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Sunday, June 26, 2005


The Red emperor's new clothes

Latest study on Mao exposes the true scale of his oppression

MAO, THE UNKNOWN STORY, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Jonathan Cape, 2005, 814 pp., £25 (cloth).

It is savagely ironic that just when China is viciously attacking Japan for trying to rewrite its history, here is a book that claims that the whole official history of the revered founding father of Communist China is a myth written to cover up the evil of a monster.

The authors, Jung Chang, who wrote the best-selling "Wild Swans," and her husband Jon Halliday, estimate that Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) was responsible for killing 70 million of his own people in his determination to enforce his rule over China. This is far more than Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, who are widely recognized as evil dictators. Yet Mao's portrait still has pride of place overlooking Tiananmen Square at the entrance to the historic Forbidden City, seat of power of Chinese emperors.

This is a nuclear weapon of a book: It devastates the reputation of Mao and most of his henchmen, and raises questions about the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party. Among the authors' claims:

* The famous "Long March," under which the barefoot Communist armies beat a retreat from Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist) armies surrounding them, was inglorious. Chiang let the Red armies go. He needed them as a buffer against warlords in Guizhou and Sichuan and was constrained because Stalin held his son Chiang Ching-kuo as a hostage in Moscow.

* Mao and his leading comrades never actually marched, since they were carried in litters and generally treated "like landlords."

* The renowned battle of the crossing of the Dadu River was a myth. Supposedly the Reds, under KMT machine-gun fire, bravely crossed a bridge that had been set on fire with its planks removed so that they had to pull themselves across using the incandescent chains. A 93-year-old eyewitness said the Red soldiers borrowed doors and coffin lids to replace planks that had been broken, but there was no attack and no deaths at the bridge.

* Mao never tried to pit his Reds against the Japanese: He was too busy plotting to destroy his own rival commanders and to maneuver Stalin to help give him control of China on a plate.

* In Yenan in 1941, Mao funded his operations by turning 30,000 acres of fertile land to opium production.

* When the Communist Revolution was finally achieved in October 1949, Mao became the Communist emperor of China through a mixture of luck and cunning: U.S. General George Marshall's insistence that Chiang observe a truce just when he could have taken a decisive military advantage; help from spies in Chiang's camp; and Soviet help in bolstering the Red armies to the extent that 200,000 troops of the Japanese Manchukuo regime, who had surrendered to the Russians, were re-enlisted to fight for the Chinese Communists.

* In power, Mao lived a life of utter luxury that any Chinese emperor would have envied. He had villas built in all parts of the country to his special specifications just so he could use them a single time. Special fish was flown live from 1,000 kilometers away so that he could eat it with his special rice, water and milk.

* The Korean War was a turning point in Mao's ambitions to dominate the world. Mao and Stalin started the war, and Mao kept it going as a way of getting the atomic bomb.

* From the early days, Mao showed his willingness to squeeze the Chinese people to feed his export and military machine. In 1958, on the eve of the so-called Great Leap Forward, he declared: "In the future we will set up the Earth Control Committee, and make a uniform plan for the Earth." He was quite prepared to see half of China die to create a superpower. Peasants were dispensable, and he infamously declared that the knowledge of "bourgeois professors should be treated as a dog's fart."

* Close relations between Mao and Stalin were essential to help China make nuclear weapons.

* Mao may claim to be the father of the Berlin Wall, since he suggested to the visiting East German leader Walter Ulbricht in 1956 that a version of China's Great Wall was a good way to keep "fascists" out.

* If it may be counted as a virtue, Mao sought power only for himself -- not for a dynasty. His own family members were among the victims of his voracious quest for power.

* Few leading lights of the Chinese Communist pantheon were really heroes. Chou En-lai (Zhou Enlai), lionized in Western pinko mythological thinking as the decent face of Mao's China, was "an ideal apparatchik . . . [who] could absorb any amount of caning from his masters' . . . willing to abase himself repeatedly, using such toe-curling language that his audiences would cringe with embarrassment."

* Henry Kissinger's reputation as the consummate diplomat also takes a blow. He was almost prepared to give away the store as he and his boss, U.S. President Richard Nixon, displayed naivete in dealing with the Red emperor.

Other writers have already exposed the monstrous nature of Mao's rule, but none managed such a frontal, comprehensive attack. Inside China, people who can be persuaded to talk will acknowledge Mao's disadvantages. As one intellectual put it, Mao was 30 percent bad and 70 percent good. Yet Mao the semi-divine emperor survives in spite of the criticisms, possibly for "having given China a spine" after the plunder and humiliation caused by colonial powers from the West and Japan up to 1949.

Chang and Halliday remorselessly show Mao as a ruthless power-monger and plotter. Their almost unrelieved catalog of cruel errors that occurred, while his Communist colleagues stood by cowardly and cowed, makes you wonder whether anyone could really be so evil.

Critics will probably argue that the Chinese archives have not been opened to public scrutiny and that Chang and Halliday had to rely on those willing to talk to them, people who would obviously be dissenters and discontents. Still, such critics would have to concede that the authors have gone to great pains to track down anyone who would talk, including in one grubby vignette, the woman who washed Mao's underwear.

They approached an impressive list of people from China to Taiwan, Japan and the United States, and from Albania to Zaire. They talked to them about Mao's quest for power over not only China but the world. The cast list includes Mao's daughter and grandson; some Long Marchers; Kissinger and two U.S. presidents; an Oscar-winning actor; and several heads of state, including Zaire (Congo) dictator Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko, who talked about how Mao used foreign aid, which peaked at 6.92 percent of China's entire expenditure, to try to buy world revolution.

Chang and Halliday also had access to some secret archive material, though they don't give good clues as to the reliability of this material. They do have the legitimate excuse that even today China guards the most trivial facts as "state secrets." Recently, several journalists and researchers have been detained without trial and without access to lawyers. Chinese spokesmen have proudly warned journalists to "respect the law."

This is a big book covering a lot of ground, both in time and space, but it is eminently readable. There are blemishes. Deng Xiaoping is still left in the shadows, and indeed all the post-Mao leaders are treated lightly.

It would have been better if Chang and Halliday could have written a final chapter summarizing their findings and pointing out the implications for present-day China.

As it is, they leave only the briefest of epilogues to deal with the present: "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 the myth of Mao."

Kevin Rafferty is a former managing editor of publications for the World Bank.

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