governments to endorse policies that had disastrous results for the underdeveloped countries they advised. They perpetuated their poverty and persuaded their younger generations that the route to modernization lay in the Maoist brand of socialist revolution. “Ignorant of the millions who had been sacrificed on the altar of Mao’s vanity,” Becker writes, “academics and pundits now held up China as a development model, and Mao’s policies began to cast a terrible and destructive shadow on the rest of the Third World.”

As much as Western conservatives might enjoy learning how badly the reputations of their political and ideological adversaries suffer from what we now know about the Maoist regime, they can take little comfort from this terrible story. Two characters who do not emerge well from Chang and Halliday’s book are Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. The main reason Nixon went personally to China was to bolster his chances at the 1972 election. Kissinger’s aim was to take strategic advantage of the Sino-Soviet split. In the deals traded between China and the U.S., it was all one-way traffic, with the United States making concession after concession and getting almost nothing in return. Nixon agreed to pull out American troops from Vietnam, thereby abandoning the South Vietnamese regime. Kissinger promised to pull out “most, if not all” American troops from Korea before the end of Nixon’s next term. He failed to extract any guarantee the Chinese would not support another Communist invasion of South Korea. They sold out America’s old ally Taiwan, by getting Peking into the United Nations, with a seat and veto on the Security Council. Looking at the U.N. vote, Mao declared: “Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, Canada, Italy—they have all become Red Guards.” In their personal meetings, Mao was haughty towards Nixon and cut him short. Afterwards, he instructed his diplomats to continue to treat the U.S. as Public Enemy No. 1 and to denounce it fiercely in public. Despite Nixon’s overtures, Mao was intent on maintaining his claim to be the global anti-American leader.

In the 1950s, to convince the USSR to give him nuclear weapons, Mao had twice stage-managed confrontations with Taiwan in order to invoke the prospect of America attacking China with atom bombs. In 1972–1973, he used the same tactic in reverse. He used the specter of war with the USSR to try to persuade the U.S. to give him nuclear weapons. Kissinger went along with this, at least orally. He told the Chinese that he had set up a secret task force to study the best way to provide them with nuclear artillery shells, battlefield nuclear weapons, and tactical aircraft loaded with nuclear bombs. Kissinger also asked the French to break existing embargoes and sell aircraft to China. He secretly encouraged Britain and France to sell Mao strictly prohibited nuclear reactor technology. Kissinger reassured Mao’s envoy: “We will take a formal position in opposition, but only that. Don’t be confused by what we do publicly.”

It is clear, however, that Kissinger over-estimated Chinese military and industrial strength and failed to understand what a wreck of a country Mao’s continued purges had created. Kissinger did not realize the ally he was trying to cultivate still had only a small and primitive industrial base and very little military power. China’s aircraft industry was so decrepit that its products were practically useless. In April 1972 Chou En-lai warned the Albanians not to try to fly their Chinese-made MIG-19s since they were likely to explode in mid-air. Chou told other heads of state not to request Chinese helicopters, as they were unsafe. Kissinger’s tactic of driving a wedge between China and the USSR did work, but not quite in the way he intended. The Soviets were alarmed by Nixon’s overtures and construed them as an overt and direct threat. In June 1973, Brezhnev warned Nixon and Kissinger that if further military arrangements were made between the U.S. and China, “this would have the most serious consequences and would lead the Soviets to take drastic measures.” One ostensible purpose of Nixon’s visit to China had been to reduce the chance of war with the USSR. If anything, that prospect only increased.

Chang and Halliday finish their biography with a gloomy reminder. In the face of today’s renewed bout of Western enthusiasm for China and its purported miracle economy, they use their epilogue to emphasize just how little has changed politically. Today, Mao’s portrait and his corpse still dominate Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital. The current Communist regime declares itself to be Mao’s heir and fiercely perpetuates his myth.

But let me conclude on a more positive note. In the past, books about China have played a major role in altering its politics. Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China was important in winning domestic support for the Chinese Communist Party. Chang and Halliday’s book will be impossible to ignore. It will no doubt be banned in China, but will still circulate secretly and be more sought after for that. The tens of thousands of Chinese students now studying at Western universities will see it in the bookstores. The story its authors tell is so awful it will both shock the Chinese people and confirm many of the private anecdotes and rumors passed down within families. Rather than being the man who made the ancient Middle Kingdom stand up again, Mao was the one who brought it to its knees. This is a powerful story which Mao’s heirs will have great difficulty denying or suppressing. Just as Snow’s book helped install the regime, Chang and Halliday’s could help bring it down. If any single book in our own time has the capacity to change the course of history, this is it.

Keith Windschuttle’s latest book is The White Australia Policy (Macleay Press). His website is






Mao's great leap - into the abyss



Saturday, October 29, 2005


The Unknown Story

By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Knopf, 814 pages, $50

'Tyranny is a habit, wrote Dostoyevsky, it has a capacity for development, it develops finally into a disease."

In 1919, a young essayist named Mao Zedong urged his fellow Chinese to cast off their oppression. Nothing extraordinary in that, as China's last emperor had been dethroned almost a decade earlier. What was extraordinary is that Mao also asked his countrymen to have sympathy for their oppressors, who were, after all, human beings like ourselves. Their tendency toward oppression, he wrote, was merely "an infection or hereditary disease passed on to them from the old society and old thought."

