Mao: The Unknown Story

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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One critic has called Mao: The Unknown Story an “atom bomb of a book.” The term is apt. Of all the 20th century’s horrible dictators, Mao has most escaped scrutiny and judgment. His portrait still hangs in Tiananmen Square – the square he created by wiping away some of the most historic neighborhoods of old Peking. The story of his crimes goes largely untold. And to this day there remain all too many people – in Western univerities and the Chinese state apparatus – who make excuses for Mao. They argue that he modernized Chin, and they apportion the blame for the atrocities of his regime as much on broad historical structures as on Mao personally.

Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday will have none of this. Their book is a work of furious moral judgment, rendered by one of Mao’s victims. Jung Chang, a daughter of Communist Party officials, succumbed to the cult of the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. Her parents were denounced and imprisoned. She herself forfeited for years her opportunity at education. After Mao’s death, her family was rehabilitated, and she gained permission to study abroad, in England. She married Halliday, a Soviet historian, and in time wrote a family memoir, Wild Swans, which gained a huge audience in China.

Now she and Halliday have come to reckon with the author of the suffering of so many family’s like Jung Chang’s.

They present Mao as an incarnate spirit of destruction, a man who never believed in anything – not even Marxism – and lived only to enjoy pleasure for himself and to inflict cruelties upon others. They measure the devastation in a vivid, even racy, style and with massive research. They tell us the exact tally of the number of ancient buildings demolished by Mao. And they find the laundress who washed the luxurious underwear he wore even as his comrades went hungry in the Yenan caves.

“People like me only have a duty to ourselves, we have no duty to other people,” he wrote at 24, and this rule guided Mao his whole life. A good name after death “cannot bring me any joy, because it belongs to the future and not to my own reality. “People like me are not building achievements to leave for future generations.”

He lived rather to destroy. He wrote again in his youthful essays that to be reformed China first must be destroyed. And to this mission he held fast through life.

The heart of their story is the horror Mao inflicted on the people of China. He snatched the food from the mouths of China’s peasants to buy weapons from the Soviet Union and to support Maoist movements abroad. East Germans, Hungerians, and Russians enjoyed larger meat rations; Chinese farmers starved and died in their millions. “Half of China may have to die,” Mao shrugged, to finance his armament and industrialization program. It never quite came to that, but Jung Chang estimates excess mortality due to Mao’s misrule at some 70 million lives.

Jung Chang again and again quotes Mao’s own personal indifference to the casualty toll.

Mao coveted nuclear weapons and the rockets to deliver them. He paid the Soviets in food for the technology he coveted, and then starved millions more to develop indigenously the technology the Soviets would not share: rockets for example. China’s early rockets were powered by the only fuel China could produce, ethyl alcohol refined from grain. Each of Mao’s missile tests in the late 1950s consumed 10 million kilograms of grain – “enough to radically deplete the food intake of 1-2 million peope for a whole year” (p. 429) – this during the worst famine of Mao’s tyranny, indeed the worst famine of the 20th century, the absurdly misnamed Great Leap Forward of 1959-62.

Chang and Halliday relate that suffering to the disdainful, inhuman attitudes Mao expressed in that youthful essay – an essay, it should be said, that they discovered. Even their critics, like Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, acknowledge the astounding sleuthing behind the book.

The book cites by name 363 interviewees in 38 countries, including two former US presidents; Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore; the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko; the Mao aide and later Chinese head of state Yang Shangkun; a former Japanese cabinet secretary who confided that Mao escorted his prime minister to the lavatory in Zhongnanhai; Mao’s daughter and grandsons; and the Red Guard leader Kuai Dafu. Chang and Halliday also cite dozens of interviews with anonymous sources, including a laundry worker who describes the fine cotton used for Mao’s underwear in Yan’an; a pharmacist who allegedly prescribed lysol for one of Mao’s political rivals in the 1940s; Mao’s daughter’s nanny in Yan’an; staff at Mao’s villas; and ‘multiple’ Mao girlfriends. They have used about a thousand non-archival written sources, including published and unpublished works in Chinese, English, Russian, French and Italian. These include many that are unfamiliar to me and perhaps to many other specialists on Chinese Communist history and politics.

