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Sunday, Aug. 7, 2005


Mao was closer to seventy percent bad

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday explain the need to rewrite and right history

Special to The Japan Times

An elegant Georgian terrace house in London's Notting Hill Gate, perhaps the most upmarket area for Britain's chattering classes now that Prime Minister Tony Blair and his friends have deserted Islington, may seem an unlikely venue for a counter-revolution against Mao Zedong's revolutionary claims. Yet this is the base for Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday's efforts to rewrite and right history.

The house is only a few meters from the busy traffic roaring to and from Oxford Street and the endless upmarket wine bars and coffee shops, but it is on a quiet leafy side street. The street itself has witnessed the vandalism of modern architecture with the creation of an ugly apartment block, like a glaring gold-capped tooth upsetting the neat unity of the row.

Inside their house, Chang and Halliday live and work in donnish style. They are surrounded by books and by tasteful Asian art, including peaceful images of Buddha -- a contrast to the Mao they have just portrayed in their biography of the Chinese leader.

Chang says she started "Mao, the Unknown Story" in 1992, soon after "Wild Swans," and had hoped to finish in two years "because I thought I knew Mao fairly well." But with each new visit to China and each interview with members of Mao's circle, "we came upon one shock after another, so it just went on, one year after another."

She admits that when she began the biography she thought that "Mao was a monster" -- although they don't use the word in the book -- but that was mainly because of her direct experience with Mao's abuse of power after 1949, particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

"But even then I did not realize that he was that evil," she emphasizes. "What took me by surprise was the reason for the famine [in the 1950s]. When I was writing 'Wild Swans,' I thought famine was the result of economic mismanagement, as Mao was no good at economics. Through our research, it dawned on us that this was not the reason. Although Mao was no good at economics, he actually knew that a big number of people, 38 million people, were going to die because he was exporting the food on which they were dependent for survival to Russia and to Eastern Europe."

Chang is wearing a pastel-green skirt with a yellow top, a matching pale green waistcoat and a green jade necklace. She sits on a sofa with husband Halliday opposite. She talks in a cut-glass upper-class English accent, though if you listen carefully, you can guess that Chinese was her first tongue. When she talks intently, she looks as stern as a dowager, but when she smiles her face lights up and her cascading long black hair gives her a girlish charm.

Halliday sits on a sofa where he can rest his back. With his shock of white hair, he looks frail. In "Wild Swans," Chang paid tribute to "Jon Halliday, my knight without armour, for his inner strength under the softest interior is enough to conquer and is the most priceless treasure I have taken from my adopted country, Britain." Sure enough, as the interview goes on, Halliday's inner strength comes through a rather diffident donnish exterior.

Halliday's great contribution to the book was as a Russian-speaker who went through the Soviet archives, sometimes working until 4 in the morning, and discovered the blooming friendship between Josef Stalin and Mao. He too "was surprised at how early on Stalin got behind Mao -- in the late 1920s. Not only was it very early, but it was utterly, utterly consistent from then on. They had their conflicts, but Stalin was consistently behind Mao.

"In 1932, when his colleagues tried to oust Mao, in effect, the Russians just said, 'You cannot get rid of Mao, you have to put up with him.' They would not let them dump Mao before the Long March."

To the obvious but intriguing question of why Stalin chose Mao, who did not speak Russian and whose Communist credentials were lacking, Chang responds: "Stalin said it himself to the Yugoslavs that Mao was insubordinate, but a winner. Stalin spotted Mao as the most power-hungry, the most brutal one who would stop at nothing to pursue his power."

"It is riveting," continues Halliday, "because it is both gangster world and politics. It is the rich-est relationship between two dictators you could ever find, a sort of political mafioso world.

"What Mao cared about was his own power, and he realized before he conquered China that the only thing crucial to his own power was Russian backing. And the Russians backed the party, so he must control the party."