As ruler of the People's Republic of China three decades later, such sympathy, if it ever really existed, had clearly been abandoned, for Mao had long since been afflicted with the disease of despotism.

Jung Chang's and Jon Halliday's biography Mao: The Unknown Story is the tale of the progress of that disease, tracing Mao's rise from provincial pamphleteer to the Luciferian head of state of the world's most populous nation. Co-writer Chang is the author of the best-selling Wild Swans; this is the first full-length biography of the Great Helmsmen by a Chinese writer.

Mao's Confucian upbringing in a well-to-do peasant family in Hunan; early dabbling with radical politics; the cunning, ruthlessness and duplicity that allowed him to triumph both in the political infighting with his Communist comrades and as a military commander against the superior armies of Japan and Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists; a mythically large personality; remarkable charisma; the unrestrained flights of hubris that created a New China and then plunged it into chaos -- all of this bears retelling and re-examining, because, unlike Hitler and Stalin, Mao retains a patina of respectability in the West.

Today, even China's heavily doctored official accounts, while straining to gloss over the rough edges of Mao's legacy, cover the basic outline, blaming Mao's "errors" for the ensuing chaos. Jung Chang and British writer Jon Halliday bring us the full magnitude of the catastrophe Mao inflicted on China: China does not accept Western estimates of 20 million to 30 million deaths from famine caused in the early 1960s by the rash economic policies of Mao's Great Leap Forward. In fact, the official histories shun the word "famine" altogether, and refer to the period instead as the "Three Difficult Years." Also obscured by party historians, out of obvious self-interest, are the varied deeds of Mao's colleagues, including his eventual successor Deng Xiaoping, who did some of Mao's worst dirty work while he lived but began undoing his policies the moment Mao died.

Such crimes and drama make Mao an irresistible subject. But Jung and Halliday are primarily interested in the Great Helmsman as a form of political epidemiology: How did Mao contract "oppressor's disease," and how was it able to progress so far as to ravage him and China both?

Although responsible for 70 million deaths, Mao also succeeded in rebuilding a nation, and many retain a nagging suspicion that this could not have been achieved, by Mao or anyone else, without strong-arm tactics. For many Chinese, an intense pride in that achievement overshadows revulsion at Mao's crimes.

Indeed, Chinese history and folklore are replete with tyrants. It is taken as a commonplace among many Chinese that their country, with its size and population, is somehow uniquely chaos-prone and difficult to rule. So the corollary notion that anyone hoping to bring order would need to twist a few arms is entrenched in Chinese minds, and even people with direct and painful knowledge of Mao's cruelty grant him a degree of grudging respect.

Chang and Halliday have no truck with this. Chiang Kai-shek could, for instance, have restored the country's unity, and perhaps held off the Japanese more effectively, they say, were it not for Mao's betrayals and rebellion.

In Western minds, views of Mao have not so much blended the good parts with the bad as evolved according to how much and what kind of information was coming out of China at the time Mao was being analyzed. Much of what dribbled out during Mao's earlier years was filtered through sympathetic chroniclers such as Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley, and tended to show him as a romantic and heroic rebel. As it emerged that Mao's victims numbered in the tens of millions, damning comparisons with Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot have become harder for supporters to fend off. Yet somehow that grudging admiration for creating New China never went away entirely.

It is, of course, China's current leaders who ought to have the clearest view of Mao. Their judgment, tellingly, has been to reverse his most basic policies by putting China on the road to a market economy. So why, Chang and Halliday wonder, do they continue to give his portrait pride of place in Tiananmen Square?

No book has come as close to unravelling the mystery of Mao's character as this one. The authors combine scholarship (their use of the Soviet archives to reveal Mao's actions is groundbreaking) with the narrative drive Chang brought to her Wild Swans, sweeping the reader effortlessly back to the bizarre and deadly world created by Mao and his circle of disciple-accessories. There is no cheap psychohistory. This is a book about what is really knowable.

Inevitably, in a book that covers the most calamitous years in China's long history in more than 800 pages of text, there are gaps. Sources are inadequately noted. Military history in general gets shorter shrift than it deserves for a leader so obsessed with playing the warlord. The argument raised here, that Mao became a victim of his self-imposed isolation, neglects the close watch Mao kept on technical and economic issues. The record shows a man much more in touch with what was happening in the economy than this book sometimes lets on.

Indeed, if Mao had left such details in the hands of competent managers and interfered less, catastrophes such as the Great Leap Forward, when peasants were encouraged to build mini steel mills in their villages, might have been abandoned sooner.

The Mao that emerges from this book was the overseer of state terror that left an indelible scar on the Chinese economic powerhouse that is now emerging. To understand Mao's long march with the Devil, there can be no better starting point than Mao: The Unknown Story, for Chang and Halliday grapple with the fundamental questions of history. Do leaders shape great events and great evils? Or is it events that are in the saddle? To this old question, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday give a definitive answer where Mao is concerned.

Kenneth Murphy's Unquiet Vietnam: A Journey to the Vanishing World of Indochina, was recently published in London. Currently a senior fellow at Smolny Collegium, Saint Petersburg State University, Russia, he is at work on a cultural and political history of postwar Italy.


Other articles about the book, here