Mao: The Unknown Dictator

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Mao, the Unknown StoryAlthough I have read many biographies of the European dictators, and many histories of Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century, I hadn’t read much about modern China until recently. Mao: The Unknown Story (by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday) was the first full-length biography I’ve read about Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) and it is a remarkable work about a time and place in history that remains veiled to most of us even today.

Mao’s rise to power and his leadership that won the Communist Party its iron-fisted rule in China has often been portrayed as one of courage, sacrifice, determination and brilliance. Western journalists like Edgar Snow helped make Mao a sympathetic, even heroic character in Western eyes. But it was a sham. Snow was fooled into creating an image by being fed carefully doctored material. Mao’s image in the west was whitewashed in an effective propaganda campaign (one is reminded of the story of the Potemkin villages…).

According to Chang and Halliday, Mao’s life and political career has more in common with that of Josef Stalin than any other political leaders. He was, they write, a monster, responsible for the deaths of at least 70 million Chinese,more than any other international leader (I have read claims for higher figures about Stalin, however), mostly during the catastrophic “Great Leap Forward.”

I have to admit I struggled a bit trying to keep track of a host of characters with whom I had no familiarity, especially those who appear at the start of Mao’s career and don’t last its length. Of the roster of Mao’s friends and foes who appear later, I only really knew from my previous reading about Chou En Lai,  Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao; and not really all that much about them.

I knew a little more about Jiang Qing, of course, because Madame Mao got Western media coverage when the Gang of Four fell from grace after Mao’s death. Most of my previous reading on China has been about its classical philosophers and poets. I knew more about Li Po, Tu Fu and Lao Tzi than about Mao and his minions. But I am trying to educate myself in China’s modern history.

Reading about Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in this book, I thought about several Western novels: Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, all of which have some resonance. I also thought about Jan Wong’s excellent biography, Red China Blues, in which she found her youthful idealism for Mao’s China dissolved in the hypocrisy she discovered when she went to live there.

Back in the late 1960s, Mao’s ‘Little Red Book‘ of quotations was released in English. I still have a copy, dating from the 1972 print run. Some of my leftist friends considered it a brilliant work of intellectualism. I considered it as dull and dense as the works of other stodgy Communists – Trotsky and Lenin were equally boring and excessively verbose to me.

Maoism never really caught on, despite his efforts to make it a world ideology, and that frustrated and angered Mao through his whole life. He wanted to be a world leader – THE world leader, in fact, and he spoke of world domination – but never got the international respect and adulation he felt he deserved. So he built a massive cult of personality in China to elevate him to godlike status.

Like his early mentor, Stalin, Mao used brutal tactics and terrorism to force obedience and subservience. Unlike Stalin – and unlike the dictators around the world who rose to power in the 1930s – Mao didn’t take full control until later: 1950. By then he had honed his methods and tactics well, including his personal mythologizing. Long after Stalin’s death, Mao was still using those tactics.

Life under the Communists even before they took power was brutal and hard. Except for Mao, who was an elitist from the start, taking pleasure and privilege as much as he could, from the start of his career.

What comes across most strongly is how power and privilege were personal goals for Mao which he pursued actively and aggressively through intimidation, coercion, blackmail and terror. He had no great ideology like Trotsky; he wasn’t a great orator like Lenin; he lacked the charisma of Hitler and he was poor at managing an organized bureaucracy. But he had terror.

Mao’s techniques were not subtle. Brutality was the core of his methods. He didn’t have the same sort of administrative terror, with its secret police and elaborate bureaucracy as Hitler or Stalin. He used public confession, torture and execution to cow the populace instead. Even his closest allies were not safe from it: Liu Shaqi – the number two leader – and his wife were humiliated, tortured and beaten in public.

It’s truly an eye opener that took the authors 11 years to put it together through research and interviews (the book has more than 130 pages of notes and sources). As Michael Yahuda wrote in his review in The Guardian,

Some of the distortions of history perpetrated by Mao and the Communist party have already been exposed by western and Chinese scholars. They have had access to writings and documents released by Chinese party historians, and their studies have also been enriched by access to archives from the former communist bloc, notably those in Moscow.

Chang and Halliday have not only made full use of this literature, but judging from their notes, they have spent the past 11 years going through the archives themselves, some of them in countries whose records had not been examined for this purpose before. They have also used their contacts in China to interview an extraordinary array of people who were close to Mao and other leaders. These range from family members to friends, colleagues, secretaries, witnesses and even a woman who once washed Mao’s underwear. Consequently, the authors are able to shed new light on virtually every episode of Mao’s life.

Plus you get an insight into Mao’s personal involvement in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, his attempts to concoct war with India, build atomic weapons, and his wooing of other Communist leaders – usually through gifts of food, arms or cash, which were given at the expense of his own citizens who were starving while he gave away their food.

Yet for all that, for all the horrors he committed, the damage, the ruinous policies and the millions of deaths, Mao continues to be mythologized in China. I was in Toronto’s Chinatown this summer and saw pictures of him – air-brushed, smiling, waving – being sold. He’s still an iconic hero for many millions of people.

If you are at all interested in the history of the 20th century, or the history of China, then I recommend this book. While it doesn’t cast a sympathetic eye on Mao, you may develop a sympathy for the Chinese people, and an understanding how the nation became what it is today.

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