But Mao had ambitions beyond China, which upset even the imperialist Russians. Halliday expresses pride that one of their achievements was "to be able to nail down" Mao's global ambitions. He discovered a document in which Mao tells the Soviet leaders, "We must set up an Earth Control Committee."

Mikhail Kapitsa, interpreter at 1958 talks, told Halliday that the Russians felt real alarm when Mao asked, "Where are we going to build the new capital of the Socialist world?"

Chang and Halliday have received mostly glowing reviews for their book, although some critics say they surely could have found something good to say about Mao. Halliday protests that they looked very carefully at all the evidence: "We showed that Mao is consistent -- from the age of 24 as a thinker and certainly from 1930 when he launches his first great purge, a horrible business before Stalin's great purges [1937-1938], to take over some other Communist base and kill, torture and discredit the local Communist leaders -- in using Marxist labels, jargon wherever he needs to.

"Also, and this is a very important point, you can't start balancing A against B. You can't start balancing Hitler's economic successes in the 1930s against the Holocaust and starting the Second World War. It is not a morally acceptable approach. Besides which, there isn't anything to put on the plus side of the Mao ledger. There is not a single decision from him that tries to help the welfare [of the people]. There just isn't. He condemns so many parts of humanistic morality. He condemns the slogans of the French Revolution. He condemns equality."

How come then that some Western critics who are not natural bedfellows of Mao have conceded that he gave back to China a sense of pride, echoing his comments at Tiananmen in October 1949 that the Chinese people had "stood up"? How come that even staunch supporters of democracy such as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen have praised China for its superior record in literacy and primary health care compared with democratic India?

The authors clamor to speak and Chang goes first. "This is a complete myth," she says, "a complete myth that Mao built up the nation. Chiang Kai-shek unified the nation before Japan invaded. Mao merely imposed a totalitarian structure on the country. If we talk about nationalism, there are so many things where Mao was not at all looking out for China's interests.

"When Japanese visitors apologized to Mao for Japan's invasion, Mao replied that 'We should thank you because, without a Japanese invasion, we wouldn't have come to Beijing to the Forbidden City,' meaning he would not have conquered China.

"The symbol of Mao as the founding father of China was that he had declared that the Chinese had 'stood up.' In 1949 when he said it, it was not the first time: He said virtually the same words in 1938 during the war against Japan when the Kuomintang-Communist United Front [had been set up]. Mao then said it was under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek that the Chinese people had stood up.

"Mao created the biggest famine in the history of the world, when 38 million people died of starvation. I don't know how anybody can say that that is an economic achievement. In the year of Mao's death, 1976, according to official statistics, the average food intake was less than in 1930 under the Nationalists.

"The idea of opportunities in education is a total myth. There was no free education under Mao, and people had much less chance of an opportunity in education than in Mao's own youth. During Mao's own studying, you can see the amount of scholarships and the number of schools opening: The average peasant -- like Mao and Liu Shao-chi and all the Communist leaders -- couldn't possibly have gotten what they had if they had been growing up under Mao."

Chang had personal experience with the failures of Mao's educational system and was one of the first beneficiaries when Deng Xiaoping opened China's doors. She was the first student from the People's Republic to win a doctor of philosophy degree in Britain.

She continues her assault: "Health services were never free except for a tiny elite," at which Halliday interjects, "the urban elite," an amendment that she accepts. "It was never free and largely unavailable for the peasants and for the urban underdogs. Mao's regime did make achievements in eradicating epidemics. This was because Mao basically viewed the Chinese as cannon fodder and slave laborers, and epidemics were obviously no good.

"He was able to eradicate epidemics largely thanks to his regime's strict policy of nailing everyone down on a fixed spot so that they could not move. Whenever an epidemic occurred, the place was sealed off and people allowed to die."

Halliday is anxious for his turn: "During Mao's reign from 1949 to 1976, China fell back in the world league tables. As a percentage of world GNP it fell from something like 4.5 percent to about 2.7 percent. In 1970, per capita income was lower than that in Somalia, which was a very poor country. Average calorie intake for the entire country was below that for the people working in Auschwitz [the Nazi death camp]. Mao himself said to Le Duan in 1975, 'We are now the poorest country in the world.'