As their subtitle proclaims, in virtually every chapter Chang and Halliday have turned up ‘unknown stories’ of Mao. Some, if true, will be big news for historians. Mao amassed a private fortune during the Jiangxi Soviet period; his troops fought only one real battle during the Long March; their break-out from Nationalist military encirclement was deliberately allowed by Chiang Kai-shek; the most famous battle of the Long March never took place; Mao attacked India in 1962 with the support of the Soviet Union.

Other scoops have important implications for Mao’s character. He poisoned a rival during the Yan’an period. He would send his own soldiers to be massacred if it would help him to move up the ranks of the Party. He took pleasure in the slow, agonising death of Liu Shaoqi. We already knew that Mao was selfish and ruthless. Chang and Halliday add that he was a brutal, sadistic power-monger lacking in vision or ideals, comfort-loving and often lazy, riding the revolution to power to satisfy a lust for torture and sex.

It’s an immense accomplishment, to which there is only one little caveat: Nathan’s “if true” clause. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s fast-paced style is also supremely authoritative. They categorically assert that this or that startling thing happened, and the surprised reader is left gasping for proof. On page 134 they announce that Sun Yat Sen’s widow – who also happened to be Chiang Kai-Shek’s sister-in-law – served as a lifelong Comintern agent. Can this be true? The evidence they cite – a less than smoking gun letter to Wang Ming, head of the Chinese Communist delegation in Moscow – seems hardly rock solid. Yet they press on as if the case were absolutely proved.

Conversely, could it have been true that Mme Mao had been run by Nationalist intelligence in Shanghai in the 1930s?

On the other hand:

Civil war and communist China was a land of murky, shadowy conspiracies, ruled by one man’s arbitrary power. Its history cannot be told in the way in which one would tell the history of a state governed by institutions and bureaucracies. And whatever qualms one may feel about individual details, the story as a whole has never been told more forcefully, effectively, compellingly – and with more of the only decent reaction, white-hot moral fury.

As Chang and Halliday argue, in one respect, Mao’s evil exceeded even Stalin’s and Hitler’s: For decades, he very nearly succeeded in extinguishing human personality over a large stretch of the earth’s surface. He suppressed books, music, even horticulture. He smashed historical monuments, temples, ornamental gateways.

What Mao had in mind was a completely arid society, devoid of civilization, deprived of representation of human feelings, inhabited by a herd with no sensibility, which would automatically obey his orders. (488)

Mao criticized Stalin for preserving the classics of Russian literature. He himself knew no such leniency.

When Mao died in 1976, China was no less poor than it had been in 1949 – or (very probably) than it had been in the last days of the Manchu Empire. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday point out that China’s urban population grew by 100 million during the Maoist years, yet little new housing was built. Investment in urban infrastructure of all kinds from 1965-75 was less than 4% of investment in armaments. Health and education in the last years of Mao’s rule received half the level of investment that they had received in 1950. The country suffered its last major famine in the early 1970s.

China has now escaped Mao’s economic maladministration. In politics, his successors have proven more moderate and less capricious. But the world and the people of China are entitled to conclude that true reform will only have begun when Mao’s portrait ceases to loom over Tiananmen Square. In the meantime, Mao: The Unknown Story is an essential work of research, of memory, and of justice.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Johnnnymac66

    I’ve lived all of my 51 years in Chicago. I learned world politics by reading Gigi Geyer, Evans & Novak, George Will, and many, many others. I learned Chicago politics by reading Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and many others.
    For me, the tipping point with Evans came when he “outted” Valerie Plame, a crime I believe was treasonous. I wrote him and told him exactly that, and was not surprised when I received no response.
    From that point on, I’d glance at his columns, but never again believed anything in them.
    When Hunter Thompson would inject himself into the stories he was writing, it was funny. Outting an undercover CIA operative because of a personal grudge wasn’t at all funny.
    I still believe Robert Evans committed treason against the United States.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Novak comes off as a sort of American, Jewish-cum-Catholic verson of Evelyn Waugh: nasty, vindictive and palpably self loathing. But he wasn’t unpatriotic. Moreover, he was correct about the War on Terror and Iraq. Compare his foreign policy views to David Frum’s, and then tell me: who comes out looking better on the geopolitics of the past decade?

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Oh, and by the way Frum, you’d fail your mother-in-law’s course, too: it’s ABC 20/20, not “NBC 20/20.”

  • lolapowers

    Mr Frum, I so wholeheartedly agree with you, Novak was indeed a dark soul !

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