13 June 2005
Mao: Ten Parts Bad, No Parts Good
By Gwynne Dyer
Within a year, the book will be translated into Chinese. It will be banned in China, of course, but it will find its way in nevertheless, mostly on CDs, and it will find fascinated but appalled readers in every corner of the country. Nothing will change right away, but over time it will probably have the same impact on how Chinese see their own history and the Party that rules over them that Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” had on Russians.
The book is “Mao: The Unknown Story,” a massively researched biography of the Great Helmsman that strips all the flattering myths away and reveals the founder of China’s Communist regime as a monster with no redeeming qualities whatever. The authors, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, spent ten years trawling through previously untapped archives and interviewing literally hundreds of people who were close to Mao Tse-tung at some point in his life, and the picture they draw of the man is as definitive as it is repellent.
He was a mass murderer on an even bigger scale than Hitler or Stalin — and unlike them, he took a sadistic pleasure in watching films of his victims being tortured and killed. The one heroic episode of his career that has never before been challenged, the 9,000 km (6,000-mile) Long March that began in 1934, turns out to have been a fraud: his Nationalist enemies never tried to stop his army, but rather shepherded it through various areas where they wanted to frighten the local warlords into submission. And he didn’t actually march; most of the way he was carried in a bamboo litter.
From the start of his career, he killed people, mainly in order to terrorise everybody else into submission. In the Communist-ruled enclaves of south-central China in 1931-35, he oversaw the killing of 700,000 people. In the Yenan enclave in the north where he sat out the Japanese invasion (systematically sabotaging any Nationalist attempts to create a coordinated anti-Japanese front), he had at least a million killed.
By the time of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, Mao’s absurd attempt to “overtake all capitalist countries in a fairly short time and become one of the richest, most advanced countries in the world” by driving peasants off the land and into factories, his contempt for the lives of his subjects was so great that he cheerfully acknowledged that “half of China may well have to die” in the famines caused by the sudden loss of farm labour. (In the event, 38 million people died of starvation in four years.)
His senior Communist colleagues found the courage to sideline him after that, but he fought his way back into power by instigating the Cultural Revolution of 1965-67, an upheaval that brought torture, humiliation and death to millions and purged the Party of his rivals. By the time he died in 1976, according to Jung Chang’s reckoning, Mao had been responsible for some 70 million deaths: not even Genghis Khan had killed so many Chinese. And over his thirty years in power, despite all his violent extremism, China’s economy had grown no faster than democratic India’s.
His personal life was as self-centred and self-indulgent as his politics. He had fifty palatial official residences scattered all over China, furnished with flocks of young women whom he worked his way through tirelessly. He neglected his wives and his children. And he didn’t take a bath for 25 years. The book is an indictment both of the political and the personal Mao that is so unrelenting and comprehensive that it invites disbelief — but the documentation is overwhelming.
Yet Mao remains a hero for the Communist regime because they can’t get away from him: he created them. They can’t deny the fact that some of his decisions were catastrophically bad, but the official line, first formulated by Deng Xiaoping, is that he was three parts wrong, seven parts right. So a book demonstrating that he was bad and wrong one hundred percent of the time is a danger to that regime, but can a book ever bring down a regime? Well, consider Solzhenitsyn — and consider Nikita Khrushchev’s lethal comment: “I look at Mao, I see Stalin, a perfect copy.”
In 1962, Solzhenitsyn published “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” his fictionalised memoir of life in the vast system of concentration camps (gulags) in Stalin’s Soviet Union. It broke the long silence on the mountain of cruelty, suffering and murder that lay behind the facade of Soviet power. Then, after a decade of research, he published “The Gulag Archipelago,” a massively documented three-volume history of the Stalinist terror that consumed tens of millions of lives.
The book was banned and Solzhenitsyn was sent into exile abroad, but copies circulated everywhere in “samizdat” (illegal, often handwritten copies). A decade later, everyone knew the truth and the Communists’ long struggle to bury the past and foster myths that would legitimise their rule lay in ruins. They lost power five years later.
Eleven years ago, Jung Chang published “Wild Swans,” a fictionalised memoir of her family’s sufferings under Mao’s rule. After a decade of research, she and her historian husband Jon Halliday have published “Mao: The Unknown Story,” which documents Mao’s crimes and failures in unrelenting, unprecedented detail. A decade from now, everybody in China will know the gist of the information in this book (though few will have ploughed through all 800 pages of it). And then we shall see what happens.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“From the start…killed”; and “His personal…overwhelming”)