"There are quite a lot of Chinese going round saying that Mao made the country great, but I have yet to meet a single one who can give me any evidence of this -- except for having the atomic bomb. That has to be put into the context of virtually monopolizing all the economic assets of the country at huge cost to the population -- and this is not even to mention things like fear, terror, control, tens of millions of deaths."

It is also a matter of opinion whether Mao could have achieved the bomb without Soviet help. "One can never say never," concedes Halliday, "but Mao certainly did it at this speed with huge Russian help, and the most important thing is that China got help of a kind that no other country ever got from anybody else.

"The Russians basically said, 'This is how you do it. We made all the mistakes. We checked all this and it works, and here it is, and here is the bomb itself on a plate.' Mao was lucky. China was unlucky."

Perhaps his only saving grace, according to Chang, was that "Mao did not care about posterity or leaving legacies or anything like that. He just wanted to enjoy things physically himself."

Indeed, his immediate family, including the wife who loved him best and an infant son, were among the victims he sacrificed. So there was no Mao dynasty, unlike in other Asian countries. But the great mystery is why Mao's successors did not denounce him as the Soviet leadership denounced Stalin. The task of opening the country might have been easier if they had not had to bow to the altars of Mao.

Chang notes that "they missed the chance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Deng Xiaoping decided against it. If you denounce Mao, you denounce the Chinese Communist Party [he said], so they took the decision to hang on to the party's power. Therefore, they will not get rid of Mao."

Halliday adds: "It is an interesting question. Could the Chinese now do what Khrushchev did to Stalin in 1956 and hold on to power. Of course, some people say that they already have done that by saying [Mao is] 70 percent good, 30 percent bad, which I don't think is quite correct. The second factor is that Mao is not only Stalin, but he is also Lenin.

"Of course, the more interesting question is, could our book help? And if people knew the history of the party running the country, could it help [the country become democratic]? The Chinese Communist Party certainly has not asked me to advise on cleaning up its image. What most people mean when they ask that question is, could the Communist Party de-Maoize and survive, rather than will China de-Maoize and become democratic. They are two different questions that require different answers.

"When Khrushchev denounced Stalin, as far as I know, the repercussions within the Soviet Union itself were absolutely minimal. It would be very good for China if one could at least put out the truth about Mao and let it out.

"I hope that if people in China can get access to their own history they might be able to think about this party -- which after all was set up by a foreign power and has never held an election -- and ask, does the party have a right to be running our country?"

Chang's dreams are modest: "I just hope that any political reform and transition from dictatorship to democratic China goes smoothly. There will be drama, but it should not jeopardize the country. I don't think it will if it is handled well.

"Turning its back definitely on Mao and Mao's legacy would release Chinese society and release so many wonderful sides of Chinese society, which have so far been kept suppressed, and really launch China into a quite wonderful place.

"I am not surprised, but I am disappointed [that Mao has not been banished]. I was hoping that, with the economic prosperity, China would move on. But I was saying to myself not to underestimate people's determination to hang on to power. To hang on to the monopoly of power, they feel the need to hang on to the myth of Mao."

Does Chang have any ambitions to help change China as a kind of Chinese Aung San Suu Kyi? She rejects the idea. "Aung San Suu Kyi was in politics and her battleground was her country. I am just a writer. I love Britain and London, and am very happy here. We have many friends here, and I am not cut off from China and have been going back every year. I wanted to go back, not to live, but to visit. If I don't go back for so long, I feel very restless.

"Britain is home, and in China I am constantly torn between two extreme feelings: One is tremendous excitement at the changes in people's lives -- and I am so happy that people have better lives. The other extreme is frustration that there is so much injustice, and how wonderful things could be if they were run differently. I always come back to London to flop, to relax."

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